Three Canadian entrepreneurs will be the first recipients of the NCE Young Innovators Award Thursday, one of whom has devised a semiconductor test as small as the chip itself.

The Network of Centres of Excellence program has been in existence for 15 years. Supported by Industry Canada and

three federal granting agencies, the program provides funding to help commercialize university research. This is the first year the program will actually hand out awards to recognize the achievements of participants.

Mohamed Hafed, of one the three recipients, spent his Ph.D career at McGill University in Montreal miniaturizing testing solutions. He finished his degree in 2002 and co-founded DFT Microsystems Inc. with his research supervisor in order to commercialize his work. The result is a one- to two-millimetre device that can be used to screen out the faulty chips that come off the line of production facilities.

“”Modern devices are so complex now and so small, they’re stressing the manufacturing capabilities of the factories. What people don’t generally know is that there’s generally a sizable portion of devices coming out of the factory that are not functional,”” said Hafed, 28. “”The industry has become accustomed to having to screen for bad devices.””

The target market for his product are the small semiconductors that are used in cell phones, hearing aids, handheld devices and automotive parts.

Hafed said that the failure rate of chips is a “”highly guarded number”” but estimated that it could be 30 per cent or more in some cases.

Hafed’s solution isn’t unique, according to Linley Gwennap, a Mountain View, Calif.-based chip analyst at the Linley Group, but the industry is always looking for anything that will reduce the number of faulty chips.

“”Certainly chips do have a high failure rate coming off the line. If anything, that may be getting worse as the chips become more complex,”” he said.

“”Most of the complex chips that I see today have some sort of self-test (but DFT Microsystems) may have taken it another step if they’re measuring performance or doing a more thorough test. It’s a matter of degree. . . . Certainly there is room for improvement there.””

Hafed’s initial design was something that would fit right into the chip design and be able to monitor the chip’s performance through its lifecycle. That approach was “”a bit of a hard sell,”” he said, so he invented a device that could be used in conjunction with a chip rather than integrated into it.

The idea, he said, is to reduce failure rates and thereby reduce production costs. A longer-term goal is to improve overall chip design. “”That’s definitely the hope in the future and one of the things that motivated our work when we started in this research area,”” said Hafed.

He hopes that manufacturers will eventually embrace his original design of the tester being part of the chip. “”If you have the test solution embedded into the device then you have access to the device throughout its lifetime, even if it’s in the field. If it’s in a space station you can still talk to it and do some verification on-site,”” he said.

The two other recipients of the NCE Young Innovators Award are Yolanda Cibere for her work in the detection and prevention of osteoarthritis and Monisha Scott for her research into drug-resistant bacteria.

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