Medical Drives Boom In MEMS

Explosion in eHealth is spawning new approaches to using technology; market consolidation begins as industry leverages economies of scale.

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By Mark LaPedus
At a recent event, an executive from a startup called Proteus Digital Health described the medical benefits of swallowing the company’s ingestible sensors or digital pills.

First, a consumer would swallow Proteus Digital’s tiny ingestible sensor, along with one’s current medication. With no battery or antenna, the stomach fluid generates the power in the ingestible sensor. This, in turn, transmits the behavior of one’s medication to a wearable sensor.

Then, through a wireless connection, the information is relayed to an individual or a medical professional to help track the behavior of the medication, a technology that could help revolutionize medicine. Today, more than 50% of people don’t get the full benefit from their prescriptions, because they either take the wrong dose or refuse to take their medication consistently, according to Proteus Digital.

All told, the technology not only reminds a patient to take their medication, but it also enables a professional to determine if one needs medical intervention or a new prescription, said Mark Zdeblick, co-founder and chief technology officer of Proteus Digital. “We are talking about behavior modification,” Zdeblick said in an interview at an event, which was sponsored by the Microelectronics Packaging and Test Engineering Council (MEPTEC). “Digital medicine also identifies patients who need help.”

The company’s digital pills are based on a MEMS-like, 1,000-transistor structure. To make digital pills, Proteus Digital has recently established a 200mm, wafer-scale MEMS fab in Hayward, Calif.

Medical fuels MEMS market
Proteus Digital is just one of a plethora of startups developing products in the emerging and so-called MEMS-based eHealth market. Using MEMS as a key enabler, the idea behind many of these products is to enable consumers or medical professionals to monitor vital signs or chronic diseases through a remote connection. For example, Biosense is developing a portable anemia scanner. LifeWatch has devised a healthcare smartphone, while Scanadu has rolled out what some call “doctor-in-a-pocket” home medical diagnostic systems.

The broad MEMS-based eHealth sector includes home and lab diagnostic medical units, digital Band-Aids, wearable devices, and health and fitness body monitors. To enable many of these devices, various startups are developing new manufacturing techniques, such as flexible substrates, printed electronics, and roll-to-roll processes.

This market is a small part of the overall MEMS or micro-electro-mechanical systems business, a field that includes accelerometers, compasses, gyroscopes, microphones and sensors. In total, the MEMS market is projected to reach $9.09 billion in 2013, up 8.1% from $8.41 billion last year, according to IHS. The MEMS market for medical electronics is expected to grow from $300 million in 2012 to about $400 million in 2015, according to IHS.

The big driver for MEMS is handsets and tablets, but this market is becoming saturated to some degree. “Health and fitness is becoming a hot spot for MEMS today,” said Mike Rosa, a MEMS expert and strategic marketing manager for 200mm Emerging Technology Products at Applied Materials.

For years, MEMS has been a customized business with long design cycles. “There is an old saying in MEMS: ‘It’s one process and one device,’ ” Rosa said. “In MEMS, for example, a gyroscope is not made using the same toolset and process as a digital compass. And the process is going to be different for a MEMS microphone and so forth.”

Still, the dynamics are changing on several fronts. The trend is to integrate MEMS and CMOS on the same device, which is sometimes called MEMS-on-CMOS. “There is continued pressure to make MEMS devices smaller, thinner and cheaper,” Rosa said. “The forward-looking trend is to reduce the footprint of the MEMS device, make the silicon it sits on thinner, and to make the actual MEMS device itself bigger.” To reduce the costs, MEMS makers are moving toward 200mm MEMS fabs. “What that means is you begin to shake out the smaller wafer sizes,” he said. “Whoever has an 8-inch fab starts to float to the top of the pile. An 8-inch fab gives you better economics.”

The MEMS market is still dominated by the integrated device manufacturers (IDMs). Only 20% of worldwide MEMS production is outsourced to the foundries, according to IHS. Many MEMS IDMs, such as STMicroelectronics, Sony and others, also provide foundry services. In fact, there is a collision course taking place between the MEMS IDMs and pure-play foundries.

“The MEMS IDMs are competing with the traditional foundry players, like UMC, TSMC, and GlobalFoundries,” Applied’s Rosa said. “The foundries are really good at cranking out lots of the same chips in the traditional semiconductor space. Where they start to trip up is when they try and apply the same models to the MEMS world. For example, each widget will require a completely new line. It will require a completely new material, deposition or etch technology. And for a foundry, that’s a really a big task to basically re-invent the wheel.”

Rakesh Kumar, senior director of the MEMS program at GlobalFoundries, said the MEMS foundries face other challenges. “The challenge will be the ability to get suitable MEMS foundries that can provide development support, shorter time to market and can build the capacity required to meet the demands of the consumer market,” Kumar said

Only a few MEMS foundries can meet these requirements, meaning the market is ripe for a shakeout. In fact, there is only room for a few large pure-play MEMS foundry players, plus some boutique vendors, said Jérémie Bouchaud, an analyst with IHS. “I think there is room for two vendors, TSMC and GlobalFoundries, for the mass markets,” Bouchaud said.

Medical MEMS shakeout
Consolidation already has begun in the eHealth market as successful companies look for economies of scale. For example, Jawbone recently acquired BodyMedia, a wearable device maker. BodyMedia is selling an armband that tracks calories burned, physical activity levels and sleep patterns. The unit consists of a three-axis accelerometer and four sensors. Developers can write programs based on an open application programming interface (API), said Steve Smedes, an API evangelist for BodyMedia.

Fitness monitors are taking off in the market, while other products are still in the embryonic phases, such as Proteus Digital’s ingestible sensor technology. “We are still in the early stages in this market,” said Proteus Digital’s Zdeblick. Proteus Digital, which has raised more than $100 million in funding, is working with various partners, such as Kaiser, Medtronic, Novartis and Oracle. Proteus Digital’s technology, dubbed the Feedback System, received approval from Europe and the U.S. FDA.

The company’s ingestible sensor resembles a tubular structure, which is housed in an edible pill. The sensor consists of several parts—active layers, an edible skirt disk and a chip. The active layers consist of a separate chloride layer and a magnesium layer, which act as a cathode and anode, respectively.

When the two layers interact with gastric fluid, it creates a power source much like a potato battery. Meanwhile, the chip modulates and pulses the current flow to create information. All told, the sensor creates an electrical field, which is detected by a receiver worn on the skin.

There are several challenges with the technology, including power consumption and reliability. “It’s all about cost,” Zdeblick said. Proteus Digital has a 200mm MEMS fab capable of producing 20,000 digital pills an hour. The company obtains its 200mm wafers from Fujitsu and On Semiconductor. Proteus Digital is currently looking for additional wafer sources as a means to reduce its manufacturing costs.

Others are developing new and novel manufacturing techniques. For example, startup MC10 has developed a technology that enables OEMs to embed chips or MEMS into a thin, flexible and stretchable substrate. Initially, MC10 procures chips from merchant vendors. The chips are encapsulated into 1.2-micron polymer films via a stamping process. The chips could include a mix-and-match of low-power microcontrollers, RF devices and sensors. “We partner with leading MCU and radio suppliers to enable building-block elements,” said Ben Schlatka, co-founder and vice president of business development for MC10, at the MEPTEC event.

The technology forms the basis for digital skin patches. In one application, MC10 and an OEM partner are developing an infant temperature monitor for children. In this technology, a child wears a digital skin temperature sensor. If a child’s temperature spikes, then a parent is alerted via a Bluetooth connection.

MC10 also is developing separate digital skin patches for sports hydration and other applications. In another example, MC10 and Reebok developed the CheckLight, a skullcap laden with sensors that can detect when an athlete has sustained a blow to the head. This product, which can be worn under a helmet or without one, is geared for football, hockey, soccer, and other sports.

Another startup, Terepac, has developed a different packaging technology. Terepac’s so-called Photoprinting Circuit Assembly process replaces the mechanical pick and place step in conventional microelectronics packaging with a photochemical printing process. This enables is thinner and flexible MEMS devices, said Jayna Sheats, chief technology officer for the company.

Indeed, the MEMS market is going in several directions at once, creating some new opportunities and challenges. “The challenge is to find which technologies to invest in,” said Applied’s Rosa. “The challenge is where do we place our R&D dollars in order to get the most return on our investment. We need to do that six to nine months before anyone asks us.”