Laser Beam Ambitions

By Anna Maria Stephens, ERC ’97

  Keeping computing on the fast track isn’t cheap, as Dutch company ASML proved in mid-October when it dropped roughly $2.6 billion in cash and stocks to acquire San Diego-based Cymer. For ASML, a leading provider of the photolithography systems used to manufacture computer chips, this headline-making deal was an unsubtle show of hand. With the latest light-source technology from Cymer—founded in 1986 by Robert Akins, Revelle ’74, M.S. ’77, Ph.D. ’83, and Richard Sandstrom, Revelle ’72, M.S. ’76, Ph.D. ’79—the tools sold by ASML will be capable of producing ever-tinier chips.
That means mass-produced electronic devices, from laptops to smartphones, will continue to get smaller, faster and cheaper—the holy grail of gadgetry. Cymer’s next-generation source technology, which uses lasers to produce light in the extreme ultraviolet (EUV) range, is crucial to ASML’s ongoing success and for the advancement of the computer industry.  

But let’s back up a bit. Over the last several years, Cymer has been making slower progress than anticipated with its complex and costly new EUV technology, while sinking millions from record revenues into R&D. At the same time, Cymer's few EUV competitors are trailing farther behind with little hope of catching up. Meanwhile, existing photolithography tools, which rely on Cymer’s deep ultraviolet (DUV) light sources nearly industry-wide, have all but hit their limit in scaling chips down in size and up in power. Without a shorter wavelength light source, there will be no smaller chips. And that would mean the end of Moore’s Law, a technological rule of thumb named for Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who five decades ago speculated that the capacity of chips would double approximately every two years.

A month before ASML's acquisition, Akins, the company’s chairman and CEO, spoke with confidence about EUV, despite the company’s challenges. “There are no other technologies that can do the job,” he said, during the interview at Cymer’s global headquarters in Rancho Bernardo, Calif. “This technology can be harnessed. It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when."

ASML, a longtime Cymer customer, simply couldn’t wait any longer for the "when."

In a statement following the announcement of the merger, Akins called it an “attractive” joining of forces that would be good for the company and its shareholders, who will receive a cash payout and ASML stock. “We are very encouraged that ASML's resources will enable the combined company to continue to develop and successfully commercialize EUV on an accelerated time frame,” Akins said.

While the stakes are high, it’s clear that Cymer and ASML view EUV not as a gamble but as a sure thing. And the computer industry is betting it’s right.

The Sure Thing

Long before they built their $2.6 billion company, Akins and Sandstrom met at UC San Diego. At the time, Akins was finishing up his last year of undergraduate work—earning a double major in engineering and literature—while Sandstrom had just started on his doctoral degree. The two first teamed up when Sandstrom was a teaching assistant, and when Akins stayed on for graduate studies. They worked together in a campus lab, where they researched a new light source called an “excimer laser.”

Excimer—from which the name “Cymer” is derived—is a type of ultraviolet laser that uses a combination of a noble gas (argon, krypton, or xenon) and a reactive gas (fluorine or chlorine). Under the right conditions, these gases make a pseudo-molecule called an excimer that generates light in the ultraviolet range. In the ’70s and early ’80s, researchers were looking for ways to harness this invisible short-wavelength light.

After earning their Ph.D.s, both Akins and Sandstrom went on to work for HLX Inc.,
a defense contractor in San Diego, where they spent six years developing projects related to the Strategic Defense Initiative, among others. In a story that’s now startup lore, the pair, feeling disillusioned, left HLX and spent a few weeks playing beach Frisbee while figuring out their next move. Over beers at Solana Beach’s Belly Up Tavern, they contemplated opening a fast-food franchise. Fortunately, they decided to start a tech firm instead.

The two proved highly complementary as business partners. Akins was known for his entrepreneurial acumen, and to this day he calls Sandstrom, Cymer’s senior vice president and chief technical advisor, “a superior scientist.”

The company’s biggest issue early on was nailing down a marketable purpose for the laser. At first, the pair considered putting it to medical use as a form of laser angioplasty.

“We quickly realized we needed to find an application that would be more physics-related,” Akins says. “Then we stumbled upon this potential application in lithography.”

Chips are composed of tiny transistors used to send electronic data signals, providing the brains, storage and other capabilities for electronic devices. Since the 1970s, engineers have managed to squeeze an ever-increasing number of transistors onto each chip using photolithography, which employs light to project minute patterns onto silicon wafers.

Originally, chipmakers used visible light for lithography. By the late ’80s, when Cymer was in start-up mode, the industry had turned to ultraviolet light produced by hot mercury gas, which produced lines as thin as 350 nanometers (there are 10 million nanometers in a centimeter). That’s extremely tiny, but not tiny enough to keep Moore’s Law going. And so Cymer’s DUV laser—capable of producing lines in the 200-to-250-nanometer range—toppled previous solutions.

By 1997, when Forbes magazine ran a cover story crowning Akins and Sandstrom the “Laser Dudes,” Cymer had cornered 80 percent of the market with its DUV light sources. Sales jumped from $18 million in 1995 to $65 million in 1996, the same year in which Cymer posted its initial public offering, listed under CYMI, for less than five bucks a share. Barron’s called it the IPO of the year.

Since then, Cymer has grown into a tech stalwart with more than 50 locations worldwide. In addition to designing and manufacturing laser light sources at its San Diego headquarters, the company provides service and support to its clients—a substantial source of its yearly revenue. It is also developing a high-resolution OLED display, which is thinner and lighter than current LED screens. Most important, Cymer’s DUV light source has become the industry standard for chipmaking.

But technology, as junk drawers crammed with obsolete gadgets attest, moves at lightning speed. EUV’s wavelength is 13 nanometers—that’s 15 times smaller than DUV. Comparatively, it’s like making an intricately detailed ink drawing with a micro-tip pen versus a fat marker. Chipmakers see it as a savior—but it’s got plenty of issues.

At the time of ASML’s purchase, Cymer was still in the fine-tuning stages with EUV. “It’s not high-powered enough,” Akins explains. “The whole process has to be economically attractive to chipmakers—they have to make money with it. Scaling up is the single biggest challenge for us.”

The industry was already getting publicly antsy. In July, Intel, the world’s largest chipmaker, agreed to invest $4.1 billion in ASML to hurry along production of its new photolithography tools. Those tools, of course, are useless without EUV, so bringing Cymer into the fold was the most logical next move for ASML. More resources meant more progress.

Luck, Hard Work and UC San Diego

On an unusually hot September afternoon, just a few weeks before the big news about the ASML acquisition, everybody was going about business as usual at Cymer’s large campus, which is tucked into a nondescript cul-de-sac in a tech-magnet corner of Rancho Bernardo. Sitting around a large oblong table in Cymer’s elegantly appointed executive conference room, Akins plays a classic foil to Sandstrom—the suit and the scientist. Akins, who is a lanky 6’6” and the bigger talker of the two, hasn’t worked in the lab in years while his co-founder is still hands-on every day. “I have the freedom to choose which little part of the project needs attention and I dive in,” Sandstrom says.

Akins calls Cymer’s success “a combination of luck and hard work,” and he and Sandstrom agree that they owe a lot to UCSD. They cite in particular the lab of Professor S.C. Lin where they collaborated together for years. “Professor Lin had an entrepreneurial spirit and was an incredibly talented physicist and engineer,” says Akins. “The way he ran his group had a huge impact on Rick and I. We conduct a lot of our meetings here at Cymer the way he conducted them at UCSD.”


Cymer’s headquarters in Rancho Bernardo, Calif.
Because of the work being done at Cymer devices from laptops to smartphones, will continue to get smaller, faster and cheaper.
Akins calls Cymer’s success “a combination of luck and hard work,” and he and Sandstrom agree that they owe a lot to UCSD. They cite in particular the lab of Professor S.C. Lin where they collaborated together for years. “Professor Lin had an entrepreneurial spirit and was an incredibly talented physicist and engineer,” says Akins. “The way he ran his group had a huge impact on Rick and I. We conduct a lot of our meetings here at Cymer the way he conducted them at UCSD.”

Cymer had a small amount of government funding in the beginning, but finances were tight—the two founders even took out second mortgages on their homes. UCSD’s machine shop became a lifesaver, and it was where Akins and Sandstrom built early laser prototypes.
“UCSD was like a silent angel partner in helping to underwrite the startup expenses of Cymer,” says Akins. “They just stuffed our invoices in a drawer. After we raised our first round of venture capital, the first check I wrote was to the machine shop.”

Cymer, in turn, has been an ardent supporter of UCSD, funding scholarships for the Jacobs School of Engineering and endowing a chair, along with other philanthropic support. In September 2012, UCSD unveiled the three-story integrated Cymer Conference Center, a new meeting space designed for a wide variety of uses at the Structural and Materials Engineering Building.

Philanthropy is a point of pride for Cymer. Akins and Sandstrom are both heavily involved in their communities—Akins is an animal lover, so Cymer is a big backer of the San Diego Zoo, and Sandstrom, an art aficionado, supports UCSD’s CISA3. The company encourages its employees to give back, as well.

The company has also supported its alma mater by actively seeking out UCSD graduates—at last count, around 60 of Cymer’s over 1,000 employees are alumni, like Christine Lim, Marshall ’08, who studied electrical engineering and took on a Cymer internship right after graduating. She stayed on in the same department and now works with web applications and databases. “It’s the best of both worlds,” she explains. “I get to engage my programming skills and my creativity. There was a lot of on-the-job training and my boss has been so helpful.”

Akins, who says his background in literature has been very useful over the years, praises UCSD’s “Renaissance Man” approach that encourages students to be multi-faceted. Like Lim, employees who can tap into their analytical and creative sides are highly prized at Cymer.

Jeremy Burke, ERC ’11, studied mechanical engineering as an undergraduate, and now works in component design and project management at Cymer. He credits UCSD for preparing him for the company’s high-pressure environment. “There was a huge demand to get work done while still getting experience outside of the classroom.”

For Alexander Schafgans, Revelle ’05, Ph.D. ’11, volunteering led to a lasting Cymer connection. As the president of UCSD’s philanthropic Student Foundation, which invests in an endowment and raises money for scholarships, Schafgans was mentored by Akins, a trustee of UCSD’s Foundation Board.

Upon graduating, Schafgans contacted Akins about career opportunities at Cymer. He’s now a senior scientist who spends his days conducting every imaginable experiment on EUV.

“One of the best things about my role here is that I’ve been reporting directly to Rick Sandstrom,” says Schafgans. “He’s been an incredible mentor and source of knowledge, insight and learning.”

At a big tech company, that’s every employee’s dream.

Changing Lives

Touring Cymer’s headquarters offers visitors a glimpse of the company’s fast-paced environment. Employees whir by, lost in thought, some talking to colleagues in quiet but invigorated voices. In the manufacturing building, a peek through multiple sets of doors into clean rooms reveals bunny-suited engineers tinkering and tweaking.

In the main building, a long hallway features museum-quality displays that showcase the chipmaking process and hint at what smaller chips might mean for mankind.

And then it hits you. Cymer isn’t just a maker of lasers. “When you go to Frye’s or Circuit City and see all the laptops and tablets and cell phones and cameras—we’re an important part of the chips in all of those,” says Akins. “It’s incredibly satisfying to work on a technology and see it manifest itself in real products that change peoples’ lives.”

AnnaMaria Stephens, ERC ’97, is a freelance writer who lives in Seattle.