Good things come in small packages

Good things come in small packages

A national research network is helping to make Canada a leader in microsystems technology
July 1, 2006
Imagine something a fraction the width of a human hair, yet powerful enough to help save lives, detect disease, steer farm tractors, and send communications around the world. This little something is a microsystem—technology that’s embedded inside products we use every day, including cell phones, air bags, hearing aids, and pacemakers… and that’s just scratching the surface. Microsystems underpin applications in many sectors of the Canadian and global economies, including automotive, medicine, information and communication technologies, aerospace, environment, agriculture, and energy.

Now, more than ever, system-on-chip designs (SOCs) form the heart of microsystems research and development as the paradigm shifts from the integration of individual circuits to the development of entire systems on a single chip.

The System-on-Chip Research Network (SOCRN), managed by CMC Microsystems on behalf of Queen’s University, is a catalyst for system-on-chip research in Canada. The network links hundreds of researchers and students at 35 universities across the country, providing access to a library of industry-grade system components, intellectual property blocks, and computer-aided design tools.

“The SOCRN provides Canadian researchers with access to some of the very best technological capabilities in the world,” affirms Brian Barge, President and CEO of CMC Microsystems. CMC builds partnerships among government, industry, and universities to deliver industry-grade tools and technologies for world-class research, leading to the innovation and commercialization of microsystems. It manages a technical advisory process that brings together leading academic, industry, and government advisors to recommend tools and technologies that will best meet the needs of the microsystems research community. “Our clients describe the research they aim to conduct, enabling CMC to identify the right infrastructure, facilitate the purchase, and deliver the technology they require,” says Barge.

The SOCRN helps researchers to overcome a key challenge in research—acquisition of the costly and technically complex tools required to perform internationally competitive SOC research. The SOCRN offers a practical, nationwide solution that facilitates the procurement, transfer, and use of SOC technology—leading to research at universities across Canada that would not otherwise happen.

“We increase the productivity of researchers,” emphasizes Barge. “CMC reduces the administrative burden on faculty and graduate students by managing the configuration of equipment, as well as related training and support. Professors and graduate students can focus on their research problems—as opposed to learning how to install and use the equipment. This provides a significant productivity boost to universities across the country.”


Since the launch of the System-on-Chip Research Network (SOCRN) in 2001, Canada has continued to distinguish itself as a global leader in microsystems research and development. Without access to the industry-grade tools delivered through the network, many SOC researchers would simply be unable to conduct their leading research and enter the workforce with the skills and experience required by industry.

Luc Morin, a professor at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC), relied on tools and technologies provided through the SOCRN during his PhD research to eventually create products that make it both easy and affordable to reprogram computer hardware. “CMC was essential to our research—it enabled all of our work,” Morin confirms. “Without the SOCRN and CMC, we wouldn’t have had access to the tools and technologies required to perform world-class research.”

Morin has since gone on to launch Novakod Technologies, an electronic design automation company, and develop commercial products using the knowledge he acquired through the SOCRN. “My experience in the SOCRN and broader academic research environment was critical to the development of our start-up,” says Morin. “We applied many of the key learnings to our product development.” Novakod is now marketing its products to boost computer performance. “Others have achieved gains in computation speed of 10 to 1,000 times, but only with great pain and effort,” says Morin. “One of the advantages of Novakod’s technology is that a computer scientist doesn’t need to know anything about hardware to program an algorithm.”

Morin describes how a lumber company that takes pictures of wood for classification purposes has benefited from his product. “Before the availability of our technology, photo processing required five computers; with the Novakod card, it now takes one.” He also mentions how his products enable similar advancements in angiography, accelerating the image processing to allow for real-time viewing of the human heart.

The SOCRN and CMC help to increase the commercial potential of research by providing a solid foundation for industry-calibre research in the university environment, and supporting the development of entrepreneurs and start-up companies. Novakod is one of 19 start-up companies enabled by CMC between 2001 and 2004.

While Canadian companies garner value from the highly qualified graduates with SOC expertise, universities also reap benefits from the network. CMC brings together more than 20 suppliers that contribute millions of dollars worth of tools and technologies to Canadian universities through the SOCRN. This enables the institutions to attract and retain top research talent from around the world, with a wealth of opportunities to perform industry-calibre SOC research in the university lab. Canadian universities are also recognized as a go-to place for SOC research and development (R&D).

This is best illustrated by Novakod, which has now come full circle. After leveraging the university lab to investigate initial research concepts, the company is now collaborating with researchers at UQAC to advance their R&D. Many larger, more established private companies are seizing this same opportunity. Such partnerships give university researchers a greater ability to explore creative ideas in the academic environment, while generating new opportunities for companies to accelerate product development. “It’s a very synergistic relationship,” explains Barge. “Companies benefit from highly qualified people who provide a strong foundation for the development of innovative applications and new products—they are turning knowledge into wealth.”

Novakod has already hired four highly qualified personnel from UQAC. “Graduates can hit the ground running because they have already worked with industry-calibre tools, contributed to the underlying research, and acquired the right experience to help drive the company,” says Barge. “The SOCRN is enabling the development of highly qualified people for deployment across diverse industrial sectors. It is truly a cornerstone of our knowledge economy.”


The System-on-Chip Research Network is valued at $40 million with significant investment from federal and provincial governments (the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Innovation Trust) and over 15 industry partners that support the network through in-kind contributions of technology. The network evolved out of a partnership originally struck between researchers and CMC Microsystems.

The 80-plus members of CMC include over 40 universities and colleges from across Canada, and a wide range of companies that contribute to the development and application of microsystems and related technologies. Membership in CMC enables participating universities to access products and services for research and education in microsystems, while companies have access to the microsystems expertise required to meet their need for highly qualified personnel.

By establishing strategic partnerships with Canadian and international companies, CMC is able to provide state-of-the-art hardware, software, and other forms of intellectual property to chip and system designers at universities across Canada. Internationally recognized suppliers include Cadence Design Systems, STMicroelectronics, PMC-Sierra, ARM Ltd., Xilinx, Altera, IBM, Synopsys, Synchronicity, Virage Logic, AMIRIX, Mentor Graphics, Mathworks and CoWare.