Ben’s Excellent Adventure

Hi all. I thought I’d stoop to one small step above the mass email (TM) and use the massblog to give a recap of what I’ve been doing for work recently (and will continue after I graduate in May).

Since last summer, I have been working for a company called Micromagnetics. Our web page is rather bad so far; I wouldn’t click over there unless you want to be unimpressed. Last summer we got $1 million in venture capital from an “angel” investor to develop our first an only product: a magnetic microscope which coincidentally I developed for my thesis research with my advisor at our lab at Brown. The basic idea: we use a super small magnetic sensor (almost exactly what’s in yer hard drive) to see very small-scale magnetic fields. In particular, we can see the fields above a working integrated circuit: a pentium processor, pretty much anything with electrical flow. So the idea is to measure a map of the fields above the surface, do some math, and we can tell exactly where the current is flowing in the chip. This is a super important thing for IC makers to be able to do; right now, if there is a problem with a chip, they generally have to strip away layer after layer and look for a “needle in a haystack” to find the problem; this takes several days to a month the way they do it now. We hope we can reduce this time to an hour by being able to see a change in current flow with this technique. So, we make these things and sell them to Intel, AMD, TI, IBM, etc.

In July we hired a president to run the show, and in September we hired an engineering team. At the moment we are up to 12 full-time employees: six engineers, three business type people, another grad student from our group, my advisor, and myself. Last semester I got a grant from the NSF to develop one particular aspect of this instrument, and we have applied for a few more grants based on other applications. One upshot of this is I have to be a full-time employee to apply for these grants, and they run starting July 1…soooo…I have to graduate by then! Nice to have a “set in stone” date. Of course, Bush’s budget completely axes one of the grant programs we applied to…but it survived last year and hopefully will this year too. We are shipping our first prototype unit to Johns Hopkins this week (they bought it to study some biological applications). Right now, the focus is to get two customers to commit to purchase our “beta test units”. The idea is to have these done by the summer and get them into the company labs so they can start to see how best to use them.

My role is basically to interact with the people who come to visit, to tell them what we can do, and to scan any samples they bring and get good results. Because I am the “point man” in terms of getting results and making customers interested, I feel a lot of pressure to deliver so we can get them to commit some $$$ to buy a unit. It’s stressful and exciting all at once. I am also in the process of exploring some other applications of the technique, trying to publish them and get our name out there. Finally, I’ve done some scanning on a “contract basis” for some of these guys (i.e. they send samples and pay X$ per day for use of the microscope and I tell them what I find). It’s nice because I get to meet the best scientists all over the industry and already two of them have suggested we collaborate on papers (publish or perish! if I ever want to go back into the academic world)

In the next four weeks, we have four companies coming with samples: Analog Devices this week, then Intel, then TI, then AMD. So the next month will be critical. If we get two companies to commit to work with us, then we go out and get another round of funding (~$3-5M). Without the sale of the beta units, funding will be hard to get. If we do get funding, then we hire a few more people and start developing the first “normal model” which will be available to sell in 2004? 2005? in slightly larger quantities (5? 10? 20?)

The other thing I do in my free time is write my thesis. I will defend in mid- to late-April so I can walk in May. After I graduate, I have a standing offer to stay with the company, and I plan to keep with it until we fail or until I get to the point where I am not doing any interesting research any more.

After that, who knows? It’s fun, but a lot of work, so I apologize for my limited communications with y’all. If any of you want to come out for a few days to visit and hang out, please let me know. They pay me a lot more than I am used to spending, so I feel one of the best things I can do with extra cash is to help keep in touch with my people; therefore, don’t let expense keep you from coming on out here! The price of a ticket is nothing compared to seeing a good buddy. As always, time is harder to find! (Besides, as Brandon knows, even though I may pay for plane tickets, I still find a way to get some value out of my “guests”…like having them help me move 2600 lb. tables around.)

cheers, Ben

P.S. I would also be willing to subsidize George’s next haircut…preferably sooner…little hairy wiry tae-kwon-do bad-kung-fu-villian lookin scruffball

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