With $52B hovering out there for the U.S. reshoring effort, it is not surprising that anyone and everyone, involved in any way with the industry, is trying to devise a way to get part of the pie. It should also not surprise anyone that academia, who gets much of their research support from government agencies, would also have their hand out.

Let’s take a look at what the recent white paper by MIT, “Reasserting US Leadership in Microelectronics – the Role of Universities” had to say. Note this is not just the opinion of MIT, this document lists several dozen professors at other U.S. universities who have signed on to support the conclusions presented in this report.

Note that the italicized sections below are excerpted directly from the report.

This white paper gives a high-level vision for how universities can best contribute towards the national priority of reasserting U.S. leadership in microelectronics. They propose a process for deliberation and resource allocation that looks at three key questions:

  1. What are the needs of the country?
  2. How do they map onto the core competencies of universities?
  3. What programs and partnerships are most likely to deliver the desired results?

The study leads to recommendations in the following five categories:

  1. Education and workforce development
  2. Research
  3. Technology translation, startups, and intellectual property
  4. Academic infrastructure
  5. Regional networks

MIT Statement on US Leadership in Microelectronics

“Microelectronics underpin our modern information society. The extraordinary progress—within a single human generation—that we have witnessed in health, communications, computation, energy, transportation and so many other areas of human endeavor stem from the revolutionary advancements of microelectronics technologies over the last 50 years. Arguably, no other technology in history has advanced so fast or delivered so much to human society. The unrivaled leadership of the U.S. in microelectronics since its inception has brought enormous economic progress to our nation and deterred adversaries that could threaten our security.

That commanding role, however, has eroded over time. Other countries are now vigorously contesting U. S. leadership in microelectronics, and that includes countries often at odds with our nation’s interests and values. As leading-edge semiconductor manufacturing capacity has dramatically dwindled in the U.S., this realization has prompted a deep examination of the entire ecosystem in which microelectronics thrives.

This analysis has revealed multiple weaknesses and gaps that the U.S. government is committed to addressing through the CHIPS Act and other legislation.

This white paper aims to contribute to the synthesis of a national vision for the role of universities as part of an ambitious holistic drive for the U.S. to reassert its leadership in microelectronics. U.S. universities play a unique role in the ecosystem that supports the nation’s excellence in advanced technology and can provide a singular perspective”.

Education and Workforce Development

Universities, together with colleges and community colleges, contribute virtually the entire workforce in the microelectronics ecosystem… U.S. universities have long enjoyed an enviable preeminence in science and technology that has contributed to the long-standing U.S. microelectronics leadership…. Staying on top has grown precarious given the aging facilities and inadequate resources of U.S. universities.

Societal interest in “hard tech” among U.S. students wanes. Hidden deep inside shiny boxes, microchips are taken for granted, and STEM-inclined students today cannot see a fulfilling career in the microelectronics industry that creates them. Meanwhile, other countries, including our adversaries, have made it a national priority to wrestle the microelectronics future away from the U.S.

For the U.S. to regain worldwide leadership in microelectronics, a dramatic expansion of the size and diversity of the microelectronics workforce is imperative. There is no more strategic convergence of interests among university, industry, and government than the education of the next generation of technicians, engineers, scientists, and technical leaders in microelectronics.

Still, they report that “the U.S. educational system is failing to produce a sufficient number of American workers and students with the necessary STEM expertise to meet the needs of the semiconductor industry.” Among undergraduates with an interest in STEM disciplines, enrollment in the “hard disciplines” has been withering for many years in favor of majors such as computer science. The challenge goes beyond the training of engineers and Ph.D. candidates in microelectronics. Indeed, it is commonly estimated that 50 technicians are needed to support every Ph.D. working in the industry.

Underlying this apathy towards microelectronics-related disciplines is a lack of awareness of how microelectronics can help address the world’s most pressing problems, something that undergraduates tell us is motivating. They also do not see fulfilling careers at the other end of a very demanding course of study. “This … will require concerted collective action to correct.”

The involvement of educational institutions that for much too long have been on the sidelines of the microelectronics enterprise is imperative. Well-established universities should open their facilities and share their resources and know-how with a wide range of colleges and community colleges and should support the creation of educational programs, hands-on and research experiences, and internship opportunities for their students. Outreach efforts to middle school, high school, and community colleges must expand and deepen their reach.

Technology translation, start-ups, and intellectual property

U.S. universities are hotbeds of innovative technologies and new knowledge. That knowledge is disseminated into the world through multiple mechanisms such as symposia, conferences, research papers.  

Many effective technology-transfer avenues from universities to industry exist…… Joint research projects that bring together university and industry collaborators are particularly effective in enabling fruitful direct exchanges…. It is often the case that the products of university research do not initially reveal their ultimate commercial value. In microelectronics hardware, where the typical time for an invention to reach the marketplace is 10 years, it takes a certain degree of technology maturation for the value of a new concept to become apparent.

Microelectronics technology maturation requires a toolset, a baseline of established process modules, functional block designs, and strict execution protocols that reflect the ultimate manufacturing environment. Shared university facilities generally cannot meet these high standards. Instead, an effective path for translation of new university technologies is through partnerships with prototyping facilities, national labs, and commercial foundries. Prototyping facilities in national labs play the unique and critical role of facilitating the translation of technologies with strategic national security significance. Fostering prototyping facilities and subsidizing engagement with universities to promote technology maturation should be a high priority in a national microelectronics program.

University-generated tech startups also can have a considerable impact on the world. Fostering the formation and growth of startups should be among the core goals of a comprehensive national microelectronics strategy. Startup activities could be fostered by providing subsidized access to university facilities when compatible with the university’s core research and educational mission.

The inventors of a technology are often the best entrepreneurs to transition their innovations to market. Incentives for students and postdocs to engage in technology translation activities, whether through startups or by participating in a rigorous prototyping effort, can be created by means of translational fellows’ programs. These programs would support students and postdocs outside their regular research activities as they explore the commercialization of the technologies they have created.

U.S. universities grant licenses to their patented and copyrighted inventions to both established companies and startups if the licensee demonstrates the technical and financial capabilities to develop the early-stage technology into commercially successful products. Research contracts with the industry generally include terms that create options for the sponsor to license the IP that is generated in the course of the research in a nonexclusive or exclusive form in a field of use. An exclusive license within a field of use is a crucial asset for a startup, as it confers to it a higher valuation and increases its ability to attract capital.

When mixing industry consortia and US government research funds, as is desirable in the launch of ambitious, multidisciplinary, multi-university research programs, much more restrictive IP terms than those typical for U.S. government contracts are ultimately adopted. The sheer size of these programs and the number of consortia players that are involved make IP negotiations highly unbalanced.

A new process for microelectronics IP generation and protection in a university environment must be established that respects the spirit of the Bayh-Dole Act. An organization with representatives from government, industry, academia, and the venture capital community should be created to generate policies and provide oversight.

 Academic Infrastructure

Attention to university infrastructure should extend to facilities for metrology, CAD, system design and prototyping, testing and packaging, and access to integrated circuit (IC) shuttle runs. These capabilities often sit in private labs or are otherwise out of reach to students taking classes. Existing shared facilities should support these resources for the benefit of the entire community and CAD licensing arrangements and necessary cyberinfrastructure should be put in place to allow flexible access by the at-large student body.

Universities need to move to 200mm

Most advanced U.S. university facilities today are designed to handle 150-mm (~6-inch) wafers. After three decades, this flexible foundation of general-purpose research tools must be updated and selectively complemented by 200- mm capability.  

University facilities are uniquely equipped to investigate new materials, processes, structures, and devices. In fact, industry often reaches out to universities to explore new concepts that they cannot pursue in their more rigid facilities.

The flexibility of the university toolset comes at the price of repeatability, uptime, and performance. Limited repeatability and uptime are a consequence of the instrument age as well as the broad parameter space in which they typically are operated. Also, the capabilities of 150-mm tools are very far from the state-of-the-art production of 200-mm and 300-mm equipment.

The limited capabilities of the 150-mm toolset particularly hamper universities’ ability to participate in technology translation activities, whether in collaboration with external prototyping foundries or by supporting the advanced development efforts of startups.

Faculty & Staff

A highly qualified, well-motivated technical staff is an integral element of a successful operation. A national program that aims to restore U. S. microelectronics leadership should also invest in the creation of new faculty slots at U.S. universities and colleges and provide flexible start-up funds for equipment and research support in the early years of a faculty career.

Further, a renewed partnership in microelectronics between industry and academia should recruit seasoned and experienced researchers from the industry to participate in university education and research activities. It will be essential to develop programs that foster the on-campus presence of industry experts as visiting scientists, professors of practice, guest lecturers, and mentors. In the other direction, it is equally important to establish research sabbaticals for faculty and university research personnel at prototyping facilities and industry research R&D laboratories.

Regional Networks

Accomplishing the goals articulated in this white paper will involve the engagement of institutions (colleges, universities, community colleges, high school and middle schools, community centers such as science museums) that have not traditionally been part of the U.S. microelectronics enterprise. Further, smaller educational institutions with distinguished educational or research programs that are limited in scope and size could enlarge their involvement under the proposed initiative. Widely expanding the number of players, scaling up their activities, and engaging a highly diverse population of students is singularly essential to accomplishing the workforce education goals of this plan. It is in this quest that regional network effects can be helpful.

We envision a loose confederation of institutions that coordinate research, education, outreach, and internship activities at a regional scale. Programs should be created to facilitate access to technical expertise and shared experimental and design facilities. Educational facilities, content, and know-how also can be effectively pooled at a regional scale through a mixed in-person/online approach. Across all these dimensions, regional-level meetings, conferences, informal get-togethers, career fairs, startup exchanges, educational competitions, and other networking events can contribute greatly to the whole.

In Conclusion:

While IFTLE found no surprises in this document, i.e. “ …we need more money and more faculty and better toolset”  we certainly agree that they do play a very important role in reshoring because they do “supply the entire workforce to this endeavor”. There are a lot of points herein that should be taken seriously and acted on as we begin our reshoring effort.

For all the latest in Advanced Packaging stay linked to IFTLE…………………..

Phil Garrou

Dr. Philip Garrou is a subject matter expert for DARPA and runs his consulting company…

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