STOW, Mass., Sept. 20, 2004 - David-and-Goliath comparisons are clichés to be avoided in the small-tech world. In the case of Radant MEMS Inc., however, the description fits.
With only 25 employees and barely two years old, Radant has taken the lead in a race to bring MEMS-based radio frequency (RF) switches to market. It squeezed out defense-contracting giants Northrop Grumman and TRW Corp. along the way, and now has a $5-million government grant to verify that its switches do live up to the potential many people suspect RF MEMS switches have.
"We see a lot of interest in general," said John Maciel, Radant's chief operating officer. His team spent the better part of two years researching how to make reliable, long-lasting switches and, he added, "Once you can perfect that, a switch is a basic component in a lot of devices."
Radant MEMS began as a small group within Radant Technologies Inc., a 25-year-old maker of antenna equipment that works closely with military research labs at nearby Hanscom Air Force Base. Radant had landed a contract to supply switching equipment to the Air Force for a weather balloon, "and we saw the opportunity to put MEMS in there," Maciel explained.
The company licensed some basic RF MEMS research from Analog Devices Inc. The technology proved so intriguing, Maciel said, that Radant Technologies spun off Radant MEMS as a separate company in May 2002. The former is now the latter's largest customer.
The trick to Radant's designs is the material used for the switch itself, which Maciel declined to identify. (Most RF switches are made of gold.) The company is even keeping all its intellectual property a trade secret, rather than disclosing it in a patent application. "We spent an awful lot of time just studying the physics of it," said Maciel.
The active contacts in the switch are as small as 50 microns. The entire integrated patch is 1.5 millimeters; Radant can squeeze 7,000 switches onto one standard six-inch silicon wafer, which it then caps all at once.
Materials aside, Radant impressed military customers with its switches' reliability. The Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) selected the company two years ago, along with TRW and Northrop Grumman, to participate in a funding contest to develop high-performance switches. Phase I of the program called for a switch that could perform 100-million cycles before failing. No problem, all three companies passed the test.
Phase II raised the bar to a switch that could go 10-billion cycles before failing. Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman acquired TRW and narrowed the field to it and Radant. But while Northrop's switch failed to reach 10 billion cycles, Radant delivered a prototype that went to 100-billion cycles.
"DARPA was very happy," Maciel said. The company is now the sole participant in Phase III. It must deliver several hundred switches by the end of the year, and 95 percent must hit 100 billion cycles or more.
Radant also has an eye on commercial customers. Scott Rassoulian, the company's head of business development, said Radant has sold trial units to 15 customers that are now in various stages of testing them.
"The industry has been waiting to hear about 100-billion cycles," he said. That many cycles generally translate into a 10-year lifespan for most commercial uses, such as communication satellites.
How large the market for RF MEMS components is, however, remains a mystery. Wicht Technology Consulting, a German market-research firm, estimates worldwide growth in RF MEMS components will go from $100 million in 2004 to $1 billion by 2007. Others say the technology is too new to make predictions, and has failed to deliver on expectations before.
"The market was expected to take off, but has for most practical purposes been stillborn," said Jagan Ramaswami, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan.
Most RF switches today sell for $10 to $20 in bulk. Rassoulian said Radant can approach $5 per switch for large orders of simple devices, and eventually he hoped it would reach $1 or less. But he quickly cautioned that Radant is small, and will take its time developing new RF-switch designs.
"We're still very careful about choosing our customer base," Rassoulian said. "We don't want to fall on our face."
Radant MEMS Inc.
255 Hudson Rd.
Stow, Mass. 01775
Spun off as an independent company in May 2002, this former sub-group of Radant Technologies is commercializing technology originally developed at Foxboro Co. and later licensed from Analog Devices.
Industries potentially served
Communications: RF/wireless components
Selected small tech-related products and services
Radant MEMS has developed an electrostatically actuated MEMS-based microswitch with low power consumption and high reliability. With consistent reliability of 10-billion cycles and prototypes showing reliability of 100-billion cycles, the company has delivered trial product units to 15 customers.
- John Maciel, chief operating officer
- Rick Morrison, senior engineer
- Scott Rassoulian, head of business development
The company has received a $25-million DARPA research grant.
Selected strategic partners, customers
- Advanced Microsensors
- Radant Technologies
- Northrop Grumman
Barriers to market
Radant is still working to bring the unit cost of its RF MEMS components down to a level more acceptable to the market. The company is fairly small, and that will take some time.
Research by Gretchen McNeely