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Neural Engineering Research Down Under
Professor Efstratios (Stan) Skafidas co-founded Bandspeed, in Austin, Texas before joining National ICT Australia Ltd (NICTA) in 2004 as program leader of sensor networks at the Victorian Research Laboratory. He is now Research Group Manager - Embedded Systems and his research interests include RF CMOS, Antennas and Propagation, Wireless Communications and Implantable devices. Professor Skafidas is a member of the IEEE 802.11/802.15 standard committees for Wireless Local and Personal Area networks.
MWJ –After receiving your Doctoral Degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Melbourne, Australia, in 1997 you co-founded Bandspeed based in Austin Texas. What prompted you to do so?
Skafidas–I have always had an interest in bringing high technology products and research to market. I experience significant personal satisfaction in seeing technology that I have developed being incorporated into products and systems. There is a sense of excitement in having people using technology that I played a significant role in developing.
1998 was the peak of the tech boom. The usually slow process of technology moving from research laboratory to market was not the norm during this time. The whole world was interested in innovation, new products and services. It was a very exciting time. Many small companies were started with the aim to develop competitive and differentiated technology to enable a new product or services, and VCs were willing to fund these companies.
MWJ –What was your role at Bandspeed and your main achievements while at the company?
Skafidas–I was the Chief Technology Officer, responsible for new product and technology development. Bandspeed had a focus on new technology development and developed many technology innovations in DSL, Bluetooth and WLAN. The achievement that I am most proud of is the development of Adaptive Frequency Hopping. This is a coexistence technology that was incorporated in the Bluetooth standard and is now incorporated in all Bluetooth devices.
MWJ –National ICT Australia Ltd (NICTA) was established by the Federal Government in 2002 as part of the Backing Australia’s Ability initiative. Briefly explain NICTA’s formation and structure?
Skafidas–NICTA is Australia’s Information and Communications Technology Research Centre of Excellence. NICTA develops technologies that generate economic, social and environmental benefits for Australia. It collaborates with industry on joint projects, creates new companies, and provides new talent to the ICT sector through a NICTA-enhanced PhD program. With five laboratories around Australia and over 700 people, NICTA is the largest organisation in Australia dedicated to ICT research.
As you said, NICTA was established in 2002 by the Federal Government as part of the Backing Australia’s Ability initiative. In addition to the Federal Government, NICTA was supported and funded by its four founding Members: the Australian Capital Territory Government, Australian National University, New South Wales Government and University of New South Wales. Shortly after its creation, The University of Sydney, Victorian Government, the University of Melbourne, Queensland Government, The University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology and Griffith University joined as partners. In 2011, the Victorian Government and the University of Melbourne became NICTA Members.
MWJ –What are NICTA’s key objectives?
Skafidas–NICTA is focused on delivering research excellence in ICT and creating wealth for Australia.
MWJ –What prompted you to join NICTA in 2004?
Skafidas–I was passionate about undertaking novel research on millimetre-wave systems on CMOS. NICTA provided me with the facilities to be able to undertake this type of research. I believe that millimetre-wave technologies have the potential to revolutionize wireless communication systems and enable new products and services. I wanted to be part of the 60 G/millimetre-wave revolutions.
MWJ –Please explain NICTA’s involvement with setting up new companies?
Skafidas–NICTA’s aim is to develop new technologies and then to assist researchers to move their research from the lab into the marketplace. The organisation helps researchers with business plans, introducing them to VCs, helping with legal advice and providing background to assist researchers take the plunge to set up their own company. The ultimate goal is to help the transition from the research to commercial environment be as smooth as possible.
MWJ –What is your role at NICTA and what are your key areas of research?
Skafidas–I am a Research Group Leader, Optics and Nanoelectronics Group (NICTA) and the Director of the Centre for Neural Engineering. My key research interest areas are nanoelectronics and millimetre-wave CMOS circuits. I also have a research interest in biomedical circuits and systems and interfacing electronics to neurons and neural systems.
MWJ –You and your team have made significant technological breakthroughs in recent years. Please outline the major ones for our readers?
Skafidas–There are three main breakthroughs, the first being a completely integrated 60 GHz transceiver on CMOS. The second is a Retinal Prosthesis to help stimulate retinal ganglion cells in the retina to help restore sight for people with impaired vision caused by retinitis pigmentosa or age related macular degeneration. Last but not least there are Functionalised Nanowires to detect disruption to the blood brain barrier post an ischemic stroke event.
MWJ –The Nitero chipset received Australian Government funding. How important is such governmental backing?
Skafidas–Government support is extremely important. Semiconductor products are very capital intensive and it has been difficult to obtain all the necessary funds from VCs in the current economic environment. Government funding in conjunction with VC funding permits us to achieve important commercial milestones.
MWJ –Are you concerned that in the current economic climate important research may not be able to attract the necessary funding?
Skafidas–Yes. Although investment funds are available for good products and technology, the current economic climate means that new products take longer time frames to obtain wide market acceptance and markets take longer to mature. This means careful planning and conserving funds and forming relationships with strategic partners and customers is critical.
MWJ –What are your responsibilities as Director, at the Centre for Neural Engineering, University of Melbourne and how does it complement your work at NICTA?
Skafidas–The Centre for Neural Engineering (CfNE) aims to bring together researchers from Neuroscience, Neurology, Psychiatry and Engineering to address some of the challenging unanswered problems in the neurosciences. My role at the CfNE is to bring together researchers from multiple disciplines to work on these challenging problems. Nanotechnology and Nanoelectronics hold significant promise in the fields of neurosciences. The optics and nanoelectronics group brings these skills to the CfNE.
MWJ –What research are you currently working on in the RF and microwave sector?
Skafidas–My research in this space includes work regarding Automotive Radar on a CMOS Chip as well as integrated nano-transceivers that are small enough to be encapsulated within a cell. In addition, I am focused on wireless power transfer. Batteries are problematic for biomedical applications because in most cases, surgery is required to replace a battery. Further, wires can act as a conduit for infection. Transferring power wirelessly is important for implanted devices.
MWJ –In Australia what sectors of the RF and microwave market are strong, both in terms of research and commercial development?
Skafidas–Strong sectors include Antenna design, Radio Astronomy, Radar, Low Noise Receivers, Optics and Millimetre-wave Circuits
MWJ –Does Australia’s geographical position affect how the sector operates and is the emphasis more on local or global activity?
Skafidas–The Australian market is relatively small. However, our focus is on producing products for the global market.
MWJ –Finally, what are your ambitions, both personally and for NICTA?
Skafidas–To continue to develop new breakthrough RF technology that leads to new products and systems.