Integrated Systems Engineering AG, based in Zurich, is about to expand its operations, responding to growing demand for new optoelectronics devices.
The new growth phase is driven by the need to simulate the light reflecting properties of these devices.
The software company sells a visualization tool that has been used by semiconductor factory researchers at Intel, Toshiba, and Motorola, for the past ten years.
Sales in 2002 were $13.5 million (SFr18 million), reflecting 30 percent growth over the previous year.
New growth is being driven by the need to commercialise high brightness light-emitting diodes, or HB-LEDs as the industry calls them.
The invention of blue, white, and green LEDs by a Japanese researcher set off a revolution in the past three or four years in the semiconductor industry.
Chip manufacturers and their customers have discover a wide range of applications for the devices, far beyond the indicator lights on the front of a modem or printer that were the traditional territory of normal LEDs.
The new bright and colourful diodes can be found in traffic lights, railway signals, flashlights and automobile brake lights. Even Migros in Switzerland is reportedly going to use the new LEDs in its deep freeze display cases because they are cooler than incandescent or fluorescent bulbs.
For most chip manufacturers, producing multi-coloured diodes is unknown territory. They are used to working with electrons, rather than light.
"The understanding of the optical materials used in LEDs is nowhere near what it is with semiconductor materials," says Wolfgang Fichtner, ISE's founder and the head of the information technology and electrical engineering department at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
The tool, called TCAD, helps engineers to hammer out every aspect of manufacturability, reliability and performance of the special photonic materials long before any silicon ever makes its way into a prototype chip, according to Fichtner.
Just as was the case with pure silicon, engineers can experiment with a variety of semiconductor materials to find out how they will perform.
The software draws on new optical characterization data and research from universities in Vienna, Florida, and Zurich. ISE is funding research to get access to the latest data and the people familiar with these new materials, said Fichtner.
TCAD can save up to 30 percent of the costs involved in developing new technologies, says a report in the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors Roadmap, an important guide for the semiconductor industry.
This advantage has driven the firm's growth. It has no debt, no venture capital (early funding came from business angel investors), and plenty of money in the bank, according to the firm's founder.
But Fichtner says he is not satisfied with the double-digit growth rate. He's pushing for at least 100 percent growth.
Unfortunately the current economic slump is getting in the way of his goals. It's a state of affairs that he expects to last at least another two years.
ISE employs 90 people and its strategic partnerships, sales and support span the globe with offices in Japan, Korea, US, and Taiwan. A Shanghai office is also in the works.
At least two other innovative firms have emerged from Fichtner's lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. They are Esmertec and BridgeCo.
by Valerie Thompson