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Alien NanoBlocks Will Reshape RFID

Alien Technology has figured how to mass assemble microchips the size of a grain of pepper. The company could transform the RFID industry.
May 05, 2002—May 6, 2002 - When Jeff Jacobsen took over a near-defunct Morgan Hill, Calif., startup called Beckman Displays, he struggled to come up with a new name. He wanted something that started with A, since many product searches are done alphabetically, something that was catchy, fun and didn't limit the company's focus to computer displays. "Alien Technology fit all those criteria," says Jacobsen. "No one ever forgets the name."

NanoBlocks on a dime
In a few years, the name may be as well known as Intel or Cisco. Alien Technology has pioneered a next-generation manufacturing technique it calls fluidic-self assembly (FSA). The company uses a thin line of acid to cut an 8-inch silicon wafer into 250,000 microchips. Traditional diamond saws yields 10,000 to 15,000. Alien's chips are as small as 150 microns square, or about three times as wide as a human hair.

Traditional pick-and-place robots can't handle microchips that small. But Alien flows the chips, which have a beveled edge because of the way the acid eats through the silicon crystal, in a special liquid over a base material with wholes shaped to catch the chips. Some fall into place and the rest of the chips are reused. With FSA, Alien has the potential to manufacture billions of tiny, low-cost chips a year.

FSA was pioneered at UC Berkeley in the early 1990s by a grad student trying to figure out how to put a layer of gallium arsenide on silicon to create light-emitting chips. The student went back to Taiwan and his professor Steve Smith took a leave of absence to start a company called Beckman Displays. Smith wanted to use the FSA process to create computer displays. The effort soon ran aground, and the investors began looking for someone to save Beckman. They turned to Jacobsen, then a VP of business development at a company called Kopin Corp.

At Kopin, Jacobsen figured out that the company's process for transferring integrated circuits from silicon to other surfaces could be used to create inexpensive computer displays. Jacobsen worked with an IC designer named Roger Stewart at Sarnoff, an engineering services company that used to be RCA Labs. Stewart and his colleagues at Sarnoff made the technology work, and Kopin got a major new line of business.

Jacobsen had a track record, and in September 1998, he borrowed $1.5 million to keep Beckman afloat. He rewrote the business plan and came up with the new name. In June 1999, Jacobsen raised $10 million in venture capital. The company was still focused on using the tiny microchips to create computer displays. But it was improving the FSA process and piling up patents. In August 2000, the company raised $55 million. Among the investors was Avery Dennison, Dow Chemical, Dupont Technologies, Philips Electronics who saw the potential of the FSA process.
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