Joachim Burghartz is the director of the Institut für Mikroelektronik Stuttgart (IMS Chips) and the former director of Dimes at Delft University of Technology.

6 January

We all know the Gartner hype cycle. From the technology trigger by academic research upwards, there are plenty of funding instruments to keep the train moving. In Germany, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) supports fundamental to applied research at universities while the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF) brings together industry and academic partners with the aim of transferring research results to applications and economic turnaround – similar to missions of FOM and NWO in the Netherlands.

For mature companies and technologies, there’s support from the Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi) and big European programs and projects like Horizon 2020 and ECSEL. Since 2018, the microelectronics industry is funded also through the IPCEI program.

This shows that there’s ample support within the hype cycle up until the peak of inflated expectations and following the plateau of productivity. In between, the trough of disillusionment causes these two phases of innovation transfer to be disconnected. BMBF projects are set up for about three years, which is too short to push innovative ideas out of universities into industrial applications. Companies are expected to move into development and manufacturing when projects end, but that seldom happens. Therefore, a lot of academic value gets stuck.

With that in mind, the BMBF recently introduced the Clusters 4 Future program, which has a scope of three times three years. It consists of three consecutive BMBF projects, with increasing industrial participation of 20, 35 and 50 percent. The aim is to start early and push innovative fundamental research concepts at universities towards industrial products. The Clusters 4 Future seem to be a merger of the concepts of Clusters of Excellence and the Research Campus, in which regional and local clustering of industry and academia was or is supported (links in Dutch).

The idea behind Clusters 4 Future is to bridge the hype cycle’s trough of disillusionment. The first round of proposals is in evaluation. Out of 137 submissions, 16 proposals made it to the second round, of which in the end, up to 7 clusters will be funded with up to 45 million euros each, starting in 2021.

One of the finalists is Qsens, focusing on quantum sensing, with partners from the universities of Stuttgart and Ulm, research institutes including IMS Chips, and companies including Bosch and Infineon. There are several keys to success according to the Qsens steering team. It will be important not to oversell the potential of quantum sensing, but instead, ensure proper benchmarking against conventional high-volume sensor products. Quantum sensing approaches that can substitute the conventional ones with better performance but with similar form factor and economics need to be identified. This can, technologically, best be achieved by a step-by-step approach starting from hybrid to micro-hybrid and monolithic integration.

Moreover, one has to deal with strategic issues. The nine-year path is very long for companies, which tend to plan in shorter terms. The Qsens team, therefore, not only proposes typical BMBF projects related to Qsens topics but also university-driven projects that allow companies to step in at a low budget to ‘look over the fence’ and get acquainted with the new topics. Educational training, dissemination of results, open innovation with shared IP and a startup highway are further key elements of the Qsens proposal.

However, the true key to success is that the experts in fundamental science and product engineering will be eager to learn each other’s language and to pull together. Those challenges aren’t new. They’ve been addressed by setting up interdisciplinary research institutes like Dimes at in Delft (now turned into a process facility called Else Kooi Lab), of which many have vanished, mostly due to lack of that kind of respect and willingness to collaborate. It will be interesting to see if and how Qsens and other Clusters 4 Future projects can cope with those different challenges.