When the pandemic threw the U.S. supply chain into chaos, the small MEMS foundry stepped up. CEO Jessica Gomez on supporting domestic production capabilities...
Rogue Valley Microdevices Inc., a U.S. high-tech company located in Medford, OR, is one of the biomedical companies playing a strategic role in the scramble to develop Covid-19 diagnostic tests. That also thrust company into the discussion about bringing U.S. manufacturing back. EE Times spoke with Jessica Gomez, the company’s co-founder and CEO about the rationale for having domestic production capabilities and how to support the establishment of more domestic companies like hers.
After decades of watching companies move production to regions with low labor costs, the Covid-19 pandemic is compelling governments to see manufacturing in a new light and consider improving domestic sourcing of microelectronics. For entrepreneurs who had chosen to set up their foundries locally, this long-awaited change in perception is music to their ears.
In the right place at the right time
When Rogue Valley opened its doors in 2003, it was the first and only microelectronics manufacturing facility in Southern Oregon. Considered a daring endeavor by some, it was a calculated risk for its founders. Since then, the company has grown to over three times its original size.
A full-service precision MEMS foundry, Rogue Valley specializes in MEMS device fabrication and silicon wafer services, including LPCVD nitride, oxide, metal and resist spray coat. Involved in biomedical device manufacturing, the company has been solicited to cope with the exponential demand for Covid-19 diagnostic tests.
“We have definitely seen a big shift as a manufacturing company,” said Gomez. When companies working on such devices approached Rogue Valley and said ‘we need you to make us the top priority’, Gomez would answer ‘no problem’. But inevitably, “that created a general shift in where our focus was, and it definitely had an impact on where we put our resources, what our schedules are, who we have doing what.”
In the face of emergency, many biomedical companies have indeed adapted their existing technologies, originally used for cancer and other diseases, to detect Covid-19 infection or antibody responses. For instance, Maryland-based Hememics Biotechnologies Inc. has recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to speed the development of its lateral flow biosensor, which detects SARS-CoV-2 and associated antibodies from nasal swabs or white blood cells. Each biosensor, which comprises 17 sensors in a multiplexed sensor array, includes a multi-layered chip from Cypress Semiconductor, a Bluetooth LE radio and a MEMS die made by Rogue Valley.
Hememics’ tool, Gomez said, “is quick, not overly sophisticated, meaning that it is not going to give you tons of information, but it will give you an answer, one way or the other.”
The World Health Organization has been advocating the need to “test, test, test” to control the spread of the virus. Here, MEMS manufacturers are going to play a prominent role. “It’s one thing to develop a technology, but in order to use it, you have to manufacture it,” said Gomez.
In general, the U.S. and Europe are lacking some manufacturing infrastructure. “You can get all the FDA approvals that you want, if you can’t make it, it’s not helping anyone. We need to start thinking how we are going to deliver this technology because, once commercialization happens, we cannot have this dead space where there is very little resource on the manufacturing side,” she said.
Describing her company as a shop for microelectronics, Gomez said, “We have the basic building blocks to make all kinds of devices.” This proved to be a definite advantage when the epidemic reached its peak, and the supply chain got affected by the transportation restrictions. “Part of our business is supporting other manufacturing facilities, so we have been working with other foundries and universities and supporting them when they have had a missing capability.”
Prevention is better than cure
Bringing production back is a recurring topic, but this pandemic could serve to make it a priority. As Gomez explained, when China, which is responsible for 80 percent of the supply chain”, came to a standstill, it proved problematic to only rely on Chinese manufacturing hubs to “feed the rest of the world with parts.” Gomez insisted on the importance of diversifying the supply chain to limit or contain vulnerabilities. “We need to diversify those manufacturing centers so that we have consistency, we maintain a robust supply chain, we are not vulnerable to natural disasters, and we have the ability to shift things around as needed.”
Part of that is a policy discussion about taxes, “and how we manage tariffs that encourage companies to manufacture in particular parts of the world,” she said. A tradeoff has to be found to allow supply chain diversification and mitigate risks. “When things go fine, everyone makes money, but when the political situation is tricky, when we have a pandemic, a number of things that happen at large scale get disrupted. And we are so connected now that it has a much bigger impact.” Thinking about how to rebalance the supply chain, especially in the microelectronics supply chain, is going to be an important discussion, said Gomez.
What’s also interesting may be the investors’ interpretation and reaction to the current situation. In the early 2000s, she reminded, investors identified small companies developing technologies for the telecom industry and invested heavily in them. Those companies would bring their R&D and manufacturing capacity, but when it the economy collapsed, “investors realized it was a big waste of money and required these companies to outsource.” Some of the facilities then transitioned to a foundry model while many others completely disappeared.
And that’s where we are now. What’s next, Gomez asked? “Are we going to see some sort of hybrid model? Are investors going to invest in companies and tell them to go find a partner and pass the dollars onto them to secure the supply chain without having to put $20 million in an R&D facility?” Clearly, “it is something people are thinking about in Month Two of not having access to those resources they are reliant on.”
Open dialog and collaboration
Prior to founding Rogue Valley, Gomez worked for Standard Microsystems Corp. of Hauppauge, New York, and held positions at Integrated Micromachines and Xponent Photonics. After her experience in the semiconductor industry, she said she has developed a different philosophy. “Large semiconductor companies were very hesitant to share information, even basic information,” said Gomez. The nature of MEMS manufacturing differs, and she tries to engage in open dialog with her customers.
MEMS manufacturing processes are unique, but that is no reason to get proprietary. “We share engineering-level data with our customers, freeing you to bring up a process at Rogue Valley that you will later use for high-volume production at a larger fab,” the company claims. Elaborating, Gomez said, “When we work with customers and we come to the table, we are there to support the technology getting to market, through its commercialization and out to the world.”
It’s a different way of collaborating, and building relationships with other foundries. Every time she interacts with her counterparts at foundries such as Canada-based Micralyne Inc., Gomez said they discuss how they can work together and support their customer base so that they can make sure they have enough capacity to deliver.
“MEMS has been such a slow growing piece of the industry. This is really challenging, and without collaboration, we are not getting anywhere.”