Petersen, Kurt E.
Kurt E. Petersen’s foundational work on microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) helped unify and provide direction for the field, and his commercialization of MEMS technologies has continued to transform the field to realize the many applications we take for granted today. MEMS involve miniature mechanical and electromechanical elements, such as sensors, actuators, and other microelectronics, merged onto a common silicon substrate along with integrated circuits. MEMS-based devices provide important functionality in today’s smart phones, medical devices, and smart automotive and smart human-machine interface applications. It was Petersen’s 1982 seminal review paper “Silicon as a Mechanical Material” that helped lay the foundation for future MEMS research. It summarized all the mechanical properties of silicon as well as mechanical devices made on silicon chips at that time and also anticipated future devices. Prior to this work, MEMS research consisted of many unconnected and unrelated efforts. Petersen’s paper provided the diverse group of MEMS researchers with a unified vision and a sense of community in which to develop the MEMS industry as we know it today. Petersen was also instrumental in establishing forums for the MEMS academic, industrial, and government communities to share and discuss their work. In 1984, he served as the first program chairperson for the biennial Solid-State Sensors, Actuators, and Microsystems regional workshop. In 1987, he was the first co-chairperson of the yearly International Conference on MEMS.
Petersen has played a significant role in developing innovative MEMS tools, co-founding six companies to commercialize his ideas. At NovaSensor (co-founded in 1985), Petersen led the development of a disposable pressure sensor for blood pressure monitoring during and after surgical operations. NovaSensor was also the first to commercialize the revolutionary silicon fusion bonding (SFB) and deep reactive ion etching (DRIE) fabrication processes. Practically all of today’s MEMS high-volume products use a variation of these processes. In 1996, he co-founded Cepheid, where he developed a totally automated, microfluidic system to test for anthrax in the U.S. mail system. Other MEMS diagnostic tests commercialized by Cepheid have transformed the molecular diagnostics industry using microfluidics and the polymerase chain reaction. Petersen became the founding chief executive officer of SiTime in 2004. SiTime commercialized MEMS devices that outperform quartz crystal oscillators for timing applications, and its products can be found in many consumer mobile devices. Petersen co-founded both Profusa and Verreon in 2008. Profusa’s small, flexible hydrogel implant for glucose sensing is causing the medical industry to change how it thinks about measuring chemicals in the body. Projects at Verreon were focused on the development of MEMS sensors and actuators on glass substrates instead of silicon to take advantage of cost efficiencies and the potential for use in the flat-panel display industry. In 2011, Petersen joined the Silicon Valley Band of Angels, which is an investment group comprised of former and current high-tech executives that funds and mentors early stage, high-tech start-up companies. Today, he spends most of his time helping and mentoring such companies, and he gives many invited talks around the world on MEMS and on entrepreneurial trends.
An IEEE Life Fellow and member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering, Petersen is currently a member of the Silicon Valley Band of Angels and resides in Milpitas, CA, USA.