Microelectronic Circuits Centre Ireland: thinking small, delivering big

17 Dec 2013

Mark Barry, director of the Microelectronic Circuits Centre Ireland (MCCI)

The microelectronics industry, as the name suggests, deals with very small electronic designs and components. It also deals with very large numbers, globally and here in Ireland.

According to figures from the Microelectronics Industry Design Association – better known as Midas Ireland – the global microelectronics industry is worth €300bn annually and this is forecast to grow even further. In Ireland, there are about 60 companies operating in this sector, employing about 8,000 people. Its annual exports are estimated at €9bn.

Of these three score or so companies, 23 are members of the Microelectronic Circuits Centre Ireland (MCCI). This IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland-backed research centre is one of 15 industry-led centres of excellence in the Technology Centre Programme, in which research ranges from cloud, analytics and nanotechnology to financial services, biorefinery and health.

MCCI is based in the Tyndall National Institute at University College Cork, in collaboration with University of Limerick. It was established in April 2010 and, in its short lifespan, has developed nine new microchips and completed three commercial technology licences to companies.

Mark Barry, director of MCCI, compares the fledgling research centre to a fast-growing new business. “We’re like a start-up company in that we’re in growth mode, so we’re almost doubling in size every year,” he said.

Transferable skills

MCCI’s mission is to create jobs and generate exports in its member companies by conducting world-class microelectronic circuits research. It counts international big-hitters like Intel, Xilinx and Boston Scientific among its membership, along with indigenous players such as S3 Group and Ikon Semiconductor.

Like many high-tech companies, MCCI’s members have had difficulty in finding staff to take on skilled positions. This, coupled with other issues noted in the industry, inspired MCCI’s foundation.

“While the amount of industrial research and activity was very high, the amount of activity in universities and institutes of technology wasn’t comparable,” said Barry, describing the landscape pre-MCCI.

Moreover, of the small amount of research taking place at third-level institutions, a lot of it wasn’t relevant to industry; and, where research was relevant and intellectual property (IP) was created, industry players found it difficult to access that IP.

MCCI helps bridge this gap between research and commercialisation, and part of that involves training staff in an industry-type environment so their skills are easily transferable. Today, as well as helping MCCI member companies create more than 500 new jobs, the centre has trained eight staff who transferred into industry and Barry expects this figure to grow.

Commercial potential

In addition to producing staff suitable for industry, MCCI also aims to create products suitable for market. There are 16 projects now in action at MCCI, some of which Barry thinks could be potentially disruptive when they reach the market.

For example, the world’s first single-chip phased-array radiometer is being developed here; an inexpensive hand-held device that will enable GPs to scan patients for cancer in a way that is less dangerous than today’s most commonly used body-scanning technologies. This small device could enable early diagnosis of conditions such as breast cancer.

All of the research conducted at MCCI is industry-led, yet that doesn’t mean big business only. The centre has also been working with local start-up Powervation on a project that could help reduce energy consumption in data centres operated by companies like Google, whose data centres now use enough electricity to continuously power 200,000 homes.

World-class ambition

Globally, there are plenty of universities conducting microelectronic circuits research. Where MCCI strives to stand out is as a champion of industry-led research. “All the work that we do needs to be world-class,” said Barry. “Each project aims to be either the best in the world or the first in the world for its type.”

In Ireland, MCCI is unique. It is the only microelectronics research centre in the country. Be it a health company, an agriculture company or whatever else – companies having difficulty solving a problem technically can explore the possibility of a microelectronics solution with MCCI.

“We always say microelectronics enables everything, which it truly does,” said Barry. “The same sort of building blocks that we are developing for, let’s say, security applications for scanners in airport security; those kind of things can be used in health screening and so on.”

Though Barry himself is surprised by the rapid progress made by MCCI, it didn’t come without preparation. “We set ourselves up to make sure that we had some initial wind, that we were really delivering to industry first-day, both in terms of transferring people and transferring IP,” he said.

MCCI’s achievements are remarkable for a research centre barely four years old, as the majority of research projects would take longer than that to go from a starting point to an end product. Now the pace has been set, Barry expects the next two to three years to be highly productive.

A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 15 December

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic