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Semiconductor Research Corp. – Staying Flexible, Creative

By David Lammers

Larry Sumney foresees more systems-level research, more involvement in the Middle East, and more 3D-related programs for Semiconductor Research Corp. (SRC).

Larry Sumney

The SRC is approaching its 30th anniversary next year, with about 100 universities participating in its programs this year. Sumney, the SRC director for those three decades, had a distinguished career as a Naval Research physicist and ran the military’s billion-dollar Very High Speed Integrated Circuits (VHSIC) program before being named to head up the SRC in 1982.

Most of the SRC programs thus far have been aimed at “how to take CMOS to the limit,” Sumney said in an interview at the SRC’s TechCon event in Austin. Now, with so few companies financially able to invest in leading-edge device technology, the emphasis is changing. More research programs are aimed at system-level research, including circuit and system design. The new Multi Scale System Center, MuSyC, located at Berkeley and headed up by Prof. Jan Rabaey, is one example.

“Our members are becoming more interested in what we are calling ‘functions per unit volume,’” which includes stacking chips with TSV connections. “Scaling will continue, but it will become more and more expensive, and only a few companies can afford it,” Sumney said.

The Focus Centers, based at M.I.T, Berkeley, and other universities but involving larger networks of universities, are being reconfigured to adjust to these changing priorities. The emphasis is shifting to systems, chip stacking, and “adjacent spaces” such as biosensors and security. Sumney uses the word “recompete”  to describe how the SRC’s board obsoletes some Focus centers, puts out RFPs on new centers, and keeps the whole effort up-to-date.

“The Focus Centers are being redefined right now, but the result I am sure will be more emphasis on systems,” Sumney said.

Analog is another push. Texas Instruments, as part of its decision to have its foundry partners do much of the digital CMOS technology development, has shifted R&D toward analog. TI told the SRC board that it was less interested in funding the SRC’s programs. Instead of seeing TI go by the wayside, the SRC team put together the Texas Analog Center of Excellence, TxACE, based at the University of Texas at Dallas. Funding is shared equally by TI, the state of Texas, and the SRC. Prof. Kenneth O was enticed to move from Florida to Texas to head it up, and he in turn recruited several other analog design gurus.

While the SRC’s roots are in America, it is an international organization, with Tokyo Electron Ltd. and ATIC (the Abu Dhabi Technology Investment Corp.) as members. Earlier this week, seven research contracts were announced by the SRC, awarded to four universities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), with funding coming from ATIC. Those professors and students will collaborate with a network of U.S. universities and research labs. Sumney said it is highly possible that a similar set of research efforts will be established with KAUST University in Saudi Arabia.

“We tend to think that the output of these programs is the research results,” Sumney said. “But for our members, they are equally interested in identifying the good students, people they can hire. That is where much of the return on investment is for our members.”

The SRC is establishing new efforts in solar energy, smart power, energy storage, and power management, among others. Over its 30 years, the SRC has evolved.

“To succeed, we need to be creative,” Sumney said.

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