domingo, 25 de julio de 2010

Global tech firms attracted to Mass. R&D resources

By Rodney H. Brown
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Word of just how valuable the minds and experience of technology workers is here in Massachusetts has reached across the pond.

That is one of the main reasons why Dutch radio frequency chipmaking titan NXP Semiconductors has established a new Product Creation Center in Billerica, joining such powerhouses as Google Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and IBM Corp. in placing important research centers in the Bay State, focused in at least some part on wireless and mobile tech.

All told, those four companies alone add up to nearly 4,000 employees focused on creating new technologies, with IBM's new Mass Lab campus in Littleton and Westford housing the lion's share at 3,400 workers.

NXP's new 12,500-square-foot center is on Concord Road in Billerica. It currently houses 15 staffers, mostly focused on designing new radio frequency and microwave integrated circuits that NXP can apply to the defense, aerospace, industrial and medical markets. According to Paul Wilson, NXP's marketing director for high-performance RF products, the facility could possibly handle nearly double its current staff "quite comfortably."

"To start with we have a pretty wide range of folks that are in the team today, including our design manager, Ian Gresham," he said. "He comes from a background in MA/Com and Autoliv, a very well known guy in the industry."

Gresham is the director of research and development for NXP and will run the new Billerica facility. With his background including a stint at Tyco Electronics, he can help NXP with one of the other primary purposes for siting the new center in Billerica — going after defense, aerospace and medical device companies.

According to Wilson, the key that will open up doors to companies like Raytheon Co. and BAE Systems is that NXP can make high-performance, high-frequency chips for uses in such things as satellite communications and high-power radar using materials that are cheaper than the current technologies.

The highest-performance microwave and RF chips are usually made from gallium arsenide (GaAs), a compound that is made up of some fairly rare and somewhat challenging-to-handle material. Those chips, however, have higher-performance stats than standard silicon-based semiconductors. NXP says it can achieve GaAs levels of performance with their silicon germanium-based chips. Since they are based on cheap and abundant silicon, NXP is hoping their chips will be attractive to U.S. customers.

"The adage for our industry is that if it can be done in silicon it will be," Wilson said.

NXP, which is based in The Netherlands and operates its U.S. headquarters out of San Jose, Calif., already makes RF chips that are used in just about every part of a device such as your cell phone. It makes the radio transceiver chip to get and send your call or data, it makes the digital-to-analog converters to change your sounds to digital bits, and it makes the high-power amplifiers to boost those bits to a power level strong enough to be picked up clearly by a cell tower that could be many miles away. 

While NXP will be making the guts of RF technology in its R&D center here, IBM in Littleton is more focused on mobile applications than the devices that run them. At its recent official launch of the Mass Lab, some of the work being done at the new facility and at other sites in the Bay State was on display.

Strongly represented was IBM's software for mobile applications and development. The Rational Software division was showing off its software development tool for creating specific functions in mobile devices and peripherals in an almost drag-and-drop method.

In Waltham, Verizon has aggregated much of its widespread research operation throughout the Bay State to its Verizon Technology Innovation Center, which already houses many of the eventual head count of more than 300 scientists and researchers, many of whom are focused on its work in bringing its fourth-generation cell phone technology to market. The 4G tech, called long-term evolution or LTE, is already deployed in trials in Boston, which made Verizon's existing campus in Waltham the logical place to expand with a new building and combine its R&D efforts.

"LTE is the major focus of that building, but there will also be other Verizon work going on, including the further development of FiOS," said Verizon spokesman Phil Santoro.

Verizon's lab buildings in Waltham might be the old dog in the new wireless research wave in Massachusetts, according to Verizon New England Regional President Donna Cupelo. 

"They've been the mecca of R&D for Verizon since the 1940s," she said. 

Wilson feels that such a long history of wireless research and commercialization in the state was very compelling as the 28,000-strong NXP looked for a home for its product center.

"I think the U.S. is a key shaper in that business and we certainly wanted to be part of that," he said.

Morales R. Karelis
CI 18089995

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