BRIDG Helps NeoCity Take Shape in Osceola County
When a group of ninth-graders from the new NeoCity Academy in Osceola County toured a “cleanroom” this year at the microelectronics fabrication facility BRIDG, it marked a significant milestone for both organizations. It also offered a hint of what’s to come for a part of Central Florida that is starting to become world-renowned.
The students got to experience something most people will never go through: putting on full cleanroom gear, layer by layer, coached by a scientist on why the garments were important — not to protect the students from the environment, but to avoid human contamination of the highly sensitive equipment and the semiconductor wafers being processed. No one is allowed into the “fab” with makeup, cologne, powder or other products that could leave behind particles that damage the wafers or equipment.
Located at NeoCity, a new and emerging 500-acre master-planned technology district in Osceola County, BRIDG is a not-for-profit, public-private partnership for advanced sensors and other next-generation nanoscale systems. In October 2018, the BRIDG team celebrated the production of its first lot of 200mm (8-inch) wafers, silicon platforms that hold microelectronic devices comprised of features that are as small as one-one-thousandth of the diameter of a human hair. This particular batch was produced for a small defense contractor to support the U.S. Air Force.
If it all sounds very scientific, that’s because BRIDG is handling some of the newest and most sensitive technology in the world. The facility offers a high level of security for the manufacturing of components used in everything from financial networks to traffic control systems and electrical grids, and from lifesaving medical devices to critical U.S. defense systems. Because of the nature of the work being done at the facility and the fact that BRIDG has been granted a facility clearance through the U.S. Defense Security Services, an agency under the U.S. Department of Defense, BRIDG works hard to ensure good stewardship for the technology and information contained in the building.
“If you think about the complexity of the devices we have today, the ability to embed additional functions and features into these electronic devices is very real and can occur late in the manufacturing process,” BRIDG CEO Chester Kennedy said. “If a particular wafer of microchips is being produced in an offshore location, it’s pretty easy to embed functions and features that the original designers didn’t intend to be included in that product. If you were the original designer, you would run all your electrical and performance tests on the device and it would still meet your window of performance, but it might have extra features and functions that can be exploited in ways unintended.
“That’s one of the reasons it’s important to have devices manufactured in a trusted and domestically controlled environment, an environment where you know it’s U.S. citizens building U.S. products going into U.S. infrastructure.”
BRIDG eventually will be part of a cluster of high-tech businesses in NeoCity, along with restaurants, retail shops and residences to support them. With the slogan “Ideate, create, innovate without limits,” NeoCity is designed as a place that will go beyond the traditional research park and connect people within a walkable urban center surrounded by a natural landscape of lakes and trees. Osceola County is already seeing an increase in property values and growth in its workforce as new projects break ground, including an electrical substation that Kissimmee Utilities Authority opened in June.
Kennedy said his team is excited about BRIDG’s contribution: “Seeing the vision of our microelectronics fab being used in ways that contribute to national security while building the foundation to expand the number of high-wage jobs in Central Florida is very rewarding.”
BRIDG and NeoCity are emerging at just the right time in history, Kennedy said. He points to a May 15 edict from the federal administration to secure the U.S. pipeline for microelectronics that are critical to national infrastructure and the enabling of the incoming 5G wireless network that will connect mobile phones and the Internet of Things. In addition, organizations including Microsoft and Intel are grappling with vulnerabilities in their software and hardware, and there’s a growing list of companies and government agencies that have fallen victim to malicious hacking.
“People are starting to realize how dependent we are on the cyber network for everything in our lives and how vulnerable that network is,” Kennedy said. “It’s critically important to maintain layers of software protection, but with the sophistication of the threat, you also need to bring elements into the hardware.”
Those elements include “physically unclonable function” cells, which assign a unique fingerprint-quality identity to each component of a wafer. This allows BRIDG as a manufacturer to integrate hardware security into microchips to assure that no other devices can intercept communications and decode instructions being sent to them.
“We like to think we were that visionary, but you can attribute some of it to fate and luck,” Kennedy said. “The interest in that capability since we started producing wafers at the end of last year has just exploded.”
When Kennedy started his career in electrical engineering more than three decades ago, the technology consisted of transistors that were individual electronic switches, each one a separate device. The technology quickly developed into integrated circuits that included a few hundred transistors in a single device. Today devices routinely have more than 10 billion transistors available in a single integrated circuit. The next step is to stack multiple integrated circuits in layers in a single package — a process called “three-dimensional heterogenous integration” that will accommodate 100 billion transistor equivalent functions.
Another piece of science BRIDG is exploring is digital twin technology, a previously little-known concept that is gaining popularity in modern science. In aeronautics, digital twin technology can help scientists build a computer model of a plane, piece by piece, so it can examine the lifecycle of each mechanical part under certain conditions, such as heavy salt environments like ocean air, before a piece of metal is ever cut to create a physical aircraft.
Working with global technology leader Siemens, BRIDG is developing a digital twin for semiconductors.
“The concept of implementing a high-fidelity digital model of a real-world system and being able to use that ‘twin’ to predict a wide variety of performance attributes isn’t new if you’re talking about it for a car or an airplane or an assembly line,” Kennedy said. “The exciting part about what we’re doing now is that we’re taking it to a whole new level, through our partnership with Siemens, to predict how molecules are going to form and how atoms are going to come together.”
Digital twin technology can also be used in cybersecurity defense to help avoid intrusions in microelectronics and ensure no additional features are embedded. “You’re comparing what the model said should be in the device to what is actually there and being able to do that at the atomic and molecular level,” Kennedy said. “It is a bold vision, and together with Siemens and several other partners, there will be a lot of work to do over the next three to five years to perfect the level of scaling of this concept.”
This summer, BRIDG will expand into a brand new 100,000-square-foot office building next-door to its current facility that will be one of the first of a growing collection of Class A office spaces in Osceola County. The move will allow for more laboratory space in the fab building.
Global nonprofit research-and-development institute imec will also be transitioning its U.S. office into the new building. Based in Belgium, the organization handles smart application areas spanning health care, transportation, smart cities, manufacturing, energy and aerospace.
When imec was looking for a place to establish its U.S. headquarters, it chose Kissimmee, and there was a reason for that. Central Florida is a unique location because it’s home to the development of so many different types of emerging technologies, Kennedy said.
Those include the optics and photonics industry and the simulation and training industry, both based at the Central Florida Research Park near the University of Central Florida; the development taking shape in Medical City at Lake Nona that is attracting global leaders in health care research; the U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, which is exploring new technology in warfighting; and the SunTrax test facility for autonomous vehicles in Auburndale set to open next year.
“I tell folks from outside the area all the time, I challenge you to find a hundred-mile stretch anywhere in the world where there is more happening than there is across the I-4 corridor right now from a technology standpoint,” Kennedy said.
Having an emerging microelectronics fab alone probably wouldn’t have attracted imec, he said. “That in and of itself would not have been enough to necessarily bring them to Central Florida. They could have gone to New York, Texas or other places that could have given them access to a fab. But there was a fab in the heart of all these other exciting things going on — and a fab that’s non-captive, meaning we are open to doing things for a wide variety of customers and clients.”
All of that emerging technology is going to require a growing and highly specialized workforce. That’s why the visit by the students from NeoCity Academy was so special, Kennedy said. BRIDG has forged a strong bond with the School District of Osceola County to develop a unique STEM-based magnet program where its engineers and scientists engage in the students’ education. With an inaugural freshman class that launched last year, students from all over the county have applied to attend the school. NeoCity Academy held classes offsite but is on schedule to move into its new school building next to BRIDG this fall.
“NeoCity Academy is building the foundation of talent that, 10 years down the road, will be the scientists and engineers shaping the next wave of capability,” Kennedy said. “It’s pretty exciting to hear parents in the community talk about their kids asking what they have to do to be competitive to get into NeoCity Academy. It’s a cool place.”
Soon after the $15 million project received a funding commitment from Osceola County in 2017, Osceola County Schools Superintendent Dr. Debra Pace explained why it has become such a priority. “Everything that we’re doing is really trying to look toward the jobs 2030 report, and the kind of high-tech workforce that envisions,” she said in an article in the Orlando Sentinel. “The talent pipeline is a critical piece of that economic development.”
The budding scientists who graduate from NeoCity Academy will mature in their careers and have an impact with their work, not only on Osceola County and Central Florida, but on the world, he said. The key is to train them and maintain enough cutting-edge, exciting, high-wage jobs to keep them in the region.
“Growing up in the I-4 corridor, they will help build a different future,” Kennedy said, “not just from a direct economic standpoint, but for the next generation of citizens.”
This article appears in the July 2019 issue of i4 BUSINESS.