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Startup Puts RFID in the Spotlight

PharmaSeq has developed RFID transponders powered by light. The ultra-low cost devices could be used against counterfeiting. They can also be coated with special polymers to detect DNA and other molecules.
By Bob Violino
Apr 26, 2003—April 28, 2003 - They say that necessity is the mother invention. One thing most companies need these days is low-cost solutions to their problems. Wlodek Mandecki, a former research and development manager at Abbott Laboratories, saw the need for a inexpensive way to identify DNA and other types of molecules. He not only invented technology that does that; he may also have invented the ultimate way to prevent counterfeiting.
PharmaSeq's Mandecki

In 1996, Warsaw-born Mandecki founded a company called PharmaSeq to use RFID to help identify mutant genes. The company developed ultra-small, ultra-low cost RFID transponders that are powered by light. When coated with special polymers, they can be used to identify specific genes. Without the coating, the micro-transponders can be used to authenticate goods and protect against counterfeiting. They have a built-in photovoltaic cell, which turns the laser light into energy to power the chip, and an onboard antenna that transmits a unique serial number to a reader.

PharmaSeq chose to power the chip by light for a couple of reason. Using light allows the energy to be directed at the chip so only one transponder at a time is activated. Another benefit is that the laser can get power to the chip efficiently. That means that the micro-transponders can transmit a relatively strong signal, even though the chip size and the antenna on it are very small.

"The big question was how to build a photocell or bond something to the chip," say Jim Sturm, director of microfabrication facility at Princeton University, where PharmaSeq did some early prototyping. "They wanted something that they could get deliverable fast and be low cost, so they went with off-the-shelf CMOS, and it works."

CMOS (Complementary Metal Oxide Semiconductor) processes are used to create memory chips and microprocessors. Since PharmaSeq uses the same technology to create the photocell and antenna on the chip, it didn't have to develop new infrastructure or processes, which reduces both development costs and production costs.

Silicon wafers for cost about $1,000 each in large quantities and perhaps $2,000 in smaller quantities. The dimension of each PharmaSeq micro-transponder is 500 microns by 500 microns. At that size, Mandecki says that the wafer yields about 70,000 chips. If you do the math, each micro-transponder costs two to three pennies each to make.

The company is planning to introduce a new micro-transponder that is just 250 by 250 microns. (A grain of beach sand, by contrast, is about 1,000 microns across.) These tags would cost less than a penny to manufacture. They would be thinner, easier to embed in paper or labels, and harder to see. The company already has samples and can ramp up production in a matter of months.

If you add in PharmaSeq's margin and the cost of converting the transponders into labels that can be put on products, its devices are still cheaper than any conventional RFID tag. That's because of the size and the built-in antenna. The attachment process typically makes up about 20 to 30 percent of the cost of an RFID tag.

Another benefit of building the antenna on the chip is the transponder is more durable. The weakness of most RFID tags is where the antenna is attached to the tag. If that connection is broken, the tag is useless. But with the antenna built in, the transponder becomes almost indestructible.

"We've frozen these transponders, boiled them, microwaved them and put them through 20 cycles in an autoclave with no problem," says PharmaSeq CEO Richard Morris. "They are like little stones. The only thing we've found that damages them are strong acids that can etch glass."
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