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Cymer sheds light on innovative technology

A pair of UCSD graduate students were the first to see the light. Before long, so would millions of others.

Doctoral students Bob Akins and Richard Sandstrom were young laser physicists back in the mid-‘70s who, teaming up, found out that laser technology could be applied to semiconductor photolithography. Showing initiative and the persistence of those who appreciated science and entrepreneurship, Akins and Sandstrom would, in 1986, found a company they called Cymer Inc.

“For the first 10 years they bootstrapped this company and continued to develop and stuck to it,” said Edward Brown, the president and COO of San Diego-based Cymer since 2005. He emphasized that Akins’ and Sandstrom’s goal for the application of the laser-light technology was “the good of mankind.”

A nifty video on the Cymer website (cymer.com) illuminates just how widely mankind is benefiting. The technology is in your cell phone, your computer, your car, the treadmill you exercise on and the entertainment system you relax to. It’s in aviation, medicine and telecommunication. “I think that video shows that if it’s got electronics in it, Cymer’s inside it. Back when it was ‘Intel inside,’ we used to say ‘We’re inside Intel,’” Brown said.

The question,” Brown posed, “is where would you NOT be touched by Cymer in daily life?

Cymer's first generation EUV 3100 light source. Photo courtesy of Cymer

For 26 years, Cymer has been supplying chipmakers with light sources used to pattern advanced semiconductor chips. “We have about 80 percent of the world’s light source requirements to make semiconductors,” Brown said. “We produce the light.” Clients may be business, military or commercial. In essence, “We serve the semiconductor industry,” he said, “enabling light that allows the projection of these very, very fine and shrinking patterns.”

Among competitors, and they were few, “Cymer differentiated itself by our technology,” said Brown, who grew up in Point Loma and earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial studies from San Diego State University. He came to Cymer from the semiconductors maker Applied Materials Inc. “We won out through our performance. Over time, it got to the point that there was just us and one other company, in Japan. It’s (the company’s success) truly been our performance, our innovation and delivery.

“We have the right intelligence and intellectual horsepower and drive to keep pushing. We can see, although we have to educate people, how we can make a difference in all aspects of life.”

Besides its headquarters in San Diego, Cymer has facilities in Silicon Valley and in Asia — “specifically in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and China,” and in the Netherlands. “We are where the semiconductor companies are,” Brown explained, and all of them for the moment are located in the Northern Hemisphere.

In spite of its global sweep, Cymer has a close connection to San Diego, Brown said.

“We are a big player in San Diego … we’ve been working a lot on trying to raise people’s awareness of the work we do,” he said. “We’ve put over 6 million dollars into the community, specifically focused on education, culture and health.”

On the education front, besides supporting UCSD, Cymer recently sponsored the new physics lab at SDSU. “We have internships that we are doing on a summer basis, bringing people in as paid interns and giving them real problems. It’s amazing what these students have been able to do. We also sponsored a computer center which is part of the YMCA in Mission Valley.

“San Diego is a small community,” Brown said. “It’s always been kind of a sleeper. I’d like to positively impact it and allow it to grow up with a lot of pride in the technological capability here. Cymer is born and raised here.”

Already a pioneer in the application of deep ultraviolet light, Cymer is moving beyond DUV, focusing on extreme ultraviolet lithography, which Brown said will significantly enable the speed of devices from iPhones to GPS systems and tablets. “Think of it,” he said, “as increasing the size of the pipe and the speed of the water going through it.

“This is the strongest pull I’ve ever seen. All of the chipmakers want this capability as soon as possible. The expectation is that this will be in our hand-held devices starting as early as 2015, but probably 2016.”

Cymer will turn 30 in 2016. Candles on a birthday cake would seem a little low-tech for this company, but Brown said the human quotient is all important. “Our values are built around working as teams and being global citizens and operating business in a positive, enabling way,” he said. “We want to do all that in an environment where humor and companionship and friendship are all part of it.”

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Coddon is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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