AlexanderEverke10_lres

 

BY Richard Comerford, Senior Technical Editor, Electronic
Products

I met Alex Everke, the CEO of the billion-dollar-plus corporation
ams AG, for the first time at a dinner in New York City this past summer. I
found him to be warm and engaging, easily approachable, and technically very knowledgeable.
And so, based on that encounter, I asked if I could formally interview him in
the near future, in a way that would allow me to fully capture our discussion.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the resulting recorded interview.

Comerford: Alex,
you’ve been very busy in the last eight months. You became CEO on March 1st of
this year, and things started changing in pretty short order after that. In
April, ams began construction of a new fab in Utica, NY, and in June, it acquired the gas and IR sensing company Cambridge
CMOS Sensors (CCMOSS). Then in July, ams acquired color and spectral
sensing company MAZeT and also sold its NFC and RFID reader product lines
business to STMicroelectronics to fully concentrate on its sensor business. Can
you tell us where ams will be going in the next few years with regard to
sensing?

Everke: As
you’ve correctly described, we’ve made quite a few changes this year and
managed our portfolio in a very straightforward way. The whole intention is to make
ams the leading sensor solution company in the industry. To make that happen,
the company is working on strengthening and broadening our portfolio around our
core competencies by focusing on sensors and sensor solutions and making
choices where we believe we can achieve a leading position. We have a solid roadmap
in place to achieve this.

You brought up a few examples
already, and I’ll elaborate on them. For example, last November, we acquired
Cambridge CMOS Sensors (CCMOSS),
which is a leading company, technology-wise, in gas sensing. They have a very
interesting IP, called micro hotplates. These are, to our knowledge, the most
competitive micro hotplates in the industry because you can integrate it into
the CMOS process. You can manufacture this in high volume at very low cost
compared to all other solutions in the market.

Cambridge CMOS Sensors
expertise in this area is also highly synergistic with ams’s technology
leadership in MOX gas-sensing materials to detect gases like CO, NOx, and VOCs.
The combination of both companies brings us to technology leadership in gas
sensing.

 

Comerford: You
talked about the micro hotplate technology. That ability gives MEMS sensors the
ability to have their temperature well controlled so that you can do high
precision, correct?

 

Everke:
Exactly. They can bear up to even 600°C in a very short timeframe
with a very low power consumption and measure very accurately the gas in the
chamber. It’s also usable as a thermopile for IR detection and IR transmitting.
This enables us also to use it for human presence detection.

The current technology in the
market today, like PZT, requires objects or humans in a room to move to be
detected. With MEMS, you can detect IR or heat just by being in the room, which
is actually very useful. People don’t need to move in a room to be detected.
This technology helps us to create a leading technology in gas sensing as
mentioned, but also support our spectral sensing in the IR domain.

 

Comerford: I
see. This talks to new levels and actually new types of sensing as well. Although
IR and gas sensing are well established, it opens some doors to new types of
sensing technologies as well.

 

Everke: That’s
correct. I’ll use the gas example again. Because of this small form factor and
its more competitive cost structure, we believe we can expand our market
significantly by addressing the consumer market as well.

 

Comerford: Addressing
the consumer market with gas sensing is not an area that’s really been attacked
before, to the best of my knowledge. Very little gas sensing goes on right now.
There’s some being done in the medical markets and in industrial markets. How
do you envision it being done in the consumer marketplace?

 

Everke: We
have, for instance, inquiries from mobile phone manufacturers in China for the
ability to measure gas or air quality so users will know whether the air
quality outdoors is poor. A good example is our recent announcement with our
customer HiCling that demonstrated how innovative gas sensors can be used in
applications such as wearables that measure indoor air quality or alcohol in
breath. HiCling is using one of our slim, ultra low-power gas sensors in its
fitness wristband to do just that, in what is being touted as the world’s
smallest and lowest-power MOX gas sensor on the market. This device is on the
market already today.

Comerford: This sensing, I assume, would be essentially an add-on
to a smart device?

 

Everke: Correct.

 

Comerford: It can be done externally or it can actually be
integrated into the device itself?

 

Everke: Exactly.

 

Comerford: It
would provide a gas analysis of breath, and that gas analysis could be used to
detect the presence of alcohol. I’m curious if it can detect other things as
well. Do you think it’s possible to detect things like marijuana? In the United
States, many states have legalized the use of marijuana, and at present, there
is no good way to detect whether a driver is under the influence of that.

 

Everke: That’s
an interesting case. I’m not an expert in this domain, but the technology can
detect any kind of VOC gas component. Every component has its specific
wavelengths, and depending on the customer and application with additional
filters or modifying the filters, we can detect those different gases. The next step, of course, is spectral sensing, where we
can very accurately sense multiple different components at the same time.

That’s also an example of why
we acquired the German company MAZeT, a color and spectral-sensing systems
specialist. This new addition extends our market leadership in advanced optical
sensors and strengthens our position in emerging optical-sensing applications.
Also, a very interesting point for both acquisitions is that Jena is the center
in Germany for optical companies and Cambridge CMOS Sensors LTD, as the name
says, is located in Cambridge in the UK, which holds one of the most famous
universities worldwide specialized in the research of leading-edge sensing
technologies. Having access to leading experts in multiple countries give us an
additional edge to always be at the forefront of new ideas and leading technologies.

 

Comerford: Let’s
look at the various markets. What markets does ams want to focus on with its
technology? What do you see as the best opportunities for the future?

 

Everke: In
terms of strategy, the company is laser-focused on its core sensor solutions expertise and concentrates its efforts
where it can offer true differentiation and claim leadership positions. The differentiation comes from
being able to provide sensor modalities in vertical segments and thereby being
able to address more market segments.

The four most important
applications for us are optical sensing, image sensing, environmental, and
audio. For each of those, we will address every single market opportunity. For
obvious reasons, the consumer mobile market is a very large market for us, but
we are also active in automotive and industrial. We see more and more markets
where sensors play a pivotal role. ams is basically in the very core of the
whole world of Internet of Things.

When you ask people what is the
next mega trend or next killer application, it’s always hard to answer because
no one really knows. The unique situation we are in is that we know that every
single application which will come up in the future is, to a certain extent, related to sensors. The whole market is developing, in essence, the interface
between the analog and the digital world. Sensing becomes more and more
important. For us, it’s less important which application it is. It’s more
important to create leadership in sensor modalities so that we’re always ready
for any new application that comes up to provide the best technical solution.

For example, if you look in the
medical space, what you will see is that most of the medical equipment is getting
more mobile so that people can use these devices in their homes. You don’t need
to go to a doctor anymore to measure your heart rate or your blood pressure. To
a certain extent, you can analyze your blood at home. You can then bring the lab
— electronically — to the sample.

With sensors, for example, it
will be more convenient for aging people to check their vital signs and to make
a decision: Shall I go to a doctor? Yes or no? Over time, you will see the solutions become more
accurate, and doctors will use the vital signs measured by those sensors and
tools and can make their diagnoses remotely. We see a big trend there with this
aging population to make their lives easier, safer, and allow them to extend
their independence.

 

Comerford: Yes, you are absolutely correct there.
There are a lot of new opportunities coming up. Medical is a very good example
of an area that seems ripe for growth with, as you say, an aging population.
You said now that you want to concentrate in four areas for sensing. If I have
this correct, it’s optical, spectral, audio, and environmental?

 

Everke: Yes. Optical
also includes biosensing spectral sensing. Everything around optical where we
have a leadership position today.

With imaging, last December, we
acquired a company called CMOSIS, for very high-end image sensing, for machine
vision, for radar systems and toll systems on the street. Also for applications
requiring a very small camera called Naneye, which is less than 12 millimeters, for disposable endoscopy. This goes also into a massive arena. Imaging is
an important one and then, of course, environmental and also audio related to Active
Noise Cancellation and everything around that.

 

Comerford: Optical including biosensing, then
imaging, audio, and environmental are the four areas of sensing you are focused
on?

Everke: Yes.
These are our key pillars. We also have position sensors, and have a stronghold
with them in the automotive business. The four I mentioned are, we believe, the
fastest-growing and the most important in the future.

 

Comerford: I would say that you’ve picked some
very challenging technologies, but some very key technologies for many of the
things we talked about in terms of health, quality of life,
environment, and in terms of many of the end markets — consumer, audio, medical.

Let me ask, the trend today
seems to be to take sensor technologies and integrate them, in a way that
they call sensor fusion, so that the information coming out is more than
certainly data and numbers, but is hard facts about the condition of things.
For example, combining imaging with a GPS sensor, an accelerometer, or sensors
like that tells us where we’re headed and what we see ahead of us for a simple
example. How do you plan to go to market within the world of sensor fusion and
working with other types of sensors that may be needed in the end application?

 

Everke: For
sensor fusion, which is certainly part of our sensor solution strategy, there
are two aspects. One is the integration of different sensor modalities, and
that’s why all the acquisitions we have done are so consistent. Last summer, we
acquired the NXP CMOS sensor business where you have relative humidity,
temperature, and pressure sensors integrated into one CMOS process and one chip.
Basically, we are able now to put relative humidity, temperature, pressure,
gas sensing — everything on one CMOS chip — so we can integrate all the sensor
abilities in one chip. We are working on solutions to integrate it in one
package. With this, we have all the sensors as a sensor fusion in one device,
and then we can add analog to digital.

An example of that is
biosensing. We have the analog part of the biosensor for customers that want to
do their data processing with their own microcontrollers in the system. We also
have devices where we’re including a microprocessor — a controller where the
data processing is done on our chip. In addition, we have a long history in
developing interface products or ASIC products very strongly in audio. We have
all of the capabilities to ensure that we can support our customers with any kind
of sensor solutions or sensor fusion that is required.

The key ingredients are integratable
modalities on one chip, sophisticated packaging, and then the interfaces,
whether it’s power or a standard interface, or if it’s a microcontroller or
wireless connectivity. That’s why we also kept the wireless competencies in our
company even though we sold the NFC booster and readers.

 

Comerford: You’re maintaining the wireless
capabilities to have these devices talk to each other in the integration process?

 

Everke: Exactly,
to be ready. There are many different protocols, whether it’s Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Low Energy, or NFC RF. We kept the capabilities within ams to ensure a complete
solution for our customers. The rest we sold because it’s not core to the
company. We are very focused in our portfolio management. What is not part of
our core, we are going to divest or reduce. That’s why we made this divestiture
and sold it to STMicroelectronics.

 

Comerford: If we can blue-sky a little bit and
look to the future, where do you think development is needed and ams wants to
spearhead in sensor technology? Where does it want to take sensor technology in
terms of maybe new types of sensors or new capabilities for sensors?

 

Everke: That’s
a good question. First, we continue to strengthen the sensor modalities I
mentioned already. We are not finished yet. We are also looking to strengthen
them in our own package development to offer complete solutions. Then,
obviously, we are looking for new sensor modalities. There are a few sensors we
have to cover, whether it’s smell, vision, or audio. We haven’t addressed all
of them yet and we are continuously looking at where it makes sense to further
invest to ensure that we have a complete portfolio, but also to ensure that we support
new megatrends coming up and create profitable growth for the company.

We have not decided on all the areas
we’ll enter, but we constantly look into what will be the future trends and
then act accordingly.

 

Comerford: Do you think there will be more acquisitions
in the future or in the near future, or do you think that you acquired the key
technologies that you want and you’ll rest on your laurels for a while?

 

Everke: I would
never exclude M&A, and it can be small or large. It’s always a part of the
strategy. The decision is always a matter if it is cheaper and more efficient
to acquire a technology or a company to accelerate our roadmap, or, if we
have time, to develop it ourselves. This is a case-by-case decision, but I can
assure you that M&A is a key pillar to accelerate our strategy. 

 

Comerford: Is there anything else you’d like to
add or say about ams and where it’s going?

 

Everke: Well, as
I mentioned in the beginning, the most important part is to execute and
accelerate our strategy to become the leading supplier in sensors and sensor
solutions. For us, it’s very important to be a thought leader. We are not
interested in providing me-too products. We are very interested in shaping the
market with our sensor solutions, offering differentiated products and helping
our customers to differentiate from their competitors. We want to create an
environment for the industry and for everyone by making the devices we all rely
on every day to be smarter, safer, more intuitive, convenient, and energy-efficient.
That’s basically what we are doing, and everything which is needed to
accomplish this, we will do.