India's semiconductor mission (ISM) needs to close 35-year gap

India has a 'minimal decent budget' (for ISM) that it needs to optimise and needs to recover lost time
Last Updated 28 April 2022, 12:23 IST

On April 29, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate the three-day Semicon India 2022 conference, a step forward in India's semiconductor mission. Announcements about the progress of this mission, especially proposals that the Ministry for Electronics and IT (MeitY) has received for silicon fabs, are expected at the event. Since the five applicants for silicon and display fabs were announced in February this year, there has been considerable curiosity about their proposals, technology partners and capabilities.

In this interview, Raj Kumar, Founder CEO of the IGSS Ventures Singapore, one of the three applicants for the silicon wafer fab, shares details of its plans to be part of the India Semiconductor Mission (ISM) and of its Project Suria. This hi-tech semiconductor park will host a tier-1 semiconductor fab. Its partners for Project Suria include Belgium's IMEC, a well-known global technology house with capabilities in technology nodes of 7 nm and below.

Qs: Besides IMEC, what is the composition of the consortium?

RK: Fab Suria will be managed as a pure-play foundry by IGSSV (large foundries such as TSMC, SMIC and UMC operate on the pure-play model). The consortium consists of one of the largest global industry parks and HTP Entity (Multi-US$B) that will take care of branding and global standards to attract global semiconductor and electronics entities. We will also have an established global Integrated Device Manufacturer (semiconductor entity) that will provide sizable demand loading on 22-28 nm and other technology nodes, fab training in their in-house fab and take a minority stake in the consortium. We are also negotiating with other global and local semiconductor companies. We are in the final stages of discussions with a local Indian partner.

Qs: Your document mentions IGSSV's leadership and core team's 30 years of experience in tier-1 foundry methodologies. IGGS was launched in 2013, and IGSS Ventures in 2017. Which are the other foundry projects that these team members have operationalised?

RK: IGSS, one of our subsidiaries, has provided fab transformation and management services to IDMs and foundry fabs in the US, Europe, UK, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia. The leadership and core team were responsible for operationalising seven foundry fabs. With past employers and customers, the IGSSV leadership team was responsible for managing and transforming foundry fabs into tier-1 fabs, competing with companies like TSMC. This was done over 24 years on fabs with wafer sizes of 6", 8", to 12" that included total fab management, from fab construction management to technology transfers/ development to ramping-up fabs into mass production fabs that support 30-40 customers per fab with multiple technology nodes. Both these agreements (with Project Suria partners) have been provided to MeitY, which shall be kept confidential until the selection process is complete.

Qs: Your document mentions 22-28 nm technology nodes introduced in a phased manner. What will be the technology advancement pipeline in Project Suria?

RK: The technologies proposed broadly encompass 28 nm digital/logic, analogue and mixed-signal, Silicon photonics (CMOS-compatible), GaN-on-Si (also CMOS-compatible), high voltage, etc. This is a good combination of optimising the financials, as it incorporates high-margin technologies like Silicon Photonics and GaN-on-Silicon, apart from mainstream technologies.

India's majority needs are 28nm and bigger nodes. Our focus is to bring emerging, mainstream, and niche technologies into India. Project Suria's journey will not stop at 28 nm, and future roadmaps will get into 14 nm, etc. It is important to launch the semiconductor fab journey correctly and timely. India is behind by 35 years in comparison to other semiconductor nations. Let's start closing that gap first.

Qs: You say that the total project cost proposed by IGSSV is $1.5billion, lower than other competitors. How will you achieve these cost efficiencies and savings?

RK: We have done this in our 30 years of pioneering foundry fab exposure. Foundry fabs were innovated and originated in Taiwan and Singapore. The know-how resides in just 1-3 entities globally. I will not be able to share this know-how publicly, but it encompasses all critical aspects of fab optimisation, from construction to equipment strategies to fab performance optimisation as mentioned above, productivity /automation and technology/business strategies that reduce gestation period and improves financials.

Qs: Have you shortlisted any locations for the fab? What is the support from state governments that you look forward to?

RK: We have serious initial written commitments from three states: Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Telangana, which have offered multiple locations. The key requirements will be adequate water supply (not just for the first fab and semiconductor ecosystems but for the additional fabs in the coming years), power infrastructure, good connectivity, reasonable distance to an international airport, ports, and amenities that will attract India's elite talent to this location. The state will have to be dynamic to support the project by sticking to timelines, which is crucial. They need to understand that it will be a 20-year journey to enable this semiconductor hi-tech park to grow and enable the ecosystem that will provide 27,000 or more high-quality jobs. The chosen state will benefit tremendously, with 80-85% of investments from outside the state for this strategic global industry.

Qs: Given that the Government of India's ISM team is not in place, what challenges do you foresee in driving Project Suria?

RK: It is a question that needs to be answered by MeitY/GoI. I understand they are getting ISM established by May.

Qs: Given India's history of failed missions, what are your fears?

RK: Execution and sticking to timelines are key. Sending the right consistent messages on this space to the global world is key. India has a 'minimal decent budget' (for the ISM) that it needs to optimise. It needs to recover lost time. Hence the differentiations are vital. It is more about enabling the crucial early steps and continuity for the next 20-30 years that will enable a whole new industry in India. The nation has raw talent in abundance. India's journey to becoming number two or three post 2030 will need significant self-sufficiency in semiconductor technologies and ecosystems.

An HQ setup and focus where the greatest capabilities of the consortium are centred around India with a win-win partnership and the potential to become a global leader in emerging /niche silicon technologies are the greatest points that decision-makers should not miss.

Qs: IGSS also has expertise in compound semiconductor fab. Will you be submitting a proposal for a compound semiconductor fab as well?

RK: No, we will not be submitting a proposal for compound fab. We are bringing mainstream Silicon technologies like Silicon Photonics and GaN-on-Silicon, which can only be fabricated in Silicon CMOS Friendly fabs.

(Choodie Shivaram is a senior journalist and researcher)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

(Published 28 April 2022, 12:23 IST)

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