Luc Van den hove – world-class in chip research

Luc Van den hove is CEO of Imec, Europe’s largest research center for nano- and microelectronics.

You cannot miss the skyscraper from the highway to Leuven. On the top floor of the 15-story tower, Luc Van den hove has a good view over the flat countryside. The 61-year-old is CEO of Imec (Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre), Europe’s largest research center for nano- and microelectronics. Margrethe Vestager, Vice President of the EU Commission, mentioned Imec at the presentation of the European Chips Act as an important trump card that Europe has in global competition.

Luc Van den hove welcomes the proposed legislation. The Chips Act will improve Europe’s position in the global value chain, he says. The approach is “balanced”. On the one hand, existing players in Europe would be strengthened. And on the other hand, it will encourage international companies such as Intel, Taiwan’s TSMC, or Samsung to invest in Europe.

Europe can have an important say in the production of semiconductors, says Luc Van den hove. Without the machines of the Dutch tool manufacturer ASML, hardly anyone could produce chips. Manufacturers around the world also depend on Zeiss lithography optics to expose wafers with nano-precision. The Dutch semiconductor manufacturer NXP or Infineon and Bosch from Germany are also important players.

When it comes to research, Imec is a world leader, says the CEO confidently. Imec is a non-profit organization with offices in Tawan, Japan, China, and the USA. All the big names in the industry from Asia, the US, and Europe are working together in the annex of the high-rise building on the semiconductors of the future, which are to be ever smaller, more powerful and more economical.

Development costs of €10 billion

Women and men in white protective suits are at work behind large shop windows in clean rooms between bus-sized machines, all unique items worth a total of €3 billion. Here, research is being conducted into new technology and processes that will be used in self-driving cars, the food sector, or the healthcare sector in a few years’ time. The importance of the chips has just been demonstrated in the COVID crisis, says Van den hove. While sequencing viruses took a year not long ago, it can now be done in 24 to 28 hours.

One company cannot develop the technology alone, it has become too complex and too expensive, says the CEO. 5000 engineers and doctoral students from universities are testing and developing these machine tools, the chip structure and the processes of the future on behalf of Intel, ASML and Co. The next-generation machine is expected to be ready by 2026 at a development cost of €10 billion. By bringing together all partners from start-ups to global corporations in the ecosystem, Imec can also minimize losses, says Luc Van den hove. After the development phase, however, each company goes its own way again and then competes with its products.

With the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany or the CEA-Leti in France, there are also top researchers in other EU countries, says Van den hove. Margrethe Vestager and Thierry Breton’s Chips Act will help link the various centers in a “pan-European network”.

In the past, Germany thought in national terms, and France pursued its own plan for research in semiconductor technology. With its location in a smaller country, Imec has always been forced to take an international approach. The Chips Act is an opportunity to bring together the various strengths at the European level. It is good that Brussels is acting now.

No competition for the customers

Governments in Asia and the US are also shelling out billions. If Europe does not follow suit, the continent will be left behind, says Van den hove. The example of Imec shows that public support is important. A visionary Flemish government covered up to 60 percent of the costs in 1984 and the years after when engineers from nearby Leuven University founded the research center. Today, the bulk comes from industry. The Flemish government still contributes 16 percent, and EU programs six percent of the budget of nearly €700 million.

Why isn’t there actually a semiconductor factory next to the Imec high-rise? The research center could not compete with the partners, the model of cooperation on the neutral platform would collapse, says Luc Van den hove. Initially, there was probably also the idea in Brussels of building a European champion that would produce the latest generation of microchips. The hurdle to create a new player is extremely high, says CEO Luc Van den hove.

However, the protectionist logic of doing everything in Europe is not realistic anyway. It would be much more interesting to encourage manufacturers such as Intel, TSMC, or Samsung to invest in Europe. This would strengthen Europe’s position in the supply chain and, at the same time, also create dependencies on Europe. ASML or Imec are good examples of how Europe definitely has a chance to play a role in the technology of the future. By Stephan Israel

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