April 6, 2004 - NOVELX wants to do to the optical microscope what computing did to the slide rule: make it obsolete. The two-man startup in the San Francisco Bay area plans to use MEMS technology to build a miniaturized modular scanning electron microscope for commercial and defense markets.
If they succeed, they will transform how small tech research and commercialization is done today. And science classrooms will get a whole lot cooler.
"We want to build an SEM at a cost similar to an optical microscope, with a footprint similar to an optical microscope, that gives the resolution they would get with a top-of-the-line SEM," said James Spallas, chief technology officer and founder of NOVELX.
"And we want it to be as easy to use as an optical microscope," he said.
The Department of Defense awarded Novelx two Small Business Innovation Research grants to try to develop a transportable and reliable microscopy device. The tool would allow military personnel to conduct imaging and analysis in the field - or battleground. SEMs can image materials in the nanoscale range.
Spallas and co-founder Lawrence Muray are using their years of experience as MEMS technologists to develop the device. Muray, who is the company president, developed silicon-based technologies at IBM, making microscopy parts called microcolumns. Spallas, whose resume includes award-winning research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, has specialized for 20 years in microfabricating and micromachining MEMS devices. The two have worked together in a number of small tech companies.
Their goal at NOVELX is to replace the labor-intensive methods and expensive components found in conventional SEMs with micromachined, batch-fabricated silicon parts. The miniature SEMs won't use MEMS per se, but will rely on MEMS processing and techniques. "Anything we make will be in an inexpensive way, in a high-volume production environment," Muray said.
A conventional SEM costs six figures. Muray said a microcolumn alone might account for $100,000 of the price tag. Their batch-fabrication approach will allow companies to build small and integrated components that could fit into a tabletop SEM. To compete with the optical microscopes, they will need to get costs down to around $1,000.
But the market possibilities could burgeon. SEMs are essential tools for studying matter in the nanoscale and for some lithography applications, but their high costs keep them relegated to only well-funded laboratories. The electron microscopy market garnered $222 million in 1999, according to Global Information Inc., a Tokyo-based provider of market research. It claimed that the optical microscope market raked in $520 million in 2000.
Spallas and Muray collaborate with MEMS and packaging companies, an association they say has led to valuable feedback and validation. Their SBIRs require validation of the concept before another round of funding will be considered.
"We need to demonstrate the electron optics and demonstrate a design package that is realistic," Muray said. "On a system level, we have all the pieces in place."
They decided to establish the company in 2002 after securing the SBIR funding. They are close to wrapping up their Phase I portion under the Army's Chemical and Biological Defense program. The Army then will determine if they merit a Phase II.
They also are in talks with NASA. Researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., proposed building a miniature SEM for space exploration. They envisioned the SEM being used in robotic explorations of planets, asteroids and comets.
NOVELX ultimately is aiming for something more down-to-earth. "I want an SEM I can take in the classroom," Spallas said.