CMC Microsystems: Thirty years of micro-nano innovation

Posted on March 11, 2019

By Mary Anne Beaudette, Ed’96

black/white photo of people in lab
CMC lab in the early 1990s. The network’s earliest computers were disc-driven and had 512KB of RAM.

The “smart phone” existed only in spy fiction when a pioneering student-industry initiative launched at Queen’s in 1980 quietly began changing the country’s electronics landscape.

At the time, Queen’s was one of a handful of Canadian universities actively doing research and training students in integrated circuit design. (The building blocks of the postwar electronics boom, integrated circuits were made by integrating thousands of transistors on a single silicon chip.) This exploratory work was valuable to industry, but its potential was hobbled by lack of access to facilities for making the chips.

Inspired by university activity in the U.S., Jim Mason, Lloyd Peppard and Sid Penstone of Queen’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering approached Bell Northern Research (later Northern Telecom), then Canada’s only silicon fabrication facility, to manufacture the students’ designs. “This was important because the only way you could find out if your design worked was if you could make it and test it,” Professor Penstone says.

BNR agreed, and the experiment proved so successful that in 1982 the company made its facilities available to all Canadian universities -- on the condition that Queen’s coordinate the process. The Queen’s trio turned to one of their own, Dan Gale (ECE 1978), a Master’s graduate with a background in optical signalling, to manage the activity. (It was a prescient move – today, there is increased mixing of optical and electrical signals, and Gale, VP and CTO of CMC, has encouraged Canadian leadership in this field.)

Thus began a unique, national ecosystem that has been building Canada’s strength in micro-nano innovation ever since. Envisioned by BNR’s Douglas Colton (and President of CMC 1984-1993), and Andy Salama of the University of Toronto, and established in 1984 with support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council, it comprised the Canada-wide National Design Network (researchers, students and BNR), and an administrative body at Queen’s called the Canadian Microelectronics Corporation (now CMC Microsystems).

CMC enabled the Network’s groundbreaking work by managing the university-industry projects, and through two other novel activities: sourcing, loaning and supporting industry-calibre equipment for enabling excellent research, and – years ahead of the internet -- facilitating cross-country collaboration and knowledge-sharing via electronic networks.

In the three decades since, with the support of NSERC and the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), CMC’s offerings have expanded, and increasing numbers of Canadian companies are finding their competitive edge through working with the NDN and CMC.

Queen’s has played an important role throughout, from hosting the Network’s early conferences and establishing Canada’s premier photonics research lab, to attracting more than $85M in CFI funding, managed by CMC, for infrastructure that has generated globally competitive research and innovation. Queen’s graduates filled influential positions at BNR, and they helped govern CMC in its early days, either as CEO or as board or committee members.

Today, the National Design Network links almost 1,000 professors, 7,000 other innovators (from undergrads to postdoctoral fellows) and research staff at 54 institutions across Canada with more than 600 industry collaborators (including at least 50 NDN startups), more than 30 fabrication partners, and numerous related national and international organizations. NDN innovations span electronics and computing to health care, energy, the environment, transportation and aerospace.

The Network is also a career fast-tracker: in the last five years alone, more than 1,800 NDN-trained students have been recruited to industry because of their hands-on experience. For Queen’s alum Dr. David Krause (PhD 2007), a systems designer at Infinera (a Sunnyvale-based optical telecommunications company), being able to experiment with NDN tools as part of his PhD work into optical signaling was incredibly valuable.

“The lab in Walter Light Hall was really well equipped. It had the best gear in academia and industry. I was able to pair theory and simulation work with detailed experiments. That’s quite unique. It opened up opportunities for me after I completed graduate school.”

close-up of circuit

A sample integrated circuit wafer made by CMC in 1985 for a graduate student project in Electrical Engineering here at Queen's. In production, layers of circuits are etched into thin films on the silicon wafer through a process of photolithography. When complete, the wafer is cut into individual microchips.

“The core value of CMC is research excellence, in the belief that this leads to long-term wealth creation that benefits all Canadians," says Ian McWalter, President and CEO of CMC. "The NDN supports this value-add by being an 'honest broker' in the development of collaborations among researchers and between universities and industry.”

That value-creation also means keeping the Network at the forefront of technological change. An internal culture of consultation and planning have enabled CMC to engineer the nature and direction of those changes – for example, the Network’s strategic shift from microelectronics to microsystems in the early 2000s. In some cases, CMC has led the way, as it did in the late 2000s by facilitating the Network’s pioneering work in silicon photonics, and more recently in printed electronics.

That re-visioning continues. Today, “NDN-CMC 3.0” has already begun to take shape, with a focus on future-oriented technologies, processes and expertise for building Canadian strength in advanced manufacturing.

“Microsystems and nanotechnologies are the innovation enablers in Canada,” says Dr. McWalter. “The university-based facilities and prototyping capability of our network provide a bridge to a new manufacturing economy. They have the people, the experience and the know-how to drive this manufacturing renaissance.”

This story appeared originally in Queen's Alumni Review.