“In the next 5 to 10 years, if any country wants to be an economic superpower, they will need significant investment in the electronic and semiconductor sector. The new US Act is a reflection of that,” says Satya Gupta, chairman of the India Electronics and Semiconductor Association (IESA).
But building foundries to make microchips is difficult, even for superpowers. Another viable strategy is to go the fabless route. Fabless chip makers design and sell their own chips, but outsource the manufacturing of the chips. Qualcomm, Nvidia and AMD do that. Intel looks to be considering that. India has neither foundries, nor much by way of fabless companies. But it has phenomenal talent for fabless design and R&D. “More than 90% of semiconductor companies have their R&D centres in India where cutting edge chip development work takes place. Semiconductor R&D alone produces almost $2.5 billion in revenue. Another $20 billion comes from electronics products and embedded systems. The total employment generated is about 6 lakh,” says Gupta.
Intel engineers in Bengaluru, he says, have worked on its latest Foveros technology, where multiple silicon dies manufactured in different technologies are combined into a single product (Lakefield) using sophisticated interconnect and 3D stacking, redefining Moore’s law from 2D to 3D. The Qualcomm India team is working on world leading Snapdragon mobile processors combining latest technologies in low power, processing speed, camera functions, AI/ML and a broad variety of interfaces like 5G, GPS and Navic. The AMD team has done a superb job with power optimisation techniques in the 7nm technology for Ryzen-4000 series. Similarly, very high end work is being done by engineers at ARM, Texas Instruments, NXP, Micron, Xilinx, Western Digital, Mediatek and many other semiconductor giants, he says.
Among startups, he says, Steradian is doing the cutting edge work of putting radar on the chip, Alpha-IC is bringing the power of AI/ML to silicon for edge computing and signal chips, and Saankhya for 5G and communication technologies.
Gupta says that investing in a vibrant semiconductor ecosystem will help India achieve crucial goals like doubling the income of farmers and providing healthcare and education to the vast rural population. “Israel has done this in a very integrated manner. Imagine if a person can go to one centre to get a soil analysis done, while also getting a health checkup and have educational facilities via tech-enabled classrooms,” says Gupta.
These integrated centres, he says, can also be a rich source of diverse data. “Data is going to be crucial to help researchers and innovators develop and design better technology, especially with the rise for AI,” he says.
Indian fabless companies, Gupta says, struggle for funding. A fabless startup in India needs a $3 to $5 million investment and a minimum three-year gestation period. The country, he says, should create an environment to enable this.