The Chip Integration Technology Center (CITC) plane has taken off, but there are a lot more seats to fill. ‘Captain’ Barry Peet explains how he intends to do so.
The initial team has been assembled, the lab space is filling up with tools, experiments are being conducted and Fieldlab status has been awarded: the Chip Integration Technology Center (CITC) at the Novio Tech Campus in Nijmegen is up and running. There even was an opportunity to celebrate the occasion. On 5 March, four days before the Dutch people stopped shaking hands, a crowd of industry executives and government officials gathered to see the proverbial ribbon cut.
The event must have felt like a bit of a personal victory for Barry Peet, who as managing director of the Business Cluster Semiconductors (now called Holland Semiconductors) put a lot of effort into getting the open-innovation center off the ground. After getting companies, governments and partner institutes on board, Peet now gets to head up CITC.
A little over a week after the event, however, Peet is primarily interested in looking towards the future – he has to, he explains, because his mission is far from over. “I’m happy with our expeditious start, but I consider CITC still to be a startup. Over the next few years, it’s imperative that we attract additional customers, broaden our scope and, above all, prove we have something to contribute,” says the managing director.
CITC focuses on the final stages of the chip manufacturing process, referred to as the back-end. Traditionally, this involves wrapping freshly baked chips with a protective wrapper while also taking care of the electrical connections to the outside world. Though a crucial part of making a functional chip, these processes have lived a life in the shadows for a long time. Cutting-edge lithography or the black arts of material composition and deposition – such front-end issues catch the imagination.
Over the past decade, however, the interest in – and glamour of – packaging has been growing rapidly, for a variety of reasons. One of them is simply the advance of semiconductor technology in general. As elements within a chip kept shrinking and its functionality expanding, chipmakers ran out of room for the electrical connections. New packaging techniques were required to make them fit.
Another reason is size: smartphone manufacturers want to keep making their products better but not bulkier and more power hungry. Naked chips are generally as small as they can get, so packaging has to step up. For example, multiple chips can be combined – or integrated – in a single package, thus reducing size, as well as overall power consumption. This isn’t just of interest to smartphone manufacturers; many applications stand to benefit from such advanced integration. The Internet of Things will never happen without it.
Emerging applications, in general, drive the need for new or better-performing semiconductor technology. The range of an electric car partly depends on the performance of the power electronics on board, and the performance of those chips partly depends on their packaging. This is also the case in the RF (wireless) domain, for example in 5G’s rollout.
A complete list of advanced packaging and integration technologies would fill many pages, and CITC will cover only a few of them. “It would be impossible to cover the entire back-end and become a world-class player. We need to focus,” explains Peet. “Besides, we don’t want to compete with any existing activities. Imec, for example, also has advanced packaging programs. It would make no sense to start competing with those.”
Imec does serve as CITC’s inspiration, in terms of both the status the Leuven institute has achieved in the semiconductor industry and its business model. The Nijmegen center, too, will be working with companies, universities and research institutes to bridge the gap between basic research and corporate R&D. Any technology CITC develops, will be shared among participants.
CITC launched with three customers onboard: Ampleon, Nexperia and NXP. Your programs in the packaging of high-power and RF electronics appear to be neatly tailored to their needs. Isn’t that a rather narrow focus?
Peet: “We needed a couple of large customers to get going. Next, we need to attract more companies. Eventually, we want to cover the whole value chain, so we’re reaching out to material suppliers and equipment manufacturers, for example. Based on whatever needs and opportunities arise along the way, we’ll expand our programs. It’s a step-by-step process.”
Do these prospective customers include SMEs?
“Absolutely, this is a high priority. But first, we have to find the right proposition for SMEs. Clearly, no SME will join a four-year program that costs 50-100k per year. We might be able to help out smaller companies with specific, well-defined issues. We’re considering voucher arrangements, for example, to make that happen.”
That sounds a lot like you’ll be providing services. Shouldn’t that be left to commercial parties?
“We need to be very careful about that. First of all, we might become too dependent on the fees, which is a risk. Secondly, we don’t want to compete with existing companies. On the contrary, whenever a company has a service available that CITC needs, we’ll cooperate with that company.”
An SME packaging company, Sencio, is located literally one hundred meters from CITC, yet it’s not involved. Why not?
“I really would like to have Sencio onboard, it’s a matter of finding a way that works for us both. Surely having an advanced packaging research institute in its backyard is an advantage for a company like Sencio. For example, we could develop technology together for a customer with special requirements, where they can take care of volume production.”
Past experiences have shown that open-innovation institutes struggle to be of relevance for SMEs. In the end, they need the deep pockets of large companies, often from abroad. Will it be different with CITC?
“I don’t think we can afford to sidestep world-class players if we want to become world-class ourselves. And, indeed, in our line of business, these players are in Asia.”
If that’s the case, aren’t you running the risk of developing technology that’s subsidized by the Dutch taxpayer but primarily monetized abroad?
“Our mission is to make sure everyone involved reaps the rewards from the collaborative effort. I’m aware who’s funding us, and what’s expected in return. I strongly believe CITC can deliver because of the opportunities that collective R&D activities provide. I don’t mind becoming an R&D vehicle for a company, as long as additional parties stand to gain from our work.”
Some of the subsidies that were provided to start CITC are a one-time deal. As time passes, you will be expected to get by on less public financing. How will you manage?
“I’m optimistic about finding funding, because our government, as well as the European Union, are increasingly emphasizing the importance of Key Enabling Technologies. We should be able to draw upon those funds.”
More customers, relevancy for SMEs without competing with them and funding: clearly, Peet wasn’t exaggerating. He’ll need to shake a lot more hands over the next few years.