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Chips, Wireless Technologies and All..

Himamshu Khasnis,
Founder and CEO,
Signalchip Innovations Pvt. Ltd

Himamshu Khasnis is Founder and CEO at Signalchip Innovations Pvt. Ltd, an Indian Fabless Semiconductor Company working on chips for wireless technologies. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s organization.

Recently I was asked to write about chips, wireless technologies, how we do it in India and all. Sitting in an Ola, I was gathering my thoughts and the driver turned on the FM radio. It started playing this song from yesteryears which sent me back in time…
Mera joota hai Japani
Yeh patloon English-stani
Sar pe laal topi Roosi
Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani

I had seen some black and white photographs of the “Mercury Coherer” built by JC Bose in 1890s. The “Mercury Coherer” was the first practical receiver built for wireless communications. This all-important technology was pioneered on Indian soil. So unlikely, but true! It happened in Kolkata, India! However, we have had a lull for a full century after that. There have been many contributions coming out of India in the electronics field, but not at that level I surmise. Also, in the last couple of decades, we have definitely become one of the largest consumers of wireless data, computer chips and electronics in general.

The new wireless receivers are all made using high tech “semiconductor chips”. With the abundance of brainpower, India has been a major contributor to the design of chips used in the world. While most of Indian talent is engaged in the implementation of the chips, very few have exposure to the conceptualization phase (where technology and business ideation happens). But the scene is not all that bleak. There has been a good beginning. Some companies like Saankhya Labs, Signalchip, Cirel have braved to venture into this field and built some of the first chips from India. We now have chips for 4G/5G, Stylus, mobile broadcast, IoT, positioning (GPS/NavIC) and a few other technologies owned by Indian companies. Newer companies are popping up here and there. There have been a few Indian companies building IPs for the consumption of semiconductor product companies as well.

Also, one might be seeing a lot of buzz about building semiconductor fabs in India. Fabs take up the job of physically creating the chips from sand, copper, aluminum and other material. Fabs are amongst most complex factories out there. In fact, they represent the frontier of human achievement in manufacturing technology. Needless to say, all major economies in the world would like to have their own fabs or at the minimum, a guaranteed access to fabs. India too has been making conscious effort to get fabs in the country. With the CHIPS act, we have seen US itself trying to regain its self-sufficiency in being able to make chips. Fabs require very long gestation cycles involving extremely high investment and Government willpower is definitely necessary to make them happen.

However, the mainstream fabless semiconductor industry where I spend my time has been facing a peculiar identity issue in India. The moment I says “semiconductor” in India, the first question asked is, “Oh, do you manufacture chips?”. I answer “No, we own them, we design them and manufacture with an external fab”. Then there is a sarcastic smile on the person’s face “You only design then?”.

This comes from a misconception that owning chips means “manufacturing chips”. It does not take too much of googling to know that most chips in the world are owned by fabless companies. Semiconductor Fab is a printing press and Fabless Semiconductor Company is the newspaper. We need both. While the fabs focus on creating transistors from the base material, fabless companies go and understand the verticals like 4G, 5G, wifi, positioning, IoT, compute etc. in terms of technology and market. They develop Intellectual Property in these domains.  They create the circuits and come up with all the patterns necessary to directly enter the fabrication process. They pay the fabs to make these chips. They own the chips that are so manufactured by the fabs. They put the chips in larger systems and create reference designs for equipment manufacturers to whom they sell the chips. 

While it is acknowledged that building a fab requires a large investment, what is sometime missed out is that, with the complexity of chips crossing hundreds of millions of transistors, designing a chip costs a lot of money as well. On an average, semiconductor companies spend more than 100M$(INR 800Cr) to make a complex System on Chip (SoC) before they start mass manufacturing it.  Ultimately, since customers for the fabs are only the fabless companies, the cumulative capital requirement of the fabless companies that use a fab is in fact even more than that of the fab. They need to design the chips, fund their own R&D and also pay the fab (on which the fab has to sustain itself). Once established, the fabless ecosystem needs to be very robust to sustain the fab efforts as well. Otherwise, we will have huge expensive clean rooms sitting idle. 

Notwithstanding the requirement of filling our fabs in the future, promoting Design Led Innovation in fabless semiconductor companies right away is very important for a secure future. Communication, automotive, compute, entertainment, almost every application of the day involves usage of semiconductor chips. Many of these technologies are crucial strategically and almost all are important from an economic perspective. Most of these technologies take very long time to design, test and prove. Also, with the current geopolitical situation, there is a large requirement for chips and equipment from trusted sources. This has opened up a new set of opportunities. Being the world’s largest democracy, India can tap this situation to place itself as a trusted supplier of chips and equipment for key sectors like telecommunication, networking, data centers, AI and many more that are fast emerging. 

One option is to let the industry take its course and leave it to the entrepreneurs to figure it out. However, if quick results are to be achieved with certainty, a conducive and supportive policy framework is necessary. A while back I wrote about semiconductors being the forgotten future of India. Very soon after that, a flurry of activities started, almost as if to prove me wrong. We are seeing a definite shift in the focus on Semiconductors with policy interventions from the Government. The recent semiconductor policy looks at creating fabs and also the fabless ecosystem in India. Many incentives have been notified by the Government of India (GoI) for the fabless chip industry. The Design Linked Incentive program (DLI) from MeiTY is a very good scheme to support start-ups trying to build chips from India. We also have the DCIS scheme by DoT which is supporting technology development for telecom, chips included. Also, DoT is supporting Indian companies to do field trial of their chips/systems in live environments through pilot projects. MeitY has a Chips2Startup program targeting new chip companies. More such schemes are needed. Also, there is a requirement to acknowledge the huge scale of investment that is necessary for a Fabless Chip Design Company to do what it takes. As I mentioned earlier, on an average, semiconductor companies spend more than 100M$(INR 800Cr) to make a complex SoC.  The current DLI scheme reimburses 50% of the R&D expenses up to a limit of 15Cr. While this kind of support has never happened in the past, the quantity might need to be increased for complex chips. There still remain some barriers like minimum revenue requirement for eligibility to participate in Govt programs etc. that needs to be addressed.

Also, achieving all this will require us to make the mighty Indian design power work for India, which leads me to the next thing I would like to touch upon. Chip design is a complex “super-skill”. This is a field that requires the top talent in the country. While there is no dearth of smart engineers in India, there are very few who choose to work for an Indian start-up. We need to get the best talent pool work for Aatmanirbhar Semiconductor Chips. There is a need to motivate the top talent to contribute to this. Schemes to incentivize top talent to work for Indian companies could go a long way in India realizing its Aatmanirbharta.

All said and done, we keep moving along with what is there. And what is there today feels better than what was there yesterday. For the few who are trying, there are more voices supporting them. Slowly, the “shabhashi” is turning into real help. As an eternal optimist, I would like to think tomorrow is going to be even better. The momentum that has picked up will thrust us into a new orbit. What started in 1890s as the contribution of a radio receiver to the world can become “Aatmanirbhar Bharat’s chips for a Samyukta Jagat”, Indian chips for a connected world!

The Ola has reached the destination. I walk out, but the song still rings in my ears, with a twist…
Mera joota Hindustani
Yeh patloon Hindustani
Sar pe laal topi Desi
Aur yeh dil bhi Hindustani

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