February 14, 2024

SwissChips Initiative: A boost for the Swiss Chip industry

The SwissChips Initiative, spearheaded by CSEM, EPFL, and ETH Zurich, promises advancements in design and production, catapulting Switzerland to the forefront of the global semiconductor arena. By fostering collaboration between academia and industry, the initiative aims to drive innovation and economic growth. Alain-Serge Porret, Vice-President and Head of Integrated and Wireless Systems at CSEM, explains the latest breakthrough in Swiss chip technology.

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Strengthen Swiss research collaborations in IC design and microelectronics

The SwissChips Initiative is a collaborative effort launched by CSEM, EPFL, and ETH Zurich, with support from various Swiss and European research entities, semiconductor associations, and industrial partners. This initiative is supported by the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI). Inspired by the US and European Chips Acts, this act aims to enhance the Swiss semiconductor sector by promoting cutting-edge research in integrated circuit (IC) design. The initiative covers a wide range of domains such as: Computing System on Chips (SoCs), 6G Communications, Space Electronics and Photonics, SoCs for Autonomous IoT Devices, Chips for EDGE AI, Biomedical Circuits and Systems, and Devices and Sensors.

ETH Zurich coordinates the program, with all three founding institutions taking leading roles in their respective research areas. These efforts are designed to bolster microelectronics and IC design research, innovation, development, and businesses, ensuring Swiss academic institutions have access to cutting-edge manufacturing and design technologies. Additionally, the initiative aims to foster the Swiss semiconductor, microelectronics, and IC design ecosystem, developing robust synergies among research institutions.

Enhance the semiconductor sector in Switzerland

The program involves PhD and Postdoc researchers, as well as the existing engineering and research staff of the participating institutions, who will push the boundaries of IC design. This concerted effort will not only enhance Switzerland's influence in the semiconductor industry during the post-Global Chip Shortage era of 2020-2023 but also ensure the development of infrastructure and technologies that benefit all scientific domains. This includes making advancements accessible to Swiss universities and universities of applied sciences, thereby nurturing a holistic growth in the semiconductor, microelectronics, and IC design sectors.

The program is a transitional measure, that will run from 2024 to 2026, with a total budget of 33.8 million Swiss francs. Of this amount, 26 million Swiss francs comes from SERI, and the remaining 7.8 million Swiss francs from the combined efforts of CSEM, EPFL, and ETH Zurich. Through this investment, the SwissChips Initiative aims to secure Switzerland's role in the ongoing semiconductor transition, ensuring a sustainable impact on research, innovation, and industry collaboration within the nation's flourishing semiconductor and microelectronics ecosystem.

The program is organized into several work packages (WP), in which CSEM plays an active role. CSEM also leads or co-leads the following packages:

  • WP3: 6G Communications
  • WP5: SoCs for Autonomous IoT Devices
  • WP6: Chips for Edge AI
  • WP7: Biomedical Circuits and Systems

Additional Information

New Swiss chip initiative launched - Website ETH Zurich
Interested in joining CSEM's team on the SwissChips Initiative as PhD or Post-Doc researcher? Please check out our job openings below:

Alain-Serge Porret, Vice-President and Head of Integrated and Wireless Systems at CSEM© CSEM

“It is very important that the Swiss industry can participate and be informed of what is happening. There will be regular dissemination events organized to this effect, on top of our already existing tight relations with our partners.”

Alain-Serge Porret, Vice-President and Head of Integrated and Wireless Systems at CSEM, explains the latest breakthrough in Swiss chip technology

About the interviewee

Alain-Serge Porret holds the position of Vice President for Integrated and Wireless Systems at CSEM. His team provides optimized, application-specific solutions to minimize energy and footprint, including: resource-limited autonomous connected devices, smart vision systems, wireless communication, embedded software and dedicated integrated circuits linked to these topics.

Previously, he co-founded several start-ups in the consumer electronics domain during a 13-year stint in Silicon Valley. His academic accolades include a Ph.D. from EPFL (Switzerland), where his work made a significant contribution to the then-emerging field of ultra-low-power CMOS radio chips.

What challenge do you foresee in achieving the goals outlined by the new SwissChips Initiative?

The challenge is typical for CSEM: guide researchers to help them achieve results that are not only novel, but applicable to the problems of our partners in the Swiss industry. We complement existing capabilities and maximize the impact of the investment, measured by successful technology transfers to local industry.

And in terms of opportunities?

There are many: First, develop great tech useful to the economy and help companies active in the field or needing performant electronic devices to thrive. A whole ecosystem depends on this, not only the companies designing chips. SwissChips will help them keep the lead in domains where Switzerland is already strong such as ultra-low-power, autonomous devices for the IoT, sensing, medical or communications. Secondly, the initiative will further tighten the collaboration with ETHZ and EPFL with additional opportunities to exchange on and combine our respective research. Finally, the chance to collaborate with and benefit from more advanced manufacturing facilities in Europe.

How does the initiative address concerns regarding semiconductor supply chain vulnerabilities and ensure Switzerland's competitive edge in the global market?

Switzerland is not active in the cutting-edge manufacturing of chips, which would require gigantic facilities and billions in investment. However, we have specialized fabs and some leading providers of innovative chips, like EM Microelectronics for ultra-low-power, Sensirion for sensors, or Semtech and u-blox for communications. We also host world-leading companies that need specialized chips for very high-volume applications like mice or hearing aids. Finally, there are local manufacturing entrepreneurs around the chips – think of specialized electronics assembly – with entities like Valtronic, Hybrid or Miromico. We need to protect this unique expertise to stay relevant in the world arena.

Can you elaborate on the strategic partnerships and collaborations that the initiative aims to establish?

The initiative primarily aims at boosting research to plant the seeds of a new generation of specialists coming up with ideas of the future and translating these ideas into products. This will happen at the end of the program, when these experts join existing companies, benefit from our technology transfer process, or create new startups.

Local manufacturing partners will be directly contacted to help build proof of concepts and solve tough manufacturing issues.

How does the initiative prioritize environmental sustainability in chip design, manufacturing processes, and the overall lifecycle of semiconductor products?

Sustainable electronics is a complex topic and a growing concern in the tech industry. At CSEM, SwissChips will go hand in hand with another corresponding initiative and complement our efforts related to the solar cells and batteries of the future.

We believe that integrated circuits can be enablers for a more sustainable world. They allow the design of new types of pervasive devices ready to provide more accurate information about our world and how we use resources, with the ultimate goal of avoiding waste.

Standard chips are made almost exclusively of very pure silicon, or sand, which makes them quite inert and not harmful to the environment. However, their manufacturing has a footprint that needs to be included in the life cycle assessment (LCA) of the products built around it. Nevertheless, we believe that tiny, optimized chips with a high level of integration are a way to reduce the number of components, the size of the device and its casing. Even shrunk, the substrate the chip sits on is not eco-friendly today: so, our options are to use new substrates, interconnects and chip packaging materials, or even to build on biodegradable materials.

We also believe that our unique expertise in ultra-low-power devices allows drastically smaller batteries relying on more friendly but less efficient chemistries. Ultimately, for some applications, we may eliminate the battery completely, and use energy harvesting techniques, enabled by more integration and better chip design.

What are the potential implications of this initiative for the Swiss economy, both in terms of job creation and long-term economic growth?

According to an estimate from Swissmem, roughly 15,000 specialists are directly related to the semiconductor industry, 70,000 produce electronics sub-systems dependent on these chips, and approximately 300,000 jobs are impacted by the need for performant electronic devices.

The initiative is designed to help maintain and develop the edge Switzerland has in some specific pioneering applications, from consumer to industrial and medical products. There is no direct help for industry: but, by reinforcing the base of the pyramid of jobs mentioned above, we are confident that this innovation boost will contribute to motivate companies to invest in Switzerland rather than move their operations closer to the large, planned investments in Grenoble, Munich, or Cambridge.