Walking through LCCC’s Entrepreneurship Innovation Center, it’s apparent something big is in the works. Large crates — some the size of refrigerators — line the third floor’s corridor. The sound of hammers and drills working echo throughout the building. All of this hustling is for one goal: To make Lorain County the place companies and entrepreneurs turn to when they need to develop commercialized Microelectro Mechanical Systems chip (MEMs) technology. And some entrepreneurs may find enough value in the assets Lorain County offers to stay, grow their business here and create new jobs.

The Entrepreneurship Innovation Center is the new home of the SMART Center for Commercialization of Microsystems. To get it up and running, Lorain County Community College enlisted Chris Mather, managing director, and Matt Apanius, technical director. Together they are helping bring this vision to life.

“This is a blank sheet of paper,” says Mather. “We’ve got to figure out the business structures that make sense. How do you get a lot of people through here? How do we make sure Lorain County Community College is thought of as a leader in MEMs packaging?”

One of six Ohio organizations, Lorain County Community College (LCCC) received a $5.5 million grant from Cleveland State University’s Wright Center for Sensor Systems Engineering (WCSSE) program to grow new jobs and businesses and develop educational programs in the sensor-technologies industry. The award will support LCCC’s SMART (Sensor/Microsystems Advanced packaging and Reliability Testing) Commercialization Center, now located in the college’s Entrepreneurship Innovation Center. It will also go toward the purchase of specialized equipment to help businesses develop sensor packaging, conduct harsh environment reliability testing and examine component life simulation of sensors and Microsystems. These three steps are critical before a sensor-technology product can be introduced to the market.

By combining an educational component — offering workforce training, as well as a two-year degree in microsystems fabrication — and this high-tech equipment, the center is building an economic engine that will boost local businesses and attract companies from around the globe.

“We’d like to see this be a national thing, where people say in Elyria, Ohio, these guys are the best at this — they have the equipment and are training people on how to do it,” says Mather.

Apanius is charged with getting the center up and running by the end of March. To date, four local organizations have committed to working with the center — R.W. Beckett Corp., Acense LLC, GreenField Solar and Case Western Reserve University — but the duo expects that number to expand quickly. Once the equipment is set up and the center is up and running, it will attract businesses because there’s nothing like this in the state and only a few in the nation.

“It would be nice to have at least a dozen companies working with the center by the end of 2011,” says Apanius.

MEMs Packaging Equipment

Sensor technology can be used to measure temperature, pressure, chemicals, radiation levels — the list goes on. It works through augmenting the computational ability of microelectronics (the brains of the operation) with the perception capabilities of microsensors (the eyes of the operation to sense the environment) and microactuators (the arms of the operation to control the environment). These are all integrated onto a single microchip.

The technology is all around us. Airbag sensors in a car utilize MEMs technology to determine whether to deploy the airbag based on the impact’s magnitude. It is used in Wii controls to sense hand movements and judge a player’s aim; in lie detectors to sense moisture on the skin; and in chemical cards to measure a diabetic’s blood-sugar level without drawing blood.

But making sure they work in these real-world examples is one of the most crucial and difficult problems to solve.

“When you have to do something that relates to the physical world, if you can’t package it, what you can do with the chip is irrelevant,” says Mather. “That’s why we should care.”

And that’s where the SMART Center comes into play. Instead of duplicating projects being worked on by the other five organizations — Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Ohio State University, Youngstown State University, University of Akron and the Austen BioInnovation Institute — that were awarded grant money from WCSSE to spur commercialization of sensor-related technology over a three-year period, the SMART Center focused on what’s required to get the chips to the next step in product evolution.

“Regardless of the technology or industry, there’s going to be some fundamental problems that all these projects will have to resolve on the backend of the development cycle,” explains Apanius. “Typically, most of the failures occur around solving packaging issues,” he says, listing the possibility of a child dropping the Wii remote control, for instance. The packaging has to be designed to protect the MEMs chip because those mishaps are likely to happen often in real-life use.

The SMART Center is focusing on three core competencies: Advanced Packaging, Harsh Environment Reliability Testing and Advanced Life Software Tools. It works through a process of trial and error. Packaging, or housing, is designed to protect the MEMs chip from damage and allow it to function in a real-world application. Reliability testing demonstrates what device failures may occur while the product is in the market. From there, the software tools allow a company to take the results from the reliability testing and predict the device’s lifespan while being used. As a result, it gives a company the chance to redesign the packaging to prevent these failures upfront before the product is manufactured.

For instance, the testing center is working in conjunction with Case Western Reserve University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering to test a minimally invasive glucose sensor for emergency room use. The package is designed with a polymer substrate that is chemically sensitized. The tiny flexible chip slides under a patient’s skin and can be seen optically to measure glucose in the blood. However, there are reliability issues based on testing. First, the shelf life poses a problem because chemicals can break down while going unused. Second, chemical reactions can occur over time due to a patient’s bodily fluids. Using results obtained during the reliability testing, the software tools will allow Case Western to predict how long the glucose sensor will function before it fails. Therefore, the testing center enables organizations, such as Case Western, to flush out failures prior to clinical trials and create a smoother transition to market.

“This initiative … will better enable our biomedical and other sensor technologies to undergo commercial and manufacturing validation during development and during translation to products,” says Jeffrey L. Duerk, Ph.D., chairman of Case Western’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, in an LCCC press release announcing the award.

The testing center’s temporary home is split up into four laboratory quadrants where the packaging, testing and inspection equipment will be housed in a single space, with a room adjacent for a software simulation lab and work stations. Once the building next door is built on LCCC’s campus, each quadrant will be turned into an entire lab. Apanius estimates the new building, which is expected to be the same size as the Entrepreneurship Innovation Center — 45,000 square feet — will break ground by late summer to early fall.

A Trained Workforce in MEMs Technology

The SMART Center’s educational component makes it unique and attractive to businesses here and around the country. In collaboration with Cleveland State University, LCCC will create a teaching continuum — from certificates to advanced degrees in sensor and microsystem technology tailored to meet the workforce needs of this industry. Whether that’s a worker interested in a new career, a company looking to retrain its workforce or a college student interested in a career in microsystems, students will have opportunities to use the packaging and testing equipment for hands-on learning.

“Developing a talented and skilled workforce is essential to helping emerging and transitioning companies take their products to market,” says Dr. Roy Church, LCCC’s president. “Also, building a base of talent knowledgeable about this industry serves as an attraction for companies to come to Lorain County because of access to not only the technical capability of SMART, but the workforce to help their companies succeed and compete.”

“Lorain County Community College is much more forward thinking than any other community college I’ve seen,” Mather says. “This is not everybody else’s community college. I’ve seen a lot of systems across the country, and this is the upper 2 percent. Roy Church has done some things that no one else in the country is doing.”

Lorain County, through partnership and collaborations, has built a foundation of assets to stimulate economic development. This started a decade ago with the creation of GLIDE, a partnership of the Lorain County Commissioners, Lorain County Chamber of Commerce and Lorain County Community College. From that partnership, spin off activities such as the Innovation Fund were made possible. SMART Center builds on this success, adding a third element to a core of groups designed to support both talent and job growth in Lorain County and the region. Entrepreneurs and students who are developing new products using SMART’s equipment will receive business support from these tech-based incubators to turn their projects into business opportunities.

SMART’s end goal is to build an economic engine centered around a MEMs prototype packaging center that is the best in the nation. With that would come the availability of a skilled workforce in sensor technologies, spin-off companies and the attraction of businesses near and far. This activity equates to economic growth for the community.