Fathers of Invention

Creating paths for exploration

by Will Lindner

semiprobe0117In 2006, Denis Place (left) and Mostafa Daoudi (right) left SUSS MicroTec to found SemiProbe, a supplier of test and inspection equipment for the semiconductor industry. Last year, they brought on Doug Merrill as CEO to take their Winooski company forward.

In 2006 there was an exodus, of sorts, from SUSS MicroTec in Waterbury Center. Three of the leading lights in its probing systems division — general manager Denis Place, applications manager Mostafa Daoudi, and sales and marketing manager Don Feuerstein — left for a new venture.

Next time they were seen, it was as tenants at the UVM Farrell Hall campus of the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies (VCET), an incubator for promising technological startups in Vermont. With VCET’s assistance they were nursing their enterprise, called SemiProbe, through the early, exciting, but predictably traumatic stages of growth.

Why SemiProbe? Because their product line consists of machines that probe — meaning that with a stylus, or numerous styluses, they test — semiconductors. Place describes the stylus as “a glorified sewing needle” that makes a mechanical contact with the semiconductor chip, then transports the impulses to the unit’s testing instrumentation.

“The end result,” he says, “is you determine that the chip is either good or bad, relative to the specifications they’re trying to achieve.”

“Myriad” doesn’t even begin to describe the range of those specs, dictated by the conditions under which the chips must perform. Place poses the example of an automobile whose ignition — not to mention the clock, the engine monitor, the tire pressure sensor, etc. — must function when the owner starts it up on a frigid Vermont morning, and must continue functioning flawlessly three days later when she arrives at her 110-degree destination in the Arizona desert.

“And pressure — high pressure, low pressure — the same thing,” adds co-founder, Daoudi: “Somebody’s diving, and needs to read whether his oxygen level is right at any depth. [The gauge] needs to be responsive.” Probe systems can be designed to simulate such variances, making them vital to the production processes for companies that manufacture these products.

And it’s pretty.

“Their equipment is extremely impressive,” says Glenn Moody of Glenn Moody Photography, who has conducted photo shoots for the company 10 to 12 times a year over the last three or four years. He photographs the products for Web and print media. “It’s sort of beautiful — elegant in its ‘high-techness,’” he says.

Yet, with the proliferation of semiconductors as integral components of products we use every day, there are surprisingly few probe system manufacturers.

“There are about a dozen who do the majority of the systems, plus some that do pretty specialized versions of them,” Place says. “Let’s just say there are probably about two dozen [firms] in the entire world that do what we do out back here.”

The field narrows even further with SemiProbe’s unique contribution to probe-system technology: modular versions that can be reconfigured on-site when a company reorients its product line.

“Because most companies will build a product, and hopefully it’s very successful, but then their competitors catch up to them and they’ve got to introduce something else,” explains Doug Merrill, who joined the company as CEO in June.

Some other probe systems can be retooled, but it’s an expensive process that imposes great inconvenience while the machinery is shipped back to its manufacturer for repurposing and testing.

“Or the company will say ‘We’ll be happy to sell you a new one,’” says Merrill. “SemiProbe says, ‘No, you can take the probe station we sold you and reconfigure it where you are.’”

“In terms of a probe station that’s perpetually field upgraded,” Place interjects, “it’s the only one in the world. We have a patent on it.”

This adaptability gave rise to SemiProbe’s trademark: PS4L — Probe System for Life. Its flexibility also makes the systems attractive for universities that must equip their laboratories for multiple instructional and research purposes. Additionally, SemiProbe sells to governments: for data collection, air-traffic control, forensic, military, and an inexhaustible list of other needs. Each machine is custom-designed for its owner’s purposes.

The sheer mass of larger machines, and a global market extending to China, Finland, Europe, Australia, India, Saudi Arabia, the UK, the UAE, Kuwait and Kazakhstan, let alone the United States, make it surprising that SemiProbe does business with just a five-person staff (plus several part-timers) in humble quarters in Winooski.

Place contends that the Vermont location provides distinct advantages. The New England region is rife with machine shops and defense contractors able to build the sub-assemblies to SemiProbe’s specifications.

“The reason SemiProbe exists,” Merrill emphasizes, “is the testing expertise that Denis and Mostafa, primarily, bring to bear.” (Co-founder Feuerstein left the company in 2014.)

Daoudi elaborates. “What we do here is solve problems. We create the solution for a testing challenge, we design it, and we source the pieces where they’re best made. Then we get everything together, we assemble it, and then ship it.”

Nor do they feel encumbered by Vermont’s putative isolation. When travel is required, as it often is for Daoudi as the company’s main service provider, and for Place in his work with distributors and customers, Burlington International Airport is just 12 minutes away.

Besides, thanks to the company’s modular designs, a repair or upgrade can often be accomplished by shipping a component. The customer’s technicians, or SemiProbe’s trained distributors, then perform the replacement.

The three original partners hatched the idea of modular probe systems while working for SUSS MicroTec, and proposed this innovation to the leadership there. But SUSS, originally family-owned, had gone public in 1999, and its focus at the Waterbury site, Daoudi says, had shifted away from engineering and toward marketing. After much deliberation, they took the leap and ventured out on their own.

Fortunately, the company they envisioned aligned well with VCET’s incubator mission.

“We were impressed with their tremendous industry credentials,” says David Bradbury, VCET’s president. “They used our space at Farrell Hall and our business-mentoring service.

“SemiProbe has had its ups and downs,” he concedes. “The global semiconductor industry is very cyclical. But I’ve been impressed by the grit, the sacrifice, and the forward thinking of the SemiProbe team. The world is still finding out about them.”

In 2010, VCET chipped in with an investment from its Vermont Seed Capital Fund, a revolving early-stage venture company. This led to the creation of a board of directors consisting of Bradbury as president, Place, Daoudi, and representatives of two other investment partners. It was the board’s decision to bring in Merrill, who offers a wealth of industrial-management experience and well-nurtured communication skills, as CEO.

Daoudi and Place have much in common professionally and academically — both earned two-year engineering degrees from Vermont Technical College, for example — but could hardly have more dissimilar origins. Place grew up in Winooski a couple of blocks away from SemiProbe’s current quarters. Born in 1959, he recalls the Winooski of his day as a small community where residents walked wherever they needed to go.

Daoudi, by contrast, is from Casablanca, a Moroccan city of some 3 million residents near Africa’s northwest coast — a city so large, he says, that “nobody is going to pay attention to you.” Born in 1968, he studied physics and chemistry at university for three years, but in 1990 his father sent Mostafa and his brother to Montreal (French being a second language in Morocco) to explore employment prospects there.

Daoudi studied English at Concordia University, and established contacts at VTC, and later, Norwich University. He completed engineering and electronics-related degrees at both institutions, and in 1996 found employment at SUSS.

Place was already there. He had attended VTC then worked for two years for Mitel Corp. in Burlington. When that company terminated its Vermont operations, Place moved to Concord, New Hampshire, working for Sprague Electric while pursuing a degree in business management at Franklin Pierce University. A couple of employment stops later, he was at SUSS in Waterbury, using his engineering and management training to lead the company’s probing division.

Something else Place and Daoudi have in common is that they have known their wives virtually since childhood. Lynn Place is from a large Winooski family, and earned a degree in accounting from Champlain College. She now works in scheduling at The UVM Medical Center. The couple raised their three sons (now in their 20s) in Colchester, where Place finds contentment nowadays as an apiarist, keeping hives in his backyard. He also loves Lake Champlain, boating in the summer and ice fishing with his sons in winter.

Daoudi’s wife, Salma, went to school with his sister in Casablanca. They were married in 1999 and live in Essex. Salma works as a translator, assisting the region’s refugee population, particularly in their dealings at the hospital, with her facility in Arabic, French, and English. The Daoudis have three sons, ranging in age from 10 to 16.

“They’re Vermonters,” he says. “I tease them about that. But for raising a family, there’s no better place. I think of safety, the environment, the neighbors …”

Denis Place didn’t have to cross an ocean to find Vermont. But his travels for SemiProbe sometimes take him far away.

“You get to see a lot of beautiful things around the world, and interesting technology and people,” he says appreciatively. “But then you get to return to Vermont.” •