Another benefit of the BSAC is the microfabrication laboratory. Members of the center can use the laboratory to do whatever research they want to do. This is particularly convenient if a company has a visiting fellow on campus who performs equipment evaluation and develops process modules before the company imports processes into its own fabrication facilities. Smaller companies use the microfabrication facility for early product development.
Huggins spent the remainder of his presentation discussing government, industry, and academic relationships in general. He mentioned the paradigm of a technology conduit, originated by BSAC codirector Albert Pisano; he himself thought of the mechanism as a helix. Pisano’s “conduit” begins with a research idea that might lead to the preparation of a grant proposal to a federal agency. If the proposal is funded, the research will generate some amount of reusable basic technology, which will in turn attract interest from the center’s industry partners. If the center is doing commercially relevant research, the early, high-risk phase of technology development will have been supported by federal funds. During a project’s tenure, some variation in the research, or even a new research idea, might emerge. The new idea would become the basis for a new proposal, starting the cycle over again. According to Huggins, some fundamental amount of time elapses between the basic research and the point when an investor or center member shows an interest in the technology. It is sometimes difficult to demonstrate the relevance of long-term research to the industrial members. However, members who have been involved with the center for 10 or more years recognize the benefit of long-term investment and the opportunities it presents for commercialization. Many technologies have been commercialized that were originally funded by a federal agency.
The paradigm is to use federal funding for risk reduction and development of new devices and processes that can be used by the industry. Sometimes the industry partners will help refine research nearing the end of its federal funding and redirect it into more commercially relevant research, often by funding some of the latter themselves. In this way, the cycle begins again. One example provided by Huggins was an IBM project focused on improving the areal density of computer hard drives. The goal was to increase the areal density by a few orders of magnitude using a micropositioner or a microactuator on the head arm assembly to allow submicron positioning and registration from track to track on the drive. A MEMS electrostatic home drive actuator was developed for that purpose. To successfully increase the storage density, a high-aspectratio etching process was used to etch the structure—a difficult process.
As the project neared completion, Professor Pisano conceived of a way to respond to a DARPA BAA for micropower technology building on the disk drive research. A silicon Wankel engine was developed using high-aspect-ratio deep-reactive-ion etching (DRIE) processing. The bio-MEMS experts also took the technology and conceived a microneedle array to dispense medicine. This is another example of how a base technology developed using federal funds can result in multiple technologies, some of which bear no resemblance to the project for which they were originally developed.
Taking the microneedle example further, BSAC has developed a microneedle array that can dispense medicine into the interstitial area above the blood vessels and nerves. For example, an insulin detector could be added without causing pain and without drawing blood. A self-contained battery could be used to general electrical power for