Tech's Future Starts Here

MTTC Serves as an incubator for Technologists

In a modern building about one mile south of the UNM School of Engineering, students, researchers, and small tech companies work side-by-side turning scientific principles into the next wave of technological, commercialized advancements.

While talented people with big ideas drive the process, it's the building itself that makes it all possible. Since 1998, the UNM Manufacturing Training and Technology Center has been an incubator for the people and the companies exploring the development and application of technology. "Our vision for MTTC was to create a place where we could bring together academic interests, researchers, and businesses," says John Wood, professor of mechanical engineering and director of manufacturing engineering at MTTC. "This is unique within the city and that’s why you'll find this gathering of interests here."

Along with plenty of offices, classrooms, and meeting spaces, the 56,000 sq. ft. center features a 1,000 sq. ft. cleanroom stocked with equipment for most processes involved in etching and photolithography. The cleanroom features a modern support infrastructure including air handling units, a deionization/ reverse osmosis water system, nitrogen, a scrubber, and acid waste neutralization systems.

Starting Up Start-Ups

Walking through the hallways, you pass door after door inscribed with company names that have a high-tech sound: MEMX, Advent Solar, AgilOptics, and Lumidigm. Behind each door is a fledgling company busy converting ideas first generated within UNM or the national labs into products for the commercial market. In many cases, it's the MTTC clean-room, which opened in 2001, that attracts so many tech start-ups to MTTC. For a nominal fee, companies can use the cleanroom facilities, equipment, and support infrastructure, all of which would be prohibitively expensive for any start-up to construct on its own.

MEMX, a broad based nanotech and micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) company, was the first to utilize the MTTC cleanroom. The company's technical team had worked on MEMS development at Sandia National Laboratories before spinning off to transfer that technology to the commercial emulate the types of teamwork and responsibilities they would sector. "As a start-up, the resources you have are very precious. The great thing about MTTC is that you can access very nice equipment on a pay-as-you-go basis," says MEMX CTO and Expanded Opportunities Founder Paul McWhorter. "That allows us to invest in ideas MTTC's successful shared facility concept is about to expand. rather than investing in infrastructure."

McWhorter says that the benefits of working at MTTC go beyond the infrastructure and equipment. "The great thing about having a presence at a university is that you gain access to bright young talent looking for jobs. It's a mutually beneficial situation." MEMX has several UNM graduates on staff and a number of UNM students working part time.

Training Tomorrow's Technologists

Forty percent of MTTC's cleanroom schedule is set aside for businesses. The remainder is allocated to UNM researchers and Intel's most recent equipment donation to MTTC, valued at students. Their work is expected to expand as new facilities are added to the building. "MTTC gives our researchers the materials and equipment they need to pursue their work and prove their theories. It also gives our students the opportunity to see tech start-ups at work and become inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit which is at the heart of this facility," says Joseph L. Cecchi, dean of the School of Engineering.

The facility provides valuable training for UNM students in semiconductor and MEMS manufacturing. "This program gives students hands-on training that they otherwise wouldn't receive in New Mexico," says Wood. "We're closing the loop of training, R&D, and commercialization so that when tech companies come here, they can find a workforce."

An ongoing program between UNM and the Albuquerque Technical Vocational Institute (TVI) helps students from both schools hone their semiconductor and microsystems manufacturing skills. Technicians from TVI and engineers from UNM go through co-training exercises on selected process tools that emulate the types off teamwork and responsibilities they would experience in they would experience in an actual semiconductor fabrication facility.

Expanded Opportunities

MTTC's successful shared facility concept is about to expand. Last year, Wood secured a $1.3 million federal grant from the Economic Development Administration, matched with state bond funds, that will expand the cleanroom size two-fold to 2,000 sq. ft. Another phase of construction is anticipated. When that construction is complete late next year, the cleanroom will be 3,000 sq. ft. and will include a full-function microelectronic process to make MEMS and BioMEMS. The larger cleanroom will accommodate numerous pieces of fabrication equipment, including tools donated to MTTC from Next Generation Economy, Intel, and Philips Semiconductors.

Intel's most recent equipment donation to MTTC, valued at over $2 million, was negotiated by Next Generation Economy. The Albuquerque-based organization develops public and private partnerships that nurture entrepreneurial endeavors in New Mexico. "This is a good partnership," says Mike Skaggs, president and CEO of Next Generation Economy, Inc. "It's an excellent demonstration of how the university and the business community can work together on something that's very real and very tangible."

Wood agrees, "We have a win-win situation here. Companies give us equipment and we turn it around and use the equipment to generate a workforce they can hire." "Win-win" is an apt phrase for MTTC. Through visionary thinking and hard work, Wood and everyone involved with MTTC have created new opportunities for UNM and greater economic development potential for the state. The outcome will be far-reaching technological advancements and a New Mexico workforce trained for New Mexico high-tech jobs.