It has been an exceptional year. The COVID-19 pandemic is shaking up our lives much more and much longer than we all expected. Despite the stressful and difficult times for all of us, we look back at 2020 with phenomenal results for imec. We present them here in support of our strong belief that we have to look to the positive changes that can emerge from what was a challenging year. They inspire us to remain on the forefront of innovation and to enable a post-COVID life and work that will no doubt be different from what we were used to. One with even more emphasis on non-technological aspects such as sustainability, physical and mental wellbeing, solidarity and social awareness; priorities that became much more visible during the ongoing crisis. And even if they are non-technical by nature, technological developments play a crucial role in supporting and enabling them.
Inspired by the achievements of 2020, imec thanks everyone who has been instrumental in making them happen and wishes all of you a bright 2021, with our lives more balanced again and with plenty of opportunities to innovate together for a better future.
Our 2020-highlight categories:
- Successfully dealing with the pandemic: technology contributions.
- Successfully dealing with the pandemic: operational adaptation.
- World premieres coming out of the cleanrooms.
- Collaborations with partners.
- Pushing semiconductor functional scaling.
- Connecting semiconductor technology to application grand challenges.
- International recognition.
- Spin-offs and venturing support.
- The CEO’s vision.
Successfully dealing with the pandemic: technology contributions
Imec would not be imec if its state-of-the-art technology portfolio didn’t contribute to tackle the global pandemic. Most visible was probably the announcement of developing a SARS-CoV-2 test to identify positive cases and confirm whether someone is contagious in less than five minutes. The groundbreaking approach will use virus particles in exhaled breath for quick, easy, comfortable, large-scale point-of-care testing. Imec is teaming up with the UZ Leuven University Hospital for the solution’s clinical validation and with Brussels Airport for functional prototype testing.
But also indirectly, imec technology is contributing to dealing with the pandemic and its consequences. For example, thanks to its collaboration with Lopos, a spin-off of imec and the Ghent University, presenting the SafeDistance wearable that helps employees follow social distancing guidelines through an audible or haptic alarm. The wearable solution guarantees privacy by measuring distance without logging or storing data. On a related topic, imec also collaborated with Romware for the development of its wearable worker safety device. Their solution ensures worker safety in industrial environments. Thanks to some minor adjustments, the Romware Covid Radius is now able to contribute to the prevention of corona infections in the workplace.
Not specifically developed because of the pandemic, but also worth mentioning in this context are imec’s activities on haptic feedback and on e-learning as well as the 2020 launch of a new spin-off called Crowdscan. As a spin-off from imec and the University of Antwerp, Crowdscan has developed a system that measures the density of a crowd in real-time using a wireless sensor network and without using camera images, mobile phone data or other privacy-sensitive information. When the COVID-19 crisis broke out, Crowdscan immediately realized the added value of the technology for helping society adapt to the new needs of social distancing. In May, a successful pilot project was launched to measure the size of groups on a bridge and a street near the MAS museum in Antwerp (Belgium). Today, Crowdscan technology is also monitoring crowd densities is cities such as Ghent (Belgium).
Another already ongoing activity that suddenly became more relevant, was the i-Learn program under coordination of imec. It was launched by the Flemish Government in September 2019 to support personalized digital learning in Flemish education. When in March 2020 primary and secondary schools suddenly had to rely on online and remote learning, the i-Learn consortium rapidly launched a temporary online platform with freely available digital tools.
Last but not least, the COVID pandemic also put imec’s efforts on haptic feedback in an entirely new context. In this activity, imec uses micromachined transducers to turn ultrasound into sense of touch. Already developed as a next step in smart interfacing, the benefits of “touchless” interfaces in a (post-)pandemic context has only made this research more relevant and urgent.
Want to know more?
- Press release: Imec begins developing SARS-CoV-2 test to identify positive cases and confirm whether someone is contagious in less than five minutes | imec (imec-int.com)
- Press release: Lopos, a spin-off of imec and the Ghent University, presents the SafeDistance wearable that helps employees follow social distancing guidelines | imec (imec-int.com
- Longread: Development of the Romware wearable | imec (imec-int.com)
- Press release: University of Antwerp and imec launch Crowdscan, a new spin-off to measure crowds without compromising personal privacy | imec (imec-int.com)
- Homepage of the i-Learn program: i-Learn, personalized digital learning | i-Learn Vlaanderen (i-learn.vlaanderen).
- Longread: Haptic feedback: the next step in smart interfacing | imec (imec-int.com)
Successfully dealing with the pandemic: rapid adaptation of the work environment and record operational statistics in the imec cleanrooms
Imec’s 200mm and 300mm Fabs showed a 10% increase in volumes and output in 2020 compared to 2019. While the whole of Belgium went into a strict lockdown in March-April and again from November onwards, the operational teams at imec managed not only to keep the Fabs running at all time, but even realized record outputs. An outstanding achievement, considering the Fabs are one of the key differentiators in enabling imec’s advanced semiconductor research strategy.
Also outside of the cleanroom, imec stayed fully operational thanks to the rapid adaptation to remote work and meetings. As likely any company worldwide, imec had to rapidly transform its way of working and switch to online and remote interactions to accommodate for the numerous and all-important meetings between colleagues and with partners. One proof point of the flexibility and dedication by which the imec researchers have embraced this new reality is their large number of contributions to top conferences, as can be found in the category on international recognition.
Towards partners, imec successfully translated the partner technology weeks and imec technology forums (ITF) into inspiring virtual alternatives. Leading – maybe even somewhat surprisingly – to consistently around twice as much participants as for their physical counterparts in 2019. At least as important was that the participants’ feedback learned that imec was able to capture a lot of the dynamics of physical meetings, such as booths, demo’s, one-on-one discussions and matchmaking. Some participants even said ITF was by far the best virtual event they attended, giving a truly immersive experience.
With little or no immediate change on the horizon, these efforts and results are encouraging to maintain the necessary level of connectedness within the imec organization and with the research partners in the transition period that is ahead of us.
World premieres coming out of the cleanrooms
The imec researchers and cleanroom staff succeeded in presenting multiple ‘world’s-first’ results in the past year. For example, at the IEDM conference on the verge of the new year, imec presented the first functional Si qubit integration on 300mm wafers. Together with novel ways to operate arrays of qubits and to combine classical electronics with quantum circuits at low temperatures. These are important steps forward in the development of quantum processors.
Related to artificial intelligence and neural networks, two achievements stand out. In April, imec presented the world’s first chip that processes radar signals using a spiking recurrent neural network. Imec’s chip consumes 100 times less power than traditional implementations while featuring a tenfold reduction in latency – enabling almost instantaneous decision-making. Although versatile towards numerous applications, the chip’s first use-case will encompass the creation of a low-power, highly intelligent anti-collision radar system for drones that can react much more effectively to approaching objects.
In July then, imec together with Globalfoundries announced a hardware demonstration of a new artificial intelligence chip, called AnIA (Analog Inference Accelerator). Based on imec’s Analog in Memory Computing architecture, the chip achieves a record-high energy efficiency up to 2,900 TOPS/W. These promising results are encouraging to further evolve towards 10,000 TOPS/W, which is a key metric to enable edge-AI on IoT devices. The privacy, security and latency benefits of this new technology will have an impact on AI applications in a wide range of edge devices, from smart speakers to self-driving vehicles.
The last examples that made the shortlist are in the field of smart health.
At the ISSCC conference in February imec presented the world’s first millimeter-scale wireless transceiver for electronic pills. The whole transceiver module including antenna occupies a volume of less than 55mm3, which is up to 30 times smaller than state-of-the-art devices. It is a first breakthrough in imec’s aspiration to realize autonomous ingestible sensors that can measure health parameters such as gut health and transmit the data in real time outside the body.
In September, the Scientific Reports from Nature featured the research on a smart contact lens that mimics the human iris to combat eye deficiencies. The smart contact lens has an iris aperture that can be tuned through concentric rings on an integrated liquid crystal display (LCD) and is designed to operate for an entire day thanks to an ultra-low power design. It results from imec’s collaboration with CMST (an imec research group at Ghent University), Holst Centre (an open innovation initiative from imec and TNO, the Netherlands) and the Instituto de Investigación Sanitaria Fundación Jiménez Díaz (Madrid, Spain).
Want to know more?
- Tech Xplore featuring imec’s qubit results: Engineers demonstrate the first flexible hardware platform for silicon spin qubit integration on 300 mm wafers (techxplore.com).
- Press release: Imec Builds World’s First Spiking Neural Network-Based Chip for Radar Signal Processing | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release: Imec and GLOBALFOUNDRIES Announce Breakthrough in AI Chip, Bringing Deep Neural Network Calculations to IoT Edge Devices | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release: First millimeter-scale wireless transceiver for electronic pills | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release: Imec and Ghent University Present a Smart Contact Lens Mimicking the Human Iris to Combat Eye Deficiencies | imec (imec-int.com).
Collaborations with partners
Partner collaborations are key for almost all imec achievements. While confidentiality clauses often prevent to reveal the specifics, it must be noted that imec is exceptionally proud of and grateful for the several strategic long-term partnerships on semiconductor and system scaling that have been renewed in 2020. As well as the establishment of strategic partnerships with a number of leading pharma companies, such as Johnson & Johnson, that will boost the further growth of imec’s health strategy. As will the signatures underneath the first industrial deals for the OnePlanet Research Center, a multidisciplinary collaboration agreement between Wageningen University & Research (WUR), Radboud University, Radboudumc and imec. Below are several highlights from imec’s partner collaborations, as well as from some EU-funded programs that were launched in 2020 or in which important breakthroughs were realized thanks to the collaborations within the strong consortia of academic and industrial partners.
With Evonetix, imec collaborated to enable the commercial-scale production of their proprietary microelectromechanical systems (MEMS)-based silicon chips. The novel silicon chip is a key component of Evonetix’s desktop DNA platform which, once fully developed, will facilitate and enable the rapidly growing field of synthetic biology.
With Roswell Biotechnologies, imec announced a partnership to develop the first commercially available molecular electronics biosensor chips. These chips are the brains behind Roswell Technologies' powerful new platform for DNA sequencing, to support precision medicine, molecular diagnostics, rapid infectious disease testing, and DNA data storage.
Thanks to a collaboration with CST Global, imec successfully extended its Silicon photonics portfolio with hybrid integrated InP light sources. The industrial offering that follows from the successful integration of InP distributed feedback (DFB) lasers from CST Global’s InP100 platform into imec’s integrated silicon photonics platform will facilitate the adoption of silicon photonics in cost-sensitive applications, including optical interconnects, sensing, computing and beyond.
In collaboration with Ximea, imec offers an industrial-grade hyperspectral camera solution addressing the high-quality standards for machine vision applications. The intensified partnership will speed up the adoption of hyperspectral imaging in a wide range of applications including crop monitoring in agriculture, quality and freshness control in the food industry, augmented reality for surgery, robot guidance in industrial production plants, predictive outdoor maintenance, biometrics, forensics or earth observation.
In the domain of photovoltaics, two promising EU-funded projects were launched. TRUST-PV will increase the performance and reliability of solar PV components and systems. And HighLite focuses on innovative solutions to produce silicon PV modules with higher performance, lower cost and better environmental profiles compared to commercially available modules.
Through the EU-funded project 2D-EPL (2D experimental pilot line), launched in 2020, the gap will be closed between lab-scale manufacturing and large volume production of electronic devices based on two-dimensional materials such as graphene. This is a crucial step before graphene technologies can be transferred to full scale manufacturing and, in a sense, the ultimate test for graphene to keep-up with its promises of "wonder material" for electronic applications.
And the EU Horizon 2020 project InSiDe that was launched in 2020 aims at mobile early-stage cardiovascular disease diagnosis and monitoring. The objective of InSiDe is to provide access for the medical community to a mobile diagnostic device based on silicon photonics to identify and characterize different stages of cardiovascular diseases (CVD). The device offers fast, flexible and patient-friendly monitoring of CVD, keeping patients in their home environment while still being able to closely follow-up and intervene in due time.
Also on the European level, imec, CEA-LETI, and Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft have joined forces to propose a world-leading alliance on “Next-Generation Computing”. The complementarity of the large research and technology organizations (RTOs) will be fully embraced in this ambition. It is a unique European strength covering R&D activities across the whole value chain and already leading to a first strong concerted action on hardware for edge.
Want to know more?
- Homepage of the OnePlanet Research Center.
- Press release: Evonetix collaborate with imec to scale-up chip-based technology production for third generation DNA synthesis platform | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release: Roswell Biotechnologies and Imec to Develop First Molecular Electronics Biosensor Chips for Infectious Disease Surveillance, Precision Medicine and DNA Storage | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release: Imec and CST Global Collaborate to Extend Silicon Photonics Portfolio with Hybrid Integrated InP Light Sources | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release: Imec and XIMEA launch industrial grade hyperspectral camera solution addressing the high-quality standards for machine vision applications | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release H2020 project TRUST-PV: New EU project to increase performance and reliability of solar PV components and systems | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release H2020 project HighLite: European research institutes and industry partners join forces to develop high-performance solar panels with improved environmental profiles | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release H2020 project 2D-EPL: The 2D Experimental Pilot Line is kicking-off | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release H2020 project InSiDe: News release - InSiDe, a European R&D project targeting mobile early-stage cardiovascular disease diagnosis and monitoring | imec (imec-int.com).
- More partner-related press releases: Reading room | imec (imec-int.com).
Pushing semiconductor functional scaling
Increasing the amount of functionality on a single chip by creating ever-smaller/more integrated devices and features is bringing the broad benefits of digitization through increased computing power to all sectors across the globe. Even though the pace of progress as laid out by the well-known Moore’s law is becoming more challenging, imec continues to gather the entire semiconductor ecosystem for research and development on the path of successful functional scaling. Several examples have already been mentioned in the context of “world’s first achievements coming out of the cleanroom” and some additional highlights are listed here.
In a single EUV exposure step, imec demonstrated 24nm pitch lines on ASML’s NXE:3400B scanner. An important milestone, since it corresponds to the dimensions of critical back-end-of-line metal layers of a 3nm technology node process. Moreover, imec demonstrated carbon-nanotube-based pellicles with a single-pass EUV transmission up to 97%. Such highly transparent pellicle is critical to enable high yield and throughput in advanced semiconductor manufacturing.
Also, imec demonstrated excellent performance of Si FinFET devices with integrated tungsten (W) buried power rails, both in a test vehicle as in 3nm SRAM designs. Buried power rails (BPRs) have recently emerged as an attractive structural scaling booster allowing a further reduction of standard cell height in highly scaled technologies. The imec achievements are an important step to prove their industrial potential and viability.
Related to the topic of 2D materials that was already mentioned in the category on partner collaborations, imec in 2020 introduced 2D materials in the logic device scaling roadmap. At the 2020 IEDM conference, imec proposed that 2D semiconductors like tungsten disulfide (WS2) can further extend the logic transistor scaling roadmap. The team laid the groundwork for integrating 2D semiconductors in a 300mm CMOS fab, and worked towards improved device performance. These findings were presented in four IEDM papers, one of which was selected as IEDM highlight.
Also in the backend, imec introduced alternative metals to push the boundaries in advanced interconnect technologies. At the 2020 International Interconnect Technology Conference, imec demonstrated electrically functional 2-metal-level interconnects fabricated with Ru semi-damascene and airgap technology showing a long lifetime and good mechanical strength.
Last but not least, on the device level, imec presented a novel dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) cell architecture that implements two indium-gallium-zinc-oxide thin-film transistors (IGZO-TFTs) and no storage capacitor. DRAM cells in this 2T0C (2 transistor 0 capacitor) configuration show a retention time longer than 400s for different cell dimensions – significantly reducing the memory’s refresh rate and power consumption. These breakthrough results pave the way towards low-power and high-density monolithic 3D-DRAM memories.
Want to know more?
- Press release: Imec demonstrates 24nm pitch lines with single exposure EUV lithography on ASML’s NXE:3400B scanner | imec (imec-int.com)
- Press release: Imec demonstrates CNT pellicle utilization on EUV scanner | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release: Imec Demonstrates Excellent Performance of Si FinFET CMOS devices with Integrated Tungsten Buried Power Rails | imec (imec-int.com).
- Longread: imec introduces 2D materials in the logic device scaling roadmap | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release: Imec presents alternative metals in advanced interconnect and contact schemes as a path to 2nm technology nodes | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release: Imec Demonstrates Capacitor-less IGZO-Based DRAM Cell With >400s Retention Time | imec (imec-int.com).
Connecting semiconductor technology to application grand challenges
While the previous category shows there is ample opportunity at the technology level to relentlessly drive the functional scaling of the basic nanoelectronics building blocks, connecting these building blocks, and a plethora of adjacent semiconductor technology options for sensing, actuating, imaging, power conversion etc, to specific application grand challenges holds equal promise. The tidal wave of digital transformation is rolling across all sectors at ever-increasing speed, amplified by societal shock events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, that further accelerate an already strong baseline demand for digital innovation. Whether it is in the onset of truly patient-centric, personalized, digital healthcare, the energy transition, the future of entertainment or smart industries: imec is leveraging its advanced semiconductor technology base and extending it to full digital applications for maximum impact.
In December alone, imec issued three press releases in this context. One of them presenting an extremely miniaturized biosensor for high-sensitivity molecule detection (e.g. single-molecule DNA). The result is very promising for further development into life-science applications thanks to the high integration and low-cost potential of silicon FinFETs that are at the base of the novel device concept. Another one of the December 2020 press releases dealt with imec’s thin-film short-wave-infrared (SWIR) image sensor with record sub-2micron pixel pitch. This achievement builds on imec’s semiconductor capabilities to monolithically integrate a thin-film photodetector stack with a Si-CMOS readout circuit. The presented technology largely exceeds the capabilities of today’s InGaAs-based SWIR imagers in terms of pixel pitch and resolution, with disruptive cost and form factor potential. SWIR image sensors can, for example, see through smoke or fog (which can be relevant for applications in assisted driving and autonomous vehicles), or even through silicon (which is especially relevant for inspection and industrial machine vision applications). And also the third press release from December 2020 illustrated how semiconductor expertise can be leveraged into adjacent domains. More specifically, imec presented how it applies photolithography to push the functionality and reliability barriers in OLED display manufacturing. The demonstration is important for display manufacturers as photolithography – in comparison to mainstream techniques in the display industry – enables higher resolutions or an increased transparency of the cathode to accommodate for display-integrated sensors.
Similar highlights can be found throughout the rest of the year. For example in the development of a new version of imec’s ElPrep software platform that performs DNA analyses in just a few hours; which is up to 16 times faster than previous options. Also, imec launched a new research program that pursues the development of scalable and energy-efficient device technology for the sixth-generation wireless communication (6G). In this new activity, imec will tap into its broad expertise in the connectivity space to realize the program’s targets – combining its system, circuit and network knowledge with its semiconductor know-how, both in the digital and analog domains. One of the paths the imec researchers will explore includes the use of a hybrid III-V/CMOS approach to energy-efficiently and cost-effectively accommodate the very high bandwidths enabled by radio frequencies above 100GHz.
Other highlights are to be expected from the way imec is tuning its semiconductor skills to the promising and highly relevant field of energy conversion through power to molecules. The idea behind ‘Power-to-Molecules’ is to decarbonize industries by producing renewable hydrogen in the first stage and converting carbon dioxide to renewable fuels or chemical building blocks in the next stage. To get this done, imec and its partners at EnergyVille are working on solutions to make large-scale green hydrogen a reality and to generate hydrocarbons from recycled carbon dioxide.
Want to know more?
- Press release: Imec presents smallest finFET-based biosensor for high-sensitivity molecule detection | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release: Imec Presents a Thin-Film Short-Wave-InfraRed Image Sensor with Sub-2µm Pixel Pitch | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release: Imec Applies Photolithography To Push Functionality and Reliability Barriers In OLED Display Manufacturing | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release: Imec Announces Whole Genome Data Analysis Available in Just a Few Hours | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release: New imec research program pursues the development of scalable and energy-efficient 6G device technology | imec (imec-int.com).
- Longread: Power-to-Molecules, a multistage rocket to a new energy area | imec (imec-int.com).
While the highlights in the various categories speak for themselves, it is always satisfying to notice the external endorsement and appraisal for one’s efforts. Imec was therefore proud to notice the record number of 27 contributions to the IEDM conference, as well as substantial publications in other leading conferences and journals, such as VLSI (13 contributions), ITC (10 contributions) and OFC (9 contributions).
Another important recognition came from the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant that was awarded to imec’s Yao-Hong Liu for his project Intranet of Neurons. Within this project, he aims to revolutionize the way neuroscientists collect and process neural data. More specifically, he will develop miniature, energy-efficient and high-capacity wireless networks for data transfer of brain-wide neural recordings.
A less direct, but at least as fulfilling, form of recognition came from the publication of an industry standard that describes the design methodology that allows the testing and validation of 3D-system-integration technologies and devices. This design methodology for test (DfT) is required for enabling fully testable circuit partitions, before and after 3D stacking. Imec took the initiative to launch a standardization working group within the IEEE standardization organization, back in 2011. A large number of individuals from a wide variety of companies contributed to the definition of the standard. After 9 years, the IEEE standard 1838 was finally published in February 2020.
Want to know more?
- Press release: Prestigious ERC Consolidator Grant Awarded To Imec’s Yao-Hong Liu to Develop Miniature, Energy-efficient, and High-capacity Wireless Network For Data Transfer of Brain-Wide Neural Recordings | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release: News release - New standard allows stacked dies in 3D integrated circuits to connect with test equipment | imec (imec-int.com).
Spin-offs and venturing support
In this final category, we return the favor of giving external recognition and put some of imec’s spin-offs and venturing support activities in the spotlights.
In chronological order, we saw MICLEDI Microdisplays, an imec-spin-off, raise €4.5M from a combination of investors in their ambition to develop microLED displays for next-generation Augmented Reality glasses.
At the end of Q1, miDiagnostics, a joint spin-off from imec and Johns Hopkins University, secured a €14M investment to accelerate the commercialization of its disruptive, lab-quality silicon-chip diagnostics platform. Their technology has potential to deliver rapid test results in multiple settings, including future pandemics.
Just before summer, Shavatar was launched as a new spin-off from imec and UAntwerp. The startup company aims to radically change your online clothes shopping experience. Thanks to a model for predicting and visualizing the human body shape in 3D, it will allow you to create your personal 3D avatar and assure you can order the right size and fit.
Around the same time, Deltaray, a 2019 spin-off from imec and UAntwerp, announced its ‘accelerated 3D X-ray technology’ that takes quality control to the next level. Deltaray’s solution allows manufacturers to inspect products for possible defects up to 100 times faster and with a much finer granularity (up to 50 microns).
Also in 2020, spin-offs Lopos and Crowdscan were launched, as can be found in the first category dedicated to technologies to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
On a final note, we do not want to overlook the tremendous efforts and results from imec.istart, imec’s business accelerator program. Not only did it receive and support more startups as in the years before. Also, the public and private investors behind the imec.istart pre-seed fund agreed to convert imec.istart Fund into an ‘evergreen’ fund. This means that the capital that returns form exits can be reinvested in the new generation of startups.
Want to know more?
- Press release: Press release - MICLEDI Microdisplays, an imec spin-off, raises EUR 4,5M from imec.xpand, PMV, and FIDIMEC for the development of next generation displays for Augmented Reality (AR) glasses | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release: miDiagnostics Raises €14m to Accelerate the Commercialization of its Disruptive, Lab-quality Silicon Chip Diagnostics Platform | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release: New imec and UAntwerp spin-off could be a game changer for online clothes shopping | imec (imec-int.com).
- Press release: Deltaray enables zero-defect product manufacturing | imec (imec-int.com).
- News announcement: imec.istart’s pre-seed fund converts into evergreen fund | imec.istart.
The CEO’s vision
For those who want to have a further look back on 2020 and forward into 2021 through the eyes and mind of imec CEO Luc Van den hove, we kindly refer to the reading room article 2021: finding new equilibria | imec (imec-int.com).
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12 January 2021