Looking for an R&D Home
By David Lammers
When Robert Preisser was looking for a place to set up an R&D center for the German chemical company he works for, he looked at Imec (Leuven, Belgium) and Leti (Grenoble) in Europe, Albany Nanotech in New York, and the Institute of Microelectronics in Singapore.
Preisser had spent 20 years with IBM in the United States and Germany, most notably working at the IBM-Siemens joint research project for 64-Mbit DRAM development in New York. After IBM shut down its DRAM fab in Sindelfingen, Germany, Preisser took up IBM Germany’s retirement offer and got into the chemical industry. He is now vice president of semiconductor technology at the chemical firm Atotech, a subsidiary of the much larger Total oil, gas, and chemical conglomerate.
Preisser’s mission back in 2007 was to develop semiconductor-use chemicals for copper electroplating. (Atotech, according to its Web site, had absorbed Schering Electroplating, “having a deep history in electroplating dating back to 1920.”)
Surprisingly, Preisser said Atotech was not interested in taking incentives or subsidies. “They reduce our speed and give us a lot of paperwork,” he said during a visit to Austin for the Sematech Surface Preparation and Cleaning Conference (SPCC).
If not subsidies, then what was he looking for? Three things, he answered in his definitive-statement style of speech. First, a supply of wafers where a new research group could do “meaningful R&D.” That involved a research center with good patterning capabilities. Secondly, he needed access to diagnostic tools.
And thirdly, “an opportunity to hire talented people.” Atotech could have transferred a core group from Germany, but Preisser said he wanted “to start fresh, with new people.” After selecting Albany Nanotech as the place where Atotech would set up its center, Preisser hired a Ph.D. from CNSE, the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering at the University of Albany.
He set his sights on two U.S. universities renowned for electrochemistry — Columbia University in New York City and Case Western Reserve in Cleveland – as well as CNSE itself. Very few of the people Preisser sought to hire rejected his offer, and he ended up with nine scientists.
Naturally, being a white guy originally from Ohio, I had to ask Preisser how many of the people he hired were Americans. He laughed, joking that he is now an expert in the art of obtaining U.S. visas, and said that none of his Ph.D. science recruits had a U.S. passport. He hired two Dutch nationals, and an array of Chinese, Japanese, and Singaporeans. They came from graduate programs at CNSE, Case Western, Ohio State, and the University of New Hampshire.
They set to work developing chemistries for defect-free plating, using inorganic base metallization solutions combined with organic polymers. With the exception of one person who became gravely ill and had to return to China, they are still at it.
Preisser said one reason he could hire people fairly easily is because Atotech and Total are large organizations, and the newly hired researchers have opportunities to move back home if they so choose. The company has 1,200 people in China, for example, with plenty of opportunities there.
“Our team has the ability to interact with the very best academics in the field of electrochemistry. Though they all had to go through a very steep learning curve, I am more than happy with the results,” he said.
I asked Preisser if had run into any stumbling blocks. He said because the CNSE operation is basically a university R&D center, the wafers had variabilities of plus or minus 10 percent, rather than the 3 percent variability seen at a leading manufacturing fab. “The supply of wafers, and the diagnostic capabilities, went well up to a certain point. We had to work on the incoming quality levels, but we knew that there would be differences between a college environment versus a manufacturing site.”
For certain projects, Atotech obtained test wafers from prospective customers. And Preisser and his team were able to exchange opinions with IBM technologists working nearby.
After developing a line of wet chemistry products for semiconductor BEOL applications, Preisser set out to hire a sales team. While the R&D team needed to be physically together in Albany, the sales force could live anywhere, as long as they had the requisite industry experience.
“I started reading the industry news, and when I heard that AMAT or KLA or Freescale was laying people off, I looked in my rolodex, found people I knew at those places, and made them offers,” Preisser recalled with a laugh.
“How was the Albany Nanotech experience?” I asked.
He didn’t hesitate, noting that whenever he had a problem he could walk into the office of the right person and get a fast solution. “If I had to do it all over again, I would do much the same. CNSE can talk about what they can do, but from my standpoint, they can do it. Alain Kaloyeros has his critics, but he has a unique vision. And at the end of the day he did it. The result is that they have almost 3,000 people there now.”