The Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre (IMEC) located in Leuven, Belgium, does not design chips (like America’s Intel), manufacture them (like TSMC of Taiwan) or make any of the complicated gear (like ASML, a Dutch firm). Instead, it creates knowledge used by everyone in the $550bn chip business. Given chips’ centrality to the modern economy and increasingly to modern geopolitics, too, that makes it one of the most essential industrial research-and-development (R&D) center on the planet. Luc Van den hove, IMEC’s boss, calls it the “Switzerland of semiconductors”.
IMEC was founded in 1984 by a group of electronics engineers from the Catholic University of Leuven who wanted to focus on microprocessor research. In the early days it was bankrolled by the local Flemish government. Today IMEC maintains its neutrality thanks to a financial model in which no single firm or state controls a big share of its budget. The largest chunk comes from the Belgian government, which chips in some 16%. The top corporate contributors provide no more than 4% each. Keeping revenue sources diverse (partners span the length and breadth of the chip industry) and finite (its standard research contracts last three to five years) gives IMEC the incentive to focus on ideas that help advance chipmaking as a whole rather than any firm in particular.
A case in point is the development of extreme ultraviolet lithography (EUV)…It took 20 years of R&D to turn the idea into manufacturing reality. IMEC acted as a conduit in that process… Advanced toolmakers want a way to circulate their intellectual property (IP) without the large companies gaining sway over it. The large companies, meanwhile, do not want to place all their bets on any one experimental idea that is expensive (as chipmaking processes are) and could become obsolete.
IMEC’s neutrality allows both sides to get around this problem. It collects all the necessary gear in one place, allowing producers to develop their technology in tandem with others. And everyone gets rights to the IP the institute generates. Mr Van den hove says that progress in the chip industry has been driven by the free exchange of knowledge, with IMEC acting as a “funnel” for ideas from all over the world…IMEC’s revenues, which come from the research contracts and from prototyping and design services, doubled between 2010 and 2020, to €678m ($773m).
The deepening rift between America, home to some of the industry’s biggest firms, and China, which imported $378bn-worth of chips last year, threatens IMEC’s spirit of global comity. China’s chip industry is increasingly shielded by an overbearing Communist Party striving for self-sufficiency, and ever more ostracized by outsiders as a result of American and European export controls. All this limits the extent to which IMEC can work with Chinese semiconductor companies…IMEC would not comment on individual partnerships but says it has “a few engagements with Chinese companies, however not on the most sensitive technologies, and always fully compliant with current European and US export regulations and directives”.
Excerpts from Neutral but not idle: IMEC offers neutral ground amid chip rivalries, Economist, Sept. 25, 2021