NIST and Google Team Up to Build Open-source IC Supply Chain

September 27, 2022 by Jake Hertz

The new partnership will give startups and research labs access to valuable R&D resources—particularly with open-source chips.

The semiconductor industry comprises corporations, startups, academic research labs, and everything in between. But despite the industry’s diversity, only large companies have the capital to pursue research and development (R&D) on a broad scale.

Aware of this inequity in R&D funding, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) announced a partnership with Google to help create a supply of open-source chips for academic institutions and small-scale startups.


A NIST-developed IC

A NIST-developed IC used to measure the performance of memory devices. Image courtesy of NIST


R&D Challenges for Startups and Academics

Despite the impending end of Moore’s Law, current supply chain challenges, and technical limitations on semiconductor design, the price of R&D has continued to rise

Research from Aalbun indicates that achieving the technological improvements predicted by Moore’s Law today requires 18x more researchers than it would have taken in the 1970s. The challenge here is not only in finding more highly educated researchers but also in acquiring the funding for human resources.

The same research report indicates that the R&D costs of improving a 10nm node to a 7nm node were roughly $100 million, while the subsequent jump from 7nm to 5nm was $550 million. These costs do not include the price of manufacturing, testing, and packaging.


Chip R&D and fabrication costs

Chip R&D and fabrication costs per process node. Image courtesy of McKinsey & Company


As semiconductor R&D becomes increasingly expensive, much of that R&D is consolidated by the largest semiconductor organizations. These costs are becoming too prohibitive for smaller-scale companies such as startups or academic research labs to undertake meaningful projects. The concentration of R&D in the semiconductor industry hinders innovation by limiting the number and diversity of potential projects.


Google and NIST to Supply Open-source Chips

To combat these issues, NIST announced a new partnership with Google to design and manufacture chips that will be entirely open source. This initiative will provide smaller organizations with access to the IP without restrictions or licensing fees.

One of the project goals is to design a bottom-layer chip that can be used to test and measure the performance of components placed on top of it, such as memory devices, nanosensors, and bioelectronics. NIST has announced that it plans to make as many as 40 different versions of these chips to support several different applications, including artificial intelligence and quantum computing.


Google and NIST have tapped SkyWater

Google and NIST have tapped SkyWater to manufacture the new supply of open-source chips. Image courtesy of SkyWater Technology


As part of the partnership, Google will fund the initial setup costs for production, while NIST and their university research partners will design the actual circuitry. SkyWater Technology will produce the chips in the form of industry-standard 200-millimeter wafers. 


Universities Get Onboard

Through this collaboration, NIST and Google hope researchers can design, prototype, test, and validate technologies more easily, allowing them to bring new devices to the market faster than ever before. NIST has confirmed partnerships with the University of Michigan, Brown University, and Carnegie Mellon University, among others.