Regional Advantage: Part 2- Pitting Belgium's IMEC against California's U.C. Berkeley

From ASML, we were bused to the Holst Centre. This large facility is a sprawling campus and "open innovation" research center funded in part by IMEC and in part by TNO, the Dutch research institute. Per Gilbert Delerck, CEO and President of IMEC, the rationale behind the Holst Centre is to "stimulate and generate new industrial activities based on micro/nanoelectronics and nantechnology with existing companies and new ventures in The Netherlands and Flanders. Holst also intends to bridge the gap between universities and industry, and strengthen the Eindhoven-Leuven-Aachen technology triangle for a stronger European knowledge-based economy."

If you look at a map, you'll see that the ELAT triangle spans Belgium, The Netherlands, and Germany and constitutes a strategic move to create Regional Advantage as an aggregator of Northern European technology strengths. The Holst High Tech center is next door to one of the several Philips installations in and around Eindhoven. We were given a very thorough introduction to the facilities, staff, and research initiatives that will be up and running as joint efforts between IMEC and TNO. During our visit in October, the IMEC headcount at Holst was at about 80. It has undoubtedly expanded since then.

Not to detail all of the various research programs at the Holst Centre, but one of the presentations we heard that afternoon was very sci-fi. A researcher demonstrated a headband kind of get-up that, once placed on the head, sinks small needles into the scalp to monitor vital signs. The device has an array of LEDs across the top of the device that go from green to red if worrisome metrics develop in the vital signs of the human it's attached to - in particular, the researchers are trying to anticipate an epileptic incident by tracking certain tell-tale temperature irregularities associated with the run-up to such an incident. The journalists were offered a chance to try to on the contraption, but given that wearing it constituted somewhat of an invasive procedure, no one took the IMEC scientist up on his offer.

In addition to the various presentations, we also had a chance to tour adjacent facilities to view a variety of different labs, and a series of hallway presentations from small tech start-ups in the area. The Queen of The Netherlands was due the next day for the official ribbon cutting for the facility, so these demonstrations were in place in anticipation of amusing and amazing Her Royal Highness. At the end of our day's visit to Eindhoven, we returned by bus to Leuven, were treated to a marvelous meal, and were escorted back to our hotel.

The next morning, bright and early, we were back at it, this time getting the full tour and intro to Everything IMEC at the mother ship in Leuven. The presentations were an all-day affair - the morning complete with plenary sessions presented by senior staff and researchers showcasing their labs and programs, and the afternoon with various breakout sessions to pick and choose from across a smorgasbord of presenters and programs.

In the midst of that busy day, the journalists were offered a great buffet lunch and the chance to relax a bit and/or interact with the IMEC personnel. It was in that hour that I had a visit with Dr. Gilbert Declerck, a serious and thoughtful intellect.

Declerck told me, "Here at IMEC, we want to be ahead of the market, ahead of the demand, with an established facility for these forward-looking technologies. Our mission statement says we are to carry out R&D programs 3 to 10 years ahead of today's industrial needs, and we know a lot of companies today are interested in what we are offering them."

"Researchers need to be talking to each other under one roof. We can offer them a critical mass of infrastructure, excellent human capital, and a roadmap that will help them to reach their goals."

I asked Declerck who gets to establish that roadmap. Gilbert said, "Our process of establishing a roadmap includes detailed conversations with our various industrial partners - it's not an isolated process. It's a strategic process that requires bringing in the appropriate suppliers, building a value chain, and establishing goals from industry and the universities that we can all work together towards accomplishing."

Declerck also answered a question about the new Holst Centre location for IMEC's satellite campus: "The Dutch Government has established a technical bridgehead at the High Tech Center in Eindhoven. They've invested 12.5 million euros to date. When they asked us for suggestions, we told them either don't do it at all, or do it big. You can't do something in between. The Holst Centre is a wonderful opportunity for us to work in partnership with TNO. It's going to be the real thing - a place for technology integration that will produce real results."

All told, the amount of information made available to us over the course of our full day in Leuven, following that previous full day in Eindhoven, was overwhelming. Was it possible to absorb it all? No. Was it easy to believe that this IMEC facility, and it's nascent satellite facility in Eindhoven, is an intensely compelling destination for researchers the world over? Yes.

But, it was not until I was sitting in the auditorium at U.C. Berkeley 4 months later that some of the larger issues that surround IMEC really began to intrigue me. One of the presenters at U.C. Berkeley in February 2006 was Dr. Jan Rabaey. He is a distinguished faculty member in the EECS Department and, even more apropos to this conversation, hails from Leuven and the IMEC research ecosystem. There's a set of fascinating contrasts and similarities between IMEC and U.C. Berkeley, and Dr. Rabaey was willing to participate in an informative conversation that helped to clarify them for me.

Jan Rabaey holds the Donald O. Pederson Chair in EECS at U.C. Berkeley. I spoke with Jan by phone in early April.

Q: Can you compare and contrast U.C. Berkeley, the research institution, and IMEC.

Rabaey: Overall, I think the vision, and things like that, will be quite often aligned [between the two organizations], but the whole structure of the two is very different. Berkeley is still a university, an academic place. But IMEC has been grown as a government-funded independent research center. IMEC has a shorter timeline in what they are trying to accomplish in their research.

Here at Cal, we don't have that particular pressure - the pressure of thinking about spin-offs. The pressure [at IMEC] is to provide a return to the community [from the investment in R&D], which automatically brings their agenda timeframe in a little bit closer. However, each of these two institutions, Cal and IMEC, has their place.

If you think about it, IMEC has about 1400 people. A lot of them are involved in research into semiconductor processes, fabs, and so forth, with the goal to give contract money to European companies and so forth. Even in the design part of the R&D at IMEC, what they're looking for is about a 5-year or shorter timeframe [for results]. I don't say this as a negative against IMEC. [In fact], unfortunately there's nothing like this anymore here in the U.S. - a pre-competitive research location.

Q: Isn't NASA like a government-funded research institution doing pre-competitive research?

Rabaey: Yes, there was NASA, but the budget there has been tightened substantially. There also was Xerox Parc and HP Labs, to name a few industrial labs that are no longer. Today, the research [that had been carried out in those labs] here in the U.S. has been pushed to the universities. At one time, there was also Semitech, which was closest to the IMEC model here in the U.S. Perhaps, IMEC has taken over the role that Semitech used to play in the manufacturing space.

Q: You said there isn't pressure at universities, U.C. Berkeley in particular, to create spin-outs from the technology. But many of the professors who spoke at the Berkeley Research Symposium in February are involved in start-ups.

Rabaey: Yes, this is indeed true. Those professors on the program were, a lot of them, involved in start-ups. But the faculty speaking in February gave [a false impression]. Yes, there were a number of faculty speaking who have been involved in companies. But at the symposium, you saw a mis-representative sampling of those faculty. Chenming Hu and Richard Newton - these are the exceptions, rather than the rule. Being involved with a start-up is not a metric for professors to succeed in the university, although it does serve as a way to create technology transfer between the university and industry.

Review Article
  • October 09, 2008
    Reviewed by 'Naresh Vijay'
    article has made good attempt to compare IMEC and UBC at the very basic and foundametal conceptual level of these international bodies. Discussion with Rabaey is also very enlightening and which explains How an Institutional way of working is different from an educational operation, and what are the advantages and disadvantages in context of renewal of researchers, larger and small projects and the way, technology transfer to industry takes place....

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  • October 09, 2008
    Reviewed by 'Praveen Raghavan'
    Interesting article comparing industrial research vs "relavant" academic research!

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