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On the Way to Market, Aspiring Technology Firms Get a Technical Assist from NIST

Patience is one of the greatest allies of a young technology firm, but delays are its worst enemy. In the form of long-term financing, patience buys the company time to translate discoveries and inventions into successful commercial products. But if the firm lingers too long on the way to the marketplace, doors to business opportunity will slam shut, right behind the first competitor to step across the threshold.

At the National Institute of Standards and Technology, several programs are helping small, aspiring U.S. firms eliminate the technical hurdles that impede progress toward realizing the potential of emerging commercial technologies. These programs aim not only to accelerate innovation but also to speed crucial early steps toward commercialization.

One example is the agency's Advanced Technology Program, which, through cost-sharing awards, encourages companies to pursue high-risk, but powerful, new technologies underlying a broad spectrum of potential applications. Small companies, a major source of innovation in the United States, have fared well in the four ATP competitions since 1990. Small businesses have won 43 of 69 single company awards and are playing an important role in 18 of the 23 ATP joint ventures funded to date. A growing number of small firms also are advancing their technology-development aims by teaming up with NIST scientists and engineers under cooperative research and development agreements, or CRADAs. Participating in NIST-organized consortia or in one-on-one collaborations focused on key technical issues, firms with fewer than 500 employees account for about half of the nearly 400 CRADAs that NIST has signed since 1988. One company that is leveraging NIST technical assistance is Optex Communications, a young Rockville, Md., firm that claims it literally has a memory like a trap, an information-age equivalent of total recall. Working with NIST, the 21-employee company aims to establish the technical feasibility of its fledgling memory technology and then set a course for a global market for video- and data-storage systems that is large and growing, fueled by expectations of an "information superhighway" and a multimedia future.

Optex has just begun to negotiate the treacherous divide separating its commercially promising "electron trapping optical memory" (ETOM) from competitive marketable products. The technical pitfalls lining that chasm have snared many aspiring high-technology firms while trying to turn their experimental technologies into manufacturable, saleable goods.

In December 1992, Optex won a company-matched $1.4 million ATP award to help it overcome technical barriers as it begins to make the passage to the marketplace. With the funding, Optex is developing an engineering model of the first anticipated product incorporating its novel ETOM technology: a high-capacity, high- speed optical disk storage system for digital video recording.

At the same time, Optex and NIST researchers are teaming up to study issues affecting the manufacturing process that the company anticipates it will use to make its ETOM disks. For Optex, the collaboration means access to expertise and advanced equipment needed to identify and sort through the many factors that can influence yield reliability and cost-effectiveness. For the NIST team, the CRADA provides a ground-floor opportunity to use laboratory-developed capabilities to solve practical manufacturing problems, a key facet of NIST's mission to help U.S. industry develop and apply technology.

In appearance, the erasable ETOM disks resemble today's compact disks, but the underlying materials and technologies are vastly different. Because of these differences, according to Optex officials, an ETOM disk can hold more than 20 times the amount of data stored on a comparably sized CD-ROM (compact disk—read-only memory)—enough to accommodate a two-hour movie--and it can transmit data at the rate of 120 megabits (the equivalent of about 7,500 typewritten pages) per second. With enhancements, the capacity of the Optex disk could more than double. As important, data recorded on an ETOM disk, unlike a CD-ROM, can be stored, read, erased and rewritten.

Competitively chosen on the basis of the technical and business merits of its proposal to the ATP, Optex is devoting its additional resources to developing a full-scale laboratory prototype of its high-volume storage system. Without the grant, says Ralston H. Coffin Jr., company president and chief executive officer, Optex could not have subcontracted with and engaged likely suppliers of lasers, disk drives and other key components in the early planning, design and development of the prototype.

Optex is shooting to complete the laboratory prototype by late spring and then will develop a commercial prototype for testing by prospective customers, beginning later in 1994.

The ATP grant—and the rigorous competition and review leading up to the award—has helped the company tighten its product-development focus, says Anthony Clifford, Optex senior vice president. "The ATP award has placed us on a critical path," he explains. "We have to move in a focused way. If we stray, we will have a higher authority to answer to." Clifford points to additional benefits. "The fact that we won the ATP award meant that we passed independent peer review—on both the technical and business aspects of our plans," Clifford adds. "The added credibility that comes from that kind of scrutiny has been quite valuable to us in many ways, including our recently successful efforts to secure outside financing."

Any company that can help appease a voracious global appetite for versatile, cost-effective digital memories gains entry into a vast market. Coffin estimates that a product capturing only 5 percent of the industrial market for video- and data-storage systems and media would achieve annual sales totaling $1 billion by the year 2000.

"All the major players in the information superhighway, including the telecommunications, computer, entertainment and cable industries," Coffin says, "are waiting for a simple `black box' that satisfies pervasive needs for high-capacity data storage, speedy access and rapid data transmission." He adds that opportunities in consumer markets, where Optex also intends to compete, are even greater.

Companies are scrambling to meet the needs and seize the market opportunities. Some are pushing the limits of existing storage technology. Others, like Optex and the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corporation, another ATP award winner, are pursuing new, experimental approaches to expanding storage capacity and speeding data retrieval and transmission.

Optex feels the heat of the competition, and its executives are acutely aware that the price of commercial mass storage systems are falling by about 20 percent a year. But Coffin says ETOM-based systems can stay ahead of the declining cost curve.

Whether the technology lives up to Coffin's advance billing may depend on the efficiency of the process for manufacturing ETOM disks. A major challenge is to develop a process that consistently and reliably results in a thin-film layer of proprietary luminescent materials sandwiched between an underlying structural base and an overlaying protective layer. At the molecular level, the luminescent materials should line up to form a single, very large crystal or at least arrange themselves in evenly distributed clusters of large crystals.

Robert Revay, manager of media technology, explains that the process is sensitive to many poorly understood and often interacting factors. Now, the only way to determine whether a disk works or is flawed is to check the performance of each completed unit—hardly an efficient way to achieve consistently high levels of film quality and manufacturing efficiency.

To pin down key factors, NIST materials scientist Winnie Wong-Ng and Optex researchers will conduct X-ray diffraction studies of completed ETOM films to measure, among other properties, the size of individual crystallites, lattice constants and film texture. As those same films are being deposited on the substrate, Jason Schneir and Joe Fu from NIST's Manufacturing Engineering Laboratory will use an atomic-force microscope to capture visual images of crystal formation and growth.

To help the research team determine cause and effect, NIST statistician Eric Lagergren will design a series of experiments with the aim of homing in on the key processing variables and describing how these variables interact to influence film quality. Data from the experiments will be used to develop a mathematical model of the film-deposition process, which will help establish the conditions optimal for creating high-quality films.

The collaborators intend to publish their findings in the open technical literature.

"What we learn here about the relationship between microstructure and processing variables," suggests Revay, "may be applicable to thin films made with the high-temperature superconducting materials, since they also are refractory and their performance is critically dependent on crystal quality."

For NIST's Schneir and Wong-Ng, the project offers an ideal opportunity to demonstrate how two seemingly arcane research specialties—X-ray diffraction and atomic-force microscopy—can be used to address widely shared problems in industries that make products exploiting the properties of thin films, including semiconductor manufacturing.

"This is a good example of two-way technology transfer," Schneir says. "We are applying our research and technology to help solve a manufacturing problem and, in the process, NIST personnel are learning about a new area of technology."

NIST is a non-regulatory agency of the Commerce Department's Technology Administration. It promotes U.S. economic growth by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements and standards.

Released February 7, 1994, Updated November 27, 2017