Technology & innovation | Industry, manufacturing

France and Russia put up $300m to make the RF a global microelectronics player

8 Jun '11
Oleg Kouzbit, Online News Managing Editor

Rusnano and France’s Crocus have led a $300+m international effort to set up next-gen magnetoresistive random access memory production here. Bringing together the investors’ long-term financial commitment and Crocus’ revolutionary technology, the project aims at making highly efficient nanodimension chips to target the memory-hungry global market that analysts believe will top $40bn a year.

Russia’s nanotech giant, Rusnano, France’s Crocus Technology and a number of international VC co-investors are injecting a reported $300+m into Russia-based production of next-gen magnetoresistive random access memory (MRAM) chips. When launched, it’s expected to be the world’s first manufacturer of high-density MRAMs built on Crocus-developed thermally assisted switching (TAS) technology with 90 and 65nm design rules.

Where exactly the new production will be located has yet to be determined. To begin, the consortium is reportedly setting up a $55m company, Crocus Nano Electronics (CNE).

The major players

Rusnano, formerly a government corporation and now a joint-stock company 100% owned by the RF, was set up in 2007 to develop Russia’s nanotechnology potential and tap into the world market of nanotech products.

Over the past two years Rusnano has pumped a reported $2.5bn into nanoprojects. As of January 1, 2011 the company says its assets across Russia were valued at $4.2bn.

Crocus Technology is an international major in MRAM development and manufacturing. A spin-off of Grenoble-based research center Spintec, the French company is aiming to commercialize high-density memory chips, both stand-alone and built-ins, which are in demand in the telecom, computing, data storage and transmission, mobile and related sectors.

Other investors include VC funds such as CDC Innovation, Ventech, IDInvest Partners, NanoDimension, and Sofinnova Ventures.

The actual plant construction will require at least $245m. Rusnano will put up $140m to secure a 49% stake. Later, the investors envision a $120m production expansion and an upgrade to incorporate Crocus’ more advanced 45nm design rule.

A training center and a network of R&D centers to develop further generations of the MRAM as well as system-on-chip (SOC) technologies will be set up, according to reports.

We design, you make

Crocus’ chips are currently designed in house and then production is outsourced. Under its most recent agreement with Israel’s TowerJazz, its MRAMs built on 130nm design rules are expected to hit the market later this year. The company also collaborates with the U.S.’ SVTC Technologies to fine-tune its manufacturing processes.

Power without power

According to Rusnano, MRAMs outperform widely used DRAMs, SRAMs and Flash memories; but their big selling feature is an ability to keep cell-stored data even without electric power. This is achieved by “magnetic polarization of memory elements” to store data rather than using electric charges or current flows.

MRAMs are also highly radiation-resistant and can reportedly operate in a broad range of temperatures, which makes MRAMs attractive to the aerospace and military sectors.

The actual MRAM technology is based on the so-called giant magnetoresistive effect first observed in thin-film structures in 1988 by Germany’s Albert Fert and Peter Gruenberg (awarded 2007’s Nobel Prize in physics for this discovery).

A number of companies began exploring MRAM opportunities in the 1990s, including Motorola, which in 2005 developed the world’s first 1Mb chip built on a 180nm design rule.

France’s Crocus is believed to be the only firm to have created a 130nm chip and thermally assisted switching (TAS) technology to make the 90nm MRAM. This patented process heats up a memory cell to make data storage more efficient.

Tapping a $40bn/year market

Rusnano’s Anatoly Chubais and Crocus Technology’s Bertrand Cambou told media the project is designed to create world-class Russian microelectronics for the global market.

The newly-established Russian company, CNE, will be responsible for marketing future products in Russia and the CIS while Crocus will handle international sales. The immediate market for TAS MRAMs includes data storage makers, mobile and networked providers and companies engaged in ‘cloud computing’.

Broader applications may involve smartcards, network multiplexers, biometrical authentication devices, near-field communications and some other areas.

No one doubts that the market is vast and lucrative—some experts feel that sales could hit $40bn by the end of the decade. With the global demand for faster, smarter and smaller high performance electronics, CNE may have a tiger on its tail.
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