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Lam’s University Engagements: Innovation Through Collaboration

February 22, 2021

Lam Research collaborates with universities and academic research consortia by supporting research, building relationships, and assisting graduate and undergraduate students with thesis awards, scholarships, and fellowships. Through these collaborations, we accelerate innovation, gain access to specialized facilities, partner with top experts around the world, and give those in academia insight into industry challenges. In addition, ongoing relationships with professors and students fuel the industry’s talent pipeline.

Unlock Ideas Program

One of the ways that we sponsor university research is though our annual Unlock Ideas program. This campaign drives innovation in the industry by providing grants in support of advanced research ideas. Since the program began in 2015, Lam has provided seed grants for more than 120 projects.

Each year, a call for proposals goes out to Lam’s global technical community. They reach out to potential academic partners to write joint research proposals on materials and processes, hardware, systems, software and controls relevant to the semiconductor equipment industry. Selected proposals are expected to perform the research over the course of a year. This year, Lam is collaborating with professors at 19 universities located in 7 countries.

In some cases, we seek research partners outside of our usual areas of expertise. “Bringing in a new perspective is always helpful for any kind of research,” said Paul Lemaire, product engineer. “In some instances, we were unfamiliar with the scientific techniques prior to working with the professor and we brought new industry understanding to the university. Meeting halfway is a good way to get results and potentially helps us find solutions to our industry’s biggest challenges quicker than if we pursued the research on our own.” In most collaborations, our academic partners gain familiarity with industry challenges and Lam gains insight into a scientific approach.

Building successful collaborations

It may not be surprising to learn that the semiconductor industry has a long history of collaborations between academia and industry. Cross-institutional collaboration has had an impact on nearly every technology used today, including finFETs, negative-capacitance FETs, and spintronic memory devices.

A question that often gets asked is how Lam identifies groups with which to work. In some cases, there may already be an established relationship, but Lam engineers may also reach out to professors based on published research. Said Kyle Blakeney, process engineer, “The idea came from a conversation at a scientific conference. We leveraged expertise from university partners to explore solutions to future customer problems.”

Expertise on both sides, however, does not guarantee a successful project. To maximize the chances of a mutually beneficial collaboration, there are some elements and best practices that the Lam technical community has honed over time.

  • One of the keys to successful collaboration is a clearly defined problem and research approach, which is especially important for a single-year project. “Professors may not be interested in our specific challenge for the semiconductor industry, but they may be facing a similar problem for a different application,” observed Ye Feng, computational products director. It is critical that everyone involved with the project be aligned on an achievable goal and that both sides see its value.
  • Good communication is especially important when teams belong to very different entities. Several people suggested frequent meetings, particularly in the early phases of the project. As results are generated, consistent and regular communication can ensure both sides are aligned on next steps. If possible, face-to-face or video discussions are encouraged, as these can provide a richer exchange of ideas than email.
  • Capitalize on each other’s strengths. Greg Blachut, engineer in the Office of the CTO explained, “We had ideas of where we wanted to go, but too many materials and films to investigate internally. Universities have chemicals, equipment, and very enthusiastic students. They were able to get a lot done quickly so we didn’t waste time at Lam chasing down what wouldn’t work for our applications.”
  • Full transparency in methods, results, and conclusions is the bedrock of any scientific investigation, and it is a best practice in our collaborations as well. Unexpected results should be fully shared, as so-called “failures” may lead to interesting approaches. “As we learn new things, we have to be flexible and learn from the study.” Results that are unanticipated may lead to even more innovative paths,” noted Bo Gong, product manager.

The results of the collaborations are shared with the rest of Lam’s employees at an annual event showcasing university collaborations, where students are invited to participate. Some professors may also be invited to present their work to Lam’s technical community through our seminar series. In addition, professors and students are encouraged to publish their work through scientific journals and conferences to add to the public body of knowledge.

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