Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology; Image: Reuters/Amit Dave
During last week's three-day SemiconIndia conference in Gandhinagar, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology, stressed on the progress made in the semiconductor sector in the last 15 months. And rightly so. From Micron Technology to Applied Materials, and now AMD and Foxconn, global tech giants who were present at the conference, are pouring investments into the growing semiconductor market in India. In an exclusive conversation with Forbes India, Chandrasekhar spoke about the government’s plan to build semiconductor expertise in India, funding new startups, execution challenges, and more. Edited excerpts:
Q. India has surpassed China's population, but can we replace China as the world's factory?
Unfortunately India, in the many decades before 2014, missed the opportunities in electronics and semiconductors through a combination of lack of political vision, incompetence, and negligence. Since 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, through governance, policies, and financial resources, built a vibrant, fast-growing electronics ecosystem, and similarly, in early 2022, he embarked on catalysing the semiconductor ecosystem. Over the last 15 months, the pace and the milestones achieved have led us and the world to look at India as a trusted and growing partner in global electronics and semiconductors. I have no doubt that in the next decade India will achieve expertise in electronics and semiconductors manufacturing, but China took 30 years to do so, spent $200 billion, and yet failed in semiconductors.
Q. Making semiconductors isn't easy. How will India build the expertise?
Semiconductors require complex manufacturing processes and ecosystems. Each chip is a marvel in science and engineering, and every fabrication and packaging unit represents pushing the boundaries of science and engineering. When we talk about semiconductors, we are essentially talking about reinventing the way we innovate. But India is confident that in this area too we will build capabilities and presence.
Q. What are the roadblocks for India to foray into chip-making?
Chip-making is not easy, nor is it trivial. There are no roadblocks, as there will be problems that will lead to solutions. The present government has a track record of taking on complex challenges and delivering satisfactory outcomes. India will not disappoint.
India and the EU have tied up for semiconductors, as have India and Japan. There is no global semiconductor company today that does not have an R&D centre in India. Every one of them is using Indian talent. This is a big difference. The challenges for us are how do we make sure that we continue the momentum and ensure we are able to execute on the opportunities in a joint manner without slipping up. So, execution is the key challenge, and that is what we are focussed on.
Q. Why is India so bullish on getting into semiconductor manufacturing?
Over the past few decades, we have tried and failed repeatedly to make a breakthrough in the semiconductor space. However, as of December 2021, India’s presence in this ecosystem is a growing reality. The progress that we have made in the last 15 months is kind of a report card of the Indian semiconductor mission and our ambitions. There is almost an alignment of global interests now; the global vision of the future of the semiconductor ecosystem and India's own ambitions and capabilities.
Also Read: The unbelievably complex process of making semiconductor chips
Q. The government has approved seven semiconductor startups for funding. How much funding are they getting?
The government has set aside about $200 million to invest and help startups in the design and innovation space. The semiconductor mission is gaining slow and steady confidence. I think it was, in a lot of ways, a very new thing for startups to get into deep tech, into semiconductor design, and expectedly, we haven't reached the critical mass in terms of the number of people to apply for this programme. But certainly, I can see from the over 35 startups that have applied for this programme that there is an increase in momentum and an increase in awareness and confidence among startups to participate in it. Under the semiconductor design-linked incentive (DLI) scheme, we are considering including larger companies as well, both foreign and Indian, that intend to get into the semiconductor design space.
Q. Can you tell us more about India’s semiconductor research centre?
Research is an important and critical part of our strategy in terms of building capability and capacity in the country. As a placeholder, the institution that is being designed and built in India is called India's Semiconductor Research Centre. The name may change, but effectively it will be an institution that is a private-public partnership, with a large number of partners that will be overseas academic institutions, Indian academic institutions, global semiconductor companies, Indian enterprises, and the government as the anchor partner. A group of industry partners in the India semiconductor mission have worked very hard to develop the design of this.
Q. The government has invited new applications for setting up semiconductor fabs and display fabs. What is expected in the coming months?
Micron Technology’s investment in Gujarat is a significant decision that validates India's credentials as an investment destination for a global brand. And it also catalyses the development of the supply chain for complex packaging, ATMP [assembly, testing, marking, packaging] units, and down-the-road fabrication units. On the fabs, I know there's a lot of interest. And I hope it remains the same in the coming months and years as well. Our strategy on this in the early days has been slightly corrected. We are now more focussed on legacy nodes, the more mature nodes. We think it is a better strategy than starting with less risky, more adaptable nodes and then working our way up over the medium term to much more advanced nodes. So that is where we are focussed, and we are in discussions and engagements on 14 nanometre fabs, 28 nanometre fabs, compound fabs, gallium, and silicon carbide.
There is an old advertisement that I used to encounter during my time in the cellular world, and it used to say the future is bright. And I'll paraphrase that ad: The future is bright, and the future is the Indian semiconductor ecosystem.