GRENOBLE, France — With the inexorable rise of apps and software driven by Google, Facebook and Apple, Silicon Valley has long since ceased to be about the substrate that made its name.
Hardware is passé and, to the chagrin of many chip designers, it doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
Furthermore, unless you’re Intel, the last giant still standing in the valley, a constant M&A cycle engulfing semiconductor companies one after another doesn’t give you the time you need to ponder long-term issues — like what comes next after CMOS.
This transition, however, poses a possible opening for a Grenoble-based French laboratories called CEA-Leti, which is promoting itself as an important partner to Silicon Valley.
As one of the world’s largest organizations for applied research in microelectronics and nanotechnology, CEA-Leti is exploring the future of semiconductors. With a team of research experts and leading-edge industrial equipment, the French institute is going after breakthroughs in microelectronics for which most medium to small Silicon Valley companies have neither the will, resources nor bandwidth.
During an interview with EE Times last week here, Marie-Noëlle Semeria, CEO at CEA Leti, told us, in unequivocal terms: “Innovation still is in hardware.” She said, “You can tune software [that runs on chips] but software isn’t enough” to develop key differentiating technologies.
Semeria, a soft-spoken CEO who got the top job two years ago, is on a mission. Quietly but doggedly, she is punching holes in the almost 50-year old French laboratory institute.
Marie-Noëlle Semeria, CEA-Leti CEO
Semeria, physicist by training, has made it her task to bring out the best of the CEA-Leti’s expertise, find partners to take Leti’s breakthrough technologies all the way to “solutions” or “products on the market,” and get its own researchers engaged in “moonshot” projects that matter to the whole world, as she explained.
The best example of the ongoing efforts at CEA-Leti is a new R&D agreement with Intel — signed last May.
Semeria calls the five-year contract with Intel a “moonshot.” Included in the new research framework is a plan for Leti to provide technologies that enable next-generation communication for the Internet of Things.
“Nobody — other than Intel — has asked us to do such ambitious research,” said Semeria. For Intel, CEA-Leti researchers must go beyond incremental improvements in IoT, she noted. “They are asking us to develop technology whose speed is much faster — by one order of magnitude,” meaning 10 times faster.
Central to the cooperation is the development of “technology enabling future of communication,” described Semeria. The research includes wireless communication systems and faster exchanges, the integration of connected objects and the study of low-consumption communication technologies. CEA-Leti will also work on security technologies and 3D displays.
Semeria said that Intel screened all the scientific reports and papers and recognized CEA-Leti’s competence in a variety of fields including RF, security, high-speed, low-power communications and others.
The contract with Intel is too big a deal for CEA-Leti to under-deliver. Semeria acknowledges that developing “demonstrators” on each of those new technologies won’t be easy. But “that’s why this is a ‘moon shot’ for us,” said Semeria. It “challenges all of us.” She added that the collaboration with Intel forces everyone – both at CEA-Leti and Intel – to work in a much more interdisciplinary manner.
While disclosing the exact results of each technology development will be left to Intel, Semeria said, “We can still share what we’ve learned along with way with other medium to small companies in France or Europe, who can neither drive nor pay for such an ambitious project.”
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