The macro success of micro-hotplates

In 2007 Cambridge Professor of Semiconductor Engineering Florin Udrea met with Cambridge Enterprise to discuss a miniaturized electro-mechanical system (or MEMS) technology he had been working on in the University’s High Voltage Microelectronics and Sensors group.

Since the mid-1990s Udrea, together with Bill Milne, Head of the Electrical Engineering Division at Cambridge, and Julian Gardner, Professor of Electronic Engineering at the University of Warwick, had been developing new types of silicon-on-insulator (SOI) complementary metal-oxide-semiconductor (CMOS) heaters. Colloquially known as micro-hotplates, these tiny devices are critical components in gas micro-sensors. They heat chemical layers to very high temperatures so that they react with the air, permitting the types of gas present to be identified and their concentrations determined.

Working with Cambridge Enterprise, Udrea, Gardner and Milne determined that the best route to commercialising this remarkable new technology was by creating a new company. In 2007 they co-founded Cambridge CMOS Sensors. Cambridge Enterprise became the company’s first investor, providing seed funding in 2009.

Gas-sensing technology has a wide range of residential and commercial applications, including domestic gas detection, industrial safety, breath analysis for medical diagnostics and environmental monitoring. Because they are based on integrated circuit wafers, which are already ubiquitous in microprocessors, Cambridge CMOS Sensors can be made in high volume far more cheaply than existing gas sensors. Capable of heating environmental samples to 500°C in a fraction of a second, the CCMOSS devices nonetheless use very little power, meaning they can be powered by batteries.

Cambridge CMOS Sensors became one of the first three beneficiaries of the University of Cambridge Enterprise Fund (UCEF), a combined Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS) and Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) Fund, when it was launched in 2012. The investment helped the young company grow. By 2016, CCMOSS employed 33 people at its Cambridge offices.

Austria-based ams AG, a global leader in the environmental sensing sector, took notice of CCMOSS’s strengths and identified them as complementary to its own. In 2016, ams acquired Cambridge CMOS Sensors, in an all-cash transaction.

In June 2018 Florin Udrea’s and Julian Gardner’s entrepreneurial role in CCMOSS was formally recognised with a Silver Medal award from the Royal Academy of Engineering in recognition of outstanding commercial success. “Our Silver Medallists represent the very best of entrepreneurial British engineering right across the whole spectrum of engineering,” said Dervilla Mitchell FREng, Chair of the Academy’s Awards committee. “Engineering innovation is contributing more and more to our lives and our workplaces. Gifted engineers, like our award winners, are developing technological solutions and finding new business opportunities all the time.”

 

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