Nearfield has more guts than KLA in EUV metrology

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Hamed Sadeghian is determined to take his company Nearfield Instruments public. When he broke the news to me during a recent interview, I could hardly believe it. Having just shipped his first machine and already targetting an IPO. It sounded quite ambitious to me, and also quite intensive for someone who already combines the positions of CEO and CTO.

Sadeghian is a very driven individual. At the beginning of his studies in mechanical engineering, he decided that he could do better than his boss who was paying him a few pennies. As a 21-year-old, he started to build lifting platforms, mixers, conveyors and other heavy equipment with his first company Jahesh Poulad Co. in Iran. His outfit grew by taking on jobs that others would turn their noses up at. When he sold Jahesh at age twenty-five to do a PhD in the Netherlands, the company employed fifteen.

Somehow, Sadeghian always seems to do the right thing. Shortly after his PhD, he had the opportunity to start a company in calibration equipment. He passed on that, however, after thorough market research. Years later, when he founded Nearfield with Roland van Vliet, he had gained almost a decade of experience in the semicon market at TNO and knew the metrology needs of big players like Intel, Samsung and TSMC inside out. Contacts with machine builders also give him and his team insight into the weaknesses of equipment suppliers.

The fact that Sadeghian did an MBA in Leuven, parallel to Nearfield’s development phase at TNO, is indicative of his work ethic. Granted, he didn’t do everything right. He handed over the reins to Jos Maas at the end of last year, but the newly appointed CEO left the young tech company after just a few months. It speaks for Sadeghian that he openly announced Maas’ farewell on Nearfield’s website.

In times of corona, startups have a hard time, certainly hardware suppliers. However, Sadeghian managed to sell a machine to an Asian customer in the middle of the pandemic. In a two-part Bits&Chips podcast, he talks about the field acceptance test that he had completely videotaped because of the closed borders – it reminded me of the crisis ASML overcame in 1991 by sending VHS tapes to IBM, the lead customer for the PAS 5500, the stepper with which the machine builder really broke ground. At the time, Big Blue’s people were unable to fly to the Netherlands due to an announced US intervention in Iraq.

A high-end customer prepared to invest time and money in completely new metrology technology in this period shows the sense of urgency. It also indicates that Nearfield really has gold in its hands. Sadeghian himself has no doubts about that. He expects to ship some 50-60 Quadra metrology systems within a few years.

In stark contrast to the many internet and software companies that go public almost every week, you see hardly any IPOs in metrology and inspection. In that arena, mergers and acquisitions define exit strategies. Due to consolidation, the number of metrology and inspection companies dropped from 37 in 2002 to 20 in 2017, according to The Information Network in the same year. The most recent information shows seven metrology companies owning over 90 percent of the market (KLA with 54.8 percent, Applied Materials 11.3 percent, Hitachi High-Tech 9.5 percent, ASML/HMI 4.9 percent, Nanometrics 3.7 percent, Lasertec 3.0 percent and Nova Measuring 2.7 percent).

The metrology market is turbulent. The greatest impact is caused by EUV, a technology that many don’t adequately appreciate yet. Even metrology superpower KLA stumbled painfully, failing to believe and invest in EUV for years. It unsuccessfully asked its customers for a 500-million-dollar pre-investment to develop mask inspection tools based on EUV radiation. Customers balked at this and KLA subsequently lost this now highly lucrative actinic inspection market to Japan’s Lasertec.

At the beginning of this year, KLA’s vice president Theo Kneepkens said about Nearfield in the Dutch magazine Link: “We see atomic-force microscopy primarily as a research tool, not so much as an inline production tool.” The fact that the metrology market leader is downplaying the importance of AFM technology shows that the Rotterdam-based company is on the right track, although Nearfield still has to prove itself in the market. The devil of Kneepkens’ remark: Nearfield is positioning its Quadra systems precisely for high-volume chip manufacturing, emphatically stating that it doesn’t supply its instruments for lab environments. All in all, Kneepkens’ attitude is rather presumptuous when you’re employed by a company that just missed a billion-dollar market because of a lack of guts.

To be honest, I found it hard to see a future for nanoprobe metrology in chip production environments myself when I encountered the Quadra prototype at TNO in Delft over five years ago. Measuring with fragile atom-sharp probes in high-volume chip production? I saw too many problems. Meanwhile, Nearfield has a lead customer who’s actually deploying the machine and Sadeghian has a very convincing story and a promising product roadmap to boot. With his audacity to put Nearfield in the metrology market through an IPO, this entrepreneur deserves the warm support of the entire Dutch high-tech community.