CMC Microsystems provides services to simplify access and reduce cost to advanced technologies, including microelectronics, photonics, IoT and Edge AI, MEMS, Nanofabrication and Integration, and Quantum Technologies.
With a guiding principle to benefit all Canadians, CMC is a not-for-profit offering support to enable innovation in a network of more than 10,000 academic and 1,000 industry participants. Wanting to learn more, we asked CEO Gordon Harling some questions.
Q: What does CMC Microsystems do?
Harling: What we do is we go out and we negotiate with the vendors of design tools, and we get hundreds or thousands of licences and we share them with companies across Canada. The reason that they allow us to do that is that they realize there are some people who cannot afford their tools, which cost hundreds of thousands, to millions of dollars per person per seat. So they allow us to put these out there.
And what we do is we run them in the cloud so that we can actually capture data about who’s using what tools, for how long, which tools they aren’t using, and so on. And that’s great business intelligence for these folks. And also they get to see startups that are coming, that are raising money and so on. They can give them the tools up front, get them hooked on the tools, and then when they do raise a significant amount of money, they can go after them for a sale. So they have a funnel of vendors. So people design microelectronic chips and microelectromechanical sensors, and they design photonic chips using our tools.
Then when they want to fabricate them, we go to a dozen different factories around the world and we actually bundle the designs together so that everyone shares in the costing. So many of the factories have a $200,000 minimum limit or $500,000. So we’ll take 20 or 30 designs, bundle them together, and submit them as if they were one design. And then when it’s fabricated and comes back to us, we cut them all up, separate them, and send them off to the individual users so no one gets to see anyone else’s intellectual property or the design or any of that stuff. And last year we did 483 unique designs in various processes around the world.
It’s really about allowing both academics and startups who can’t afford any of this stuff to get their foot in the door and get to the point where they have a minimum viable product, a demonstrator, that they can use to raise funding or capture the interest of a client.
Q: What were the gaps you were seeing in the market? Was this something that CMC saw firsthand?
Harling: In 1983, [PM] Pierre Trudeau asked Queen’s University to incorporate and to create this entity because the factory at the time was Nortel and they didn’t want to deal with hundreds of students calling them up with questions. So they give a million dollars a year to CMC back in the day to actually operate a service that would allow folks to fabricate chips in Nortel’s factory.
Over time, we’ve started to add on tools, like design tools. We started to add new foundries, new processes and technologies. And most recently, three years ago, we added quantum to the roster. So we actually bought a share in the IBM quantum hub in Sherbrooke, and we have our own quantum coding team. So we help people write program code onto quantum computers. And now we have a number of projects to actually build quantum computers.
Q: One of your guiding values is to be a benefit to Canada. So how is your work uniquely Canadian? Are you only working with Canadian startups?
Harling: No, we work outside of Canada. We’re not for profit, so we have to make sure that we make cost recovery. So we know what it costs for us to give tools to a startup or to an academic group. We know what it costs us to run the fabrication service. So that’s the base price and that’s what we charge elsewhere. So currently we’re dealing with about 40 universities in the US. Half a dozen in Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, all over and 22 countries, basically. So we offer that service around the world.
But in Canada, we at least used to get government funding and we use that to reduce the price. So they get a subsidy and we drop the price for the Canadians and it’s offset by the government funding.
Q: What’s next for Canadian companies in this space?
Harling: Well, the subsidy was cut off last year, and so we’re in the last little dregs of federal funding. But what we did two and a half years ago was we asked for a big envelope to do some serious on-shoring of manufacturing for these semiconductor technologies.
We asked for $223M over five years. And if you look at our web page, you’ll see cmc.ca/fabric. And that’s the program which is rumbling through ISED right now. And we’re hoping to get that approved sometime next year. But what we’re saying is we’re not going to make microprocessors for cars. Those are really commodity items. Nobody wants to pay anything for them. They’re available at factories all over the world.
So let’s do some stuff that’s really unique and that Canada has a real chance of dominating globally. Photonics, for example, is a really strong area for Canada. These mechanical sensors called MEMS are also a big thing in Vermont and Edmonton – they have two factories and they’re the largest open factory for building these things. You can design compound semiconductors in there – so not the silicon versions but the fancy, high-speed, high-voltage semiconductors that are used in these automotive batteries and amplifiers, things like that.
And the fourth leg to the stool is superconductors. So currently we run a superconducting design course using a company in Finland but we want to onshore that back to Canada. And so there are two factories that are going to be setting up the equipment to do that and you can use these for MRIs for the Squid devices and MRI machines for hospitals. You can use them in underwater communication systems, you can use them in satellites. Basically, there’s lots of areas where you can use these superconductors.
Q: What are the biggest opportunities for growth that you see and that need support in Canada, and Kanata North specifically?
Harling: So we have a fabulous tech park here. There are lots and lots of companies that are involved in the kinds of things we do and of course we’re helping a lot of startups in that area. I think about ThinkRF and Celestra Health and Edge Signal and folks like that. So they all have great technology but we can assist by helping them design their next gen product using these exotic technologies and using our own staff.
Currently we have 16 staff in Ottawa at 400 March Rd. and they’re almost all technical staff who can help folks out. So they sort of complement your design team by adding extra skills that you may not have and they can help you to develop that next gen product. So what we want to do is to have these companies build products with Made in Canada components in them so you won’t be able to buy them off the shelf and copy the tech.
There’ll be a custom component built in Canada, made in Canada and incorporated in your system. So that’s what this fabric proposal is all about. It’s getting folks to build their next gen product using these exotic components.
Q: How do you feel when you see these companies succeed after they’ve got CMC’s help?
Harling: Well, that’s obviously what it’s all about. And so we have lots and lots of data about various companies that have gone through. I think historically, five years ago we were funded by NSERC and so we were really very keenly focused on academia. So it was all about getting good graduates out.
We’ve got a lot of stats that show that the grads who used our services are more likely to be in management after 10 years. They stay longer with their first employer because they’re a better fit. And they are also six to 18 months faster to productivity. So they’re greatly appreciated by design firms, which is why you find so many US design firms opening offices up here. But on the corporate side, yeah, we do keep track of the startups and so we track 250 startups which were launched from universities over the last 25 years and half of those are still operating as Canadian controlled private corporations.
Q: I’m going to ask you to look into a crystal ball and ask you where you see Canada’s tech community in the next five or ten years?
Harling: We really do think that we have some key IP, we have some key skills and so on in these four technology areas that I mentioned, and that we can use that to make sure that we have a real edge and that people will be more likely to come to Canada for their fabrication than elsewhere in the world.
We have a lot of advantages here, both the tax regime with the SRED tax credits and the low Canadian dollar, which is used to pay people here, and one of the lowest business tax rates as well. So I think we can spur a lot of foreign direct investment if we can show that we have a nucleus of trained people and technology. That’s interesting.
I think nothing succeeds like success. So we need to show more and more success stories like GaN Semiconductor and just have those things pop up and hopefully some of them will stay around. Ranovus certainly has the intention of remaining Canadian as long as they can. So let’s do more of those.
By Melanie Coulson