New technology lets scientists see, touch and smell on the nanoscale
The next generation of electronics - in everything from computers to mobile devices - relies on circuits and features at the tiniest of scales. But for scientists and engineers to understand what is happening at the nanoscale, a new generation of microscopes is needed to 'see', 'touch' and 'smell' at scales just a fraction of the size of a human hair.
A consortium of five European companies, one university and two research organisations has come up with just such a novel microscope that can meet the challenge. The new analytical instrument, which arose out of the three-year UNIVSEM – or Universal Scanning Electron Microscopy – project, combines ‘seeing’ thanks to a scanning electron microscope that uses electrons instead of light, ‘touching’ via a scanning probe microscope that drags a tiny pin-like stylus over the surface and ‘smelling’ through chemical analysis.
Rudolf Frycek, CEO and founder of Amires Consulting who led the administrative management and financial side of the project, believes that specialised project management can free up project partners to focus on the research and technical side, which was key to the success of the UNIVSEM project.
Rudolf Frycek of Amires Consulting
What did the project hope to achieve?
The aim was to create an integrated device – a microscope – with several modular analytical tools that could be added on. This would create a really transformational product leading to completely new analytical processes for industry and R&D labs.
What issue or gap in the market did the project set out to tackle?
Since we are dealing with electron microscopy, the market is relatively broad – development of microelectronics, materials research and quality control in production – and follows the trend in electronics for miniaturisation. Our advantage is that we combine several tools, which would otherwise take up space and the operator’s time, into one. We have developed an instrument that is able to see, touch and sense on the nanoscale level. This is transformational.
Another large part of the potential market is hybrid devices that combine inorganic and organic materials. Traditional analytical tools can handle inorganic materials but the ability to monitor and analyse organic materials was lacking. This is something that we have achieved in our project.
What has the project achieved?
This project was very interesting from the management point of view because by the 24th month, the consortium had already developed a prototype. The consortium launched the prototype onto the market during the course of the project and had sold two combined integrated devices by the end. Now, two years later, more products coming out and the platform developed is now implemented across the whole production line of SEM manufacturer TESCAN ORSAY HOLDING.
This project has been very successful not only from the technical point of view but also from the business perspective.
What has been the impact of the project?
The EU funded this project as part of its efforts supporting innovative SMEs. Because of the financial benefits it has generated, this project has been a very good investment.
The motivation, which was there from the very beginning, was that the human aspect of the project would lead to something tangible and interesting. So in terms of the impact on our daily lives, I think that the project has strongly contributed to this because we are enabling the manipulation of matter on the nanoscale. Only because we are able to this can more and more smart devices be integrated and embedded into practically every element of our increasingly digitized society.
How did you become involved in the project?
The coordinator of the UNIVSEM project approached Amires because we have a good reputation in handling the administration of European projects. Project management can be a success factor for a project if it is done properly – particularly in exploitation, in turning innovation into real-world products. The added value we provided was to find partners with the right fit in technology and facilitate their communication. This is the most demanding part of the conceptualization and proposal preparation.
What are the benefits of EU-funded projects?
When we want to innovate at the individual level of the European supply chain, as was exactly the case with UNIVSEM, we need to have a pan-European funding scheme. If we did not have this, this integration would be extremely difficult and would not come at the time when it is needed by the market. Innovation is not driven by the availability of funding for research; it is driven by the market and its needs. For us, the timing of this project was fantastic and everything came together at the right moment. I think that every company should consider collaborative projects as an opportunity in their ‘toolbox’ of potential financing options.
There is another advantage of European projects – the consortium shares the risk of working with new partners and enables expansion into new technologies and new markets. Without this tool of EU support – and the chance to share costs, expertise and responsibilities – companies would not do it alone.
Because of the free movement of people and the integration of our economies, it is now possible to run a business across the whole of Europe. This is the way we should be working, strengthening our ecosystems and geo-clusters to create a group of similar-thinking and market-targeting companies. Unless we want to go back to the beginning and try to develop everything on our own, spend more resources – both financial and human, this is simply the way to go.
And, of course, there are other interesting aspects on a human level: several PhDs were completed during our project; a number of articles were published in well-regarded scientific journals; and we saw other locations and enriched our cultures.
How do the project partners share the benefits?
The interesting part of this project was that it was partly based on an existing consortium, which had collaborated on a previous project called FIBLIS. This consortium took on board new SMEs to complement existing suppliers. Together, they found a new way to integrate their devices. So, although the IP stays practically with the individual partners, the supply chain gets stronger for each business operation. The motivation of individual partners was clear from the very beginning, which was an important element of success in the project.
What are the key ingredients for a successful project?
The first one is that the project should be led by industry. Here I mean companies that already have secured revenues and are able to address new markets and technologies.
The role of the integrator was essential to the success of this project because they not only had the technical knowledge about the product and its specifications – what it should be – but also market knowledge – how it should be sold, for how much and to whom.
It is also important, from the very beginning – even before the project proposal is submitted – to understand each other’s motivation. Related to this is observing what individual IPR exists already and avoiding the creation of any clashes during the project. Apart from that, diligent reporting and follow up is crucial.
And you need to give a little space to the technical experts. Split the responsibilities: let the experts do the technical work and we will do the management. Everybody should do what he or she does best.
What was the most exciting part of the project for you?
For me, the really exciting thing was the business-oriented approach from the very beginning and the support given to implement this idea. The coordinator of our project was a medium-sized company at the start and now has more than 350 employees. So the management’s trust in their employees, vision of new markets, new technologies and new products led the company to be more efficient, more productive and, therefore, more competitive. This is the type of company we should be supporting in Europe.
What advice would you give?
My advice is that a project needs to fit the business strategy. It’s not an opportunity for additional research funding – although research is a key element of success. If research is carried out with a business projection, it should turn into products in the near future.
The design of projects is key to their success. What we have seen – and we are still struggling with – is that the research community often generates projects because they like the idea. Instead we are promoting the concept that projects should fit into an industrial vision. The key is to understand where European cooperation is needed and will be beneficial. This will turn into broader networking across the community, resulting in multiple projects and more opportunities for capitalization.