Through a concerted effort spearheaded by the University of Twente, the silicon nitride ecosystem in the east of the Netherlands prepares to spread its wings.
Recently, the University of Twente (UT) started a company. A foundry for manufacturing silicon nitride-based integrated photonics and microsystems, to be precise. It’s an unusual step, admits Guus Rijnders, scientific director of the UT nanotechnology research institute MESA+ and spokesperson of the foundry project. “It makes much more sense once you realize that the university isn’t going alone in this. This is an initiative by an entire ecosystem, which includes both public and private parties.”
Silicon nitride (SiN) has a long history in the Twente region. The UT’s research into the photonic properties of the material dates back as far as the late 1980s. After several unique properties in the integrated-photonics domain had been established, two entrepreneurs started Lionix to commercialize the technology. Over the past two decades, the Enschede-based company has turned the research results into a mature integrated photonics platform. Companies from all over the world leverage this platform for products that span a wide range of applications, including lidar, 5G/6G networks, DNA sequencing and metrology.
In and near Twente alone, there’s Chilas (high-quality on-chip lasers), Surfix (early-stage cancer and Covid diagnosis) and Quix (photonic quantum computing). Though not specifically targeting SiN, there’s also Phix, the rapidly growing foundry for the assembly and packaging of photonic integrated circuits (PICs). And recently, the SiN ecosystem in the east of the Netherlands was expanded with Brilliance, which markets a fully integrated, on-chip light source for augmented reality glasses.
Lionix currently manufactures the SiN chips for these and other companies in the MESA+ Nanolab cleanroom. From the get-go, the Nanolab has been used for both academic research and business activities, including low-volume production. “Working with companies and other partners has always been a part of UT’s mission. We believe that our research needs to be relevant to industry as well as society,” Rijnders explains.
“With the offering of commercial R&D and small-scale manufacturing operations in mind, it’s a natural part of our mission to take the lead on this foundry,” Rijnders continues. “It will be an extension of our current facilities, scaling up to medium and even larger volumes. As companies have been increasing production in the Nanolab, we’ve noticed that it’s been getting harder to combine with academic research activities. As some production moves to the foundry, space opens for research and new small-scale commercial activities.”
“Production volumes are starting to move from R&D and low volumes to medium volumes,” confirms Lionix CEO Arne Leinse. “However, it will take a decade at least before SiN reaches high volumes. This foundry is an intermediate step, but an essential one. There needs to be a gradual expansion of manufacturing capacity to support the path to high-volume integrated-photonics manufacturing.”
Rijnders: “Naturally, UT isn’t in it to make money. Eventually, we want investors to take ownership of the operation. It’s hard to predict when that will happen since it depends on the evolution of demand for SiN PICs. But obviously, it’s not a university’s job to own and run a high-volume foundry.”
There’s another dimension to UT’s involvement in the foundry: the societal relevance of the applications. “Integrated photonics will provide solutions for a host of societal problems, be it improving healthcare quality or bringing down its cost, reducing the energy consumption of data centers or contributing to self-driving cars,” elaborates Rijnders. “As a university, we want to be involved in the development of these technologies.”
That ambition, shared by the Photondelta ecosystem, isn’t restricted to facilitating manufacturing operations; it includes doubling down on SiN research. Working with the local ecosystem and guided by the expected requirements of future applications, UT has drafted a roadmap to expand the functionality of SiN technology – not just for integrated photonics, but also for other SiN-based microsystems such as MEMS and microfluidics, as well as chip design. The foundry is part of a bigger Chiptech Twente initiative, exploiting heterogeneous integration. The university will enlarge its research and education capacities to be able to deliver the technologies and necessary workforce defined by the roadmap.
Both the foundry initiative and UT’s revised priorities, says Rijnders, are aimed at shaping a future in which Twente has realized the full potential of SiN. “If in ten or twenty years from now Twente is a global SiN hotspot, that will be a boon not just for the region but for the entire country. And obviously for UT, too.”
“This isn’t about providing Lionix with cheap manufacturing facilities,” Leinse stresses. “The foundry will operate according to a pure-play business model and serve other customers as well. The more customers for the foundry, the better, as far as Lionix is concerned: we want SiN technology to take off and we want Twente to become the place-to-be for SiN. That’s good not just for us, but for everyone.”
“Getting there, however, requires a joint effort on all fronts. Lionix, the OEMs we supply and the university can do only so much when doing business-as-usual. It’s a joint effort. Everyone has a role to play: long-term research, commercial R&D and manufacturing infrastructure, application and product development that will end up being manufactured in the foundry – it’s all interconnected.”
Dotting the i’s
“If we don’t take a leap now, it will never happen. What a waste of money and resources that would be,” Lionix CTO and co-founder René Heideman chimes in. “It wouldn’t be the first time that we in the Netherlands rear a technology and then fail to capitalize on it.”
“We need to offer a vista where this technology is going and sketch a realistic path on how we’ll get there. This concerted effort of the ecosystem, of which starting a mid-size foundry is a key but not the only element, will inspire confidence with investors and tech companies,” Heideman continues. In fact, the plans may already be luring foreign companies to Twente. He can’t go into detail because NDAs are in place, but “major players” have taken an interest in the region, Heideman reveals.
We’ll know more next year, after money from the National Growth Fund has been made available. The government has already approved a 1.1-billion-euro framework proposal for the collective Dutch integrated-photonics sector; now it’s a matter of dotting the i’s in sub-proposals, including that of the SiN foundry.
This article was written in close collaboration with Lionix. Main picture credit: Lionix