Hamed Sadeghian: Redefining the Semiconductor Industry

In the world of technology, innovation is the name of the game. Hamed Sadeghian, the CEO of Nearfield Instruments, is a prime example of this. He’s not just a leader; he’s a visionary who’s breaking down barriers to create groundbreaking solutions in the semiconductor industry. 

Hamed’s journey is fueled by a deep belief in the importance of premium electronics in our modern world. He recognizes that technologies like mobile communication, cloud computing, Big Data, blockchain, and IoT are the driving forces behind rapid advancements and global transformation. It’s the era of the “Artificial Intelligent of Things,” and Hamed is determined to harness the power of these technologies. 

Hamed’s vision goes beyond mere business; it’s about shaping the world, one atom at a time. He understands that the semiconductor industry is at the core of these transformative technologies. With his bright and motivated leadership, Hamed is leading the charge to push the boundaries between science and business. 

Hamed’s story is an inspiration for anyone striving to make a difference. He’s a forward-thinker, a game-changer, and a pioneer in the world of semiconductors. His journey is a testament to the power of innovation and the incredible potential of the human mind. Hamed Sadeghian is more than a CEO; he’s a force driving the future of technology. 

Below are the highlights of the interview: 

From Mechanical Engineering to Semiconductors 

Hamed embarked on his academic and professional journey with a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Mechanical Engineering from Isfahan University of Technology in 2000. His career in the industry began the following year when he joined Machine Ajza Co. as a Mechatronics Systems Engineer. In this role, he took charge of various responsibilities, including the design, manufacturing, assembly, installation, Factory Acceptance Tests (FAT), and Site Acceptance Tests (SAT) of Mechanical and Mechatronics Equipment. His work spanned across industries like Oil and Gas, Steel production, and Gas turbine. 

During this time, Hamed also co-founded Jahesh Poulad Co. and assumed the role of Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Here, his responsibilities included working as a Systems Engineer, acquiring projects, and collaborating with customers to define concepts for mechanical equipment used in high-volume production across industries such as Steel, Oil and gas, and Transportation. 

After completing his Master of Science (MSc) in Mechanical Engineering and selling his company, Jahesh Poulad, Hamed pursued a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Mechanical Engineering at Delft University of Technology. He successfully completed his PhD with Cum Laude status and continued his academic journey as a Postdoctoral Researcher, later advancing to the position of Senior Researcher at TU Delft. His roles involved supervising MSc and PhD students, conducting research in the field of Nano-Optomechatronics instruments, and developing research proposals for national, European, and international funding agencies. 

Simultaneously, during his tenure as a Senior Researcher, he joined TNO as a Senior System Architect. In this role, he served as the System Architect for Optomechatronics Instruments and equipment, focusing on metrology, inspection, and characterization systems for semiconductor and bio-medical applications. In 2015, Hamed transitioned into the role of Principal Scientist and group leader of NOMI. 

In 2014, he expanded his horizons by completing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a focus on Innovation Management and Entrepreneurship from Vlerick Business School in Belgium. 

Hamed’s deep dive into the semiconductor industry began in 2011, and by 2016, he had founded Nearfield Instruments. He has a profound appreciation for the semiconductor industry, acknowledging its pivotal role in driving technological advancements, including trends like AI and 5G in the data era. 

Hamed firmly believes that creating something new is a formidable challenge, and he echoes the sentiment of Peter Thiel, the founder and CEO of PayPal, that “it is much harder to make something new than to copy a model.” Moreover, he recognizes the significance of timing when entering the market, emphasizing the need to assess whether the timing is opportune. He prefers initiating a business in a relatively smaller market segment with a more substantial share of their product. 

Looking ahead, Hamed envisions Nearfield Instruments as an integral part of the AI devices that people will use in the near future. Their process control solutions are crucial for producing semiconductor chips, contributing to empowering top chipmakers to create more efficient and cost-effective chips. As semiconductor technology advances, it enables tasks that were once dependent on remote servers to be performed locally, making devices more capable and self-reliant. Hamed anticipates that their technology will play a significant role in enhancing smartphones’ capabilities, enabling them to process complex artificial intelligence tasks and make better sense of the world around them. 

Overcoming Challenges on the Path to Success 

Hamed firmly believes that challenges are an integral part of the journey to success. Rather than viewing them as obstacles, he sees them as opportunities for personal and professional growth. These challenges shape one’s perspective and contribute to the development of a stronger, more resilient personality. The key, he emphasizes, is to approach challenges as valuable learning experiences, avoiding a victim mentality. 

Hamed’s journey to elevate his company to the next level was not without its share of challenges. The initial hurdle was to convince customers of the uniqueness and disruptiveness of their solution in comparison to competitors. This required not only a compelling value proposition but also effective communication and relationship-building. 

Securing funding was another significant challenge. The semiconductor industry is known for its capital-intensive nature and high levels of risk. It differs from software development companies, where risks are relatively lower and the required working capital is significantly less. DeepTech companies like Nearfield Instruments, on the other hand, engage in the development and construction of highly complex machinery, making the need for capital all the more critical. Hamed navigated this challenge by demonstrating the viability and potential of their technology to investors. 

Attracting and retaining top talent was yet another challenge. As the organization scaled up, shaping the company’s culture and core values became essential. Hamed tackled these challenges with determination, resilience, and a commitment to his vision. He persisted through the obstacles, ultimately leading his company to the pinnacle of success. 

Empowering the Semiconductor Industry  

Nearfield Instruments, a DeepTech scale-up headquartered in Rotterdam with additional locations in Eindhoven and South Korea, is making significant strides in the semiconductor industry. With a dedicated team of 110 employees, the company is at the forefront of developing groundbreaking process control metrology solutions. 

These solutions are designed to address a critical need in the semiconductor manufacturing process by enabling the measurement of 3D nanostructures in a non-destructive manner. Such measurements are essential for the production of high-performance microchips, including those used in laptops, smartphones, data centers, and the automotive sector.

The technology developed by Nearfield Instruments is rooted in “Scanning Probe Microscopy” (SPM), which involves scanning surfaces in three dimensions using an atomically sharp tip. However, the company has taken this technology to the next level by significantly enhancing measurement speeds and the ability to non-destructively assess complex 3D structures, both on the surface and beneath them. This sets their approach apart from other metrology technologies that often rely on electrons or photons and may struggle to precisely and rapidly measure the smallest 3D nanostructures without causing damage. 

Nearfield Instruments is positioned uniquely in the market and aspires to become a global leader in supplying semiconductor metrology equipment. The company operates in close collaboration with the Netherlands’ well-established high-tech ecosystem, making it a key player in advancing the semiconductor industry’s capabilities. 

Pushing the Boundaries of Semiconductor Innovation 

The electronics industry has become an integral part of modern life, driving the adoption of new technologies and transformations. Key technological advancements such as Big Data, cloud computing, and mobile communication all rely on the continual progress of electronics, particularly in the realm of integrated circuits (ICs) or chips. 

Historically, the semiconductor industry has been driven by the demand for chips in tablets, smartphones, servers, and PCs. However, with the rapid advancement of the Internet of Things (IoT), wearable electronics for health applications, artificial intelligence (AI), and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), the industry is evolving to meet these diverse needs. 

In recent years, the semiconductor industry has adhered to Moore’s Law, which involves transistor scaling and doubling the computing power of chips every two years, all while making them more energy-efficient. Yet, the current pace of growth necessitates innovative semiconductor manufacturing and metrology processes. 

With the ever-increasing demand for more powerful and energy-efficient electronics at competitive price points, the challenge has become clear. Traditional two-dimensional (2D) transistors following Moore’s Law alone cannot meet these demands. The path forward involves designing chips with atomic-scale dimensions, which can be achieved through intricate designs, high-aspect ratios, sensitive materials, and three-dimensional structures. 

These complex structures are known as subsurface features, with logic features buried under numerous layers, often over 100 nm deep. Engineers stack nanowires or nanolayers beneath multiple metal and gate layers, and in the case of 3D NAND, different memory features are strategically positioned within these layered devices, sometimes reaching 170 layers or more in current devices, with plans to increase this further. 

While most of these layers are composed of metal or poly layers, which are completely non-transparent, the use of 3D semiconductor device architectures is instrumental in boosting chip performance while significantly reducing costs. 

In semiconductor integrated circuit manufacturing, there is a well-known adage: “If you cannot measure it, you cannot make it.” Achieving nano-architectures in a technologically and economically viable manner hinges on precise control over the manufacturing process. This control encompasses maintaining film quality (thickness, material properties, uniformity), feature quality (linewidths, edge profiles, uniformity), and minimizing device defects (voids, impurities, and contaminations) within stringent limits. 

To achieve maximum yield of next-generation IC devices in new manufacturing processes, significant advancements in metrology are required. Metrology, the science of measuring and characterizing tiny structures and materials, plays a pivotal role in pushing the boundaries of semiconductor innovation. 

The Challenges and Demands of Next-Generation Metrology 

In the realm of semiconductor manufacturing, each chip consists of roughly 80 to 100 cycles for the layer-by-layer growth process, and each cycle comprises five distinct steps. Traditionally, metrology was conducted after every cycle, specifically after step 5, to address any defects in the produced layer(s). However, the requirements of next-generation metrology come with specific features. 

Critical Dimensions (CD) Metrology: The first key feature involves the measurement of critical dimensions of subsurface features and wafer surface roughness, down to the sub-nanometer level. This precision is crucial to ensuring the exactness of these dimensions. 

Defect Review: The second requirement pertains to identifying and measuring critical defects in three dimensions. This capability is essential for tracing back the origin of these defects without affecting the quality of the wafer. 

Overlay Metrology: The third feature is related to the full adoption of 3D features produced using extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV). Ensuring precise alignment, known as “overlay,” of different IC layers is paramount. This alignment requires atomic-scale precision, meaning a positioning and monitoring accuracy of less than 1 nanometer. 

To meet these precision requirements, next-generation metrology must also offer higher throughput, increased automation capabilities, non-destructive measurement methods for wafers, and enhanced long-term reliability, all while striving to reduce costs. These advanced metrology solutions are crucial for maintaining the quality and performance of semiconductor devices in an increasingly demanding and competitive industry. 

Advancing Metrology for 3D Semiconductor Devices 

Overlay metrology, a critical aspect of next-generation semiconductor manufacturing, is central to achieving excellent device performance and high manufacturing yield. Precise overlay, which refers to the layer-to-layer alignment accuracy, must be maintained at levels below 1 nanometer (nm) for optimal results. 

Hamed elaborates on this challenge, stating that optical solutions for overlay measurement rely on optical test targets, often placed within the scribe lines of chips. These targets, however, are frequently large and may not effectively measure overlay when opaque layers are present. Moreover, using these remote targets does not provide accurate local overlay values for devices at nodes smaller than 10 nm. Consequently, the industry has shifted its focus towards directly measuring overlay on the devices themselves rather than relying on traditional targets.

 To address these challenges and meet the metrology precision requirements for manufacturing advanced 3D devices with intricate subsurface features, Nearfield Instruments has developed an innovative solution known as Subsurface Scanning Probe Microscopy (SSPM). This revolutionary system is the world’s first non-destructive and subsurface 3D metrology system, specifically designed to enable subsurface critical dimensions, defect review, and overlay metrology. It offers a breakthrough in precision and reliability for semiconductor manufacturing in the era of advanced 3D devices. 

Strategic Expansion Plans 

Nearfield Instruments (NFI), a pioneering company in the semiconductor industry, has successfully attracted substantial investments of €29.5 million. These investments include €12 million from existing shareholders, including Eugene Investment & Securities, a prominent Korean financial services firm, and €17.5 million, with €10.5 million originating from Dutch impact investor Invest-NL and another €7 million from Innovation Industries, an existing shareholder. 

NFI’s expansion strategy involves strengthening its long-term partnership with VDL ETG through a memorandum of understanding. The company is also set to establish a Korean subsidiary in Hwaseong and has ambitious plans for further global expansion through the creation of new subsidiaries and strategic partnerships. These developments mark a significant milestone in NFI’s journey in the semiconductor industry.