The Defense Department on Wednesday made hundreds of millions of dollars in contract awards meant to spur the development of microelectronics manufacturing throughout the country, part of a broader effort to reestablish the leading role the U.S. once played in designing, prototyping and fabricating advanced computer chips.
The initial awards, worth $238 million, went to the operators of eight “hubs” DoD is establishing as part of its Microelectronics Commons program. The department plans to funnel $2 billion into the initiative between now and 2027, with the goal of having each hub be able to stand on its own after the initial influx of government funding.
The funds flowed from the CHIPS and Science Act, which Congress passed last year to reduce the nation’s reliance on overseas chip fabrication and build more security and reliability into its supply chains; as of now, about 75% of the country’s supply of microelectronics comes from east Asia.
“The Microelectronics Commons is focused on bridging and accelerating the laboratory-to-fabrication transition, that infamous ‘valley of death’ between research and development and production,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said during Wednesday’s announcement at the Pentagon. “While America is a world leader in the innovative research and design of microelectronics, we’ve lagged in the ability to prototype, manufacture and produce them at scale. That’s what the CHIPS Act is meant to supercharge.”
The Pentagon designed the program to let eight regional hubs focus on specific technology areas: edge and “internet of things” computing, 5G and 6G chipsets, AI hardware, quantum technology, electromagnetic warfare and “commercial leap ahead technologies.”
Defense officials said they received proposals from more than 80 organizations to lead the hubs. On Wednesday, they selected:
Massachusetts Technology Collaborative: $19.7 million initial award, 90 hub members
Applied Research Institute (Indiana): $32.9 million initial award, 130 hub members
University of Southern California: $26.9 million initial award, 16 hub members
North Carolina State University: $39.4 million initial award, 7 hub members
Arizona State University: $39.8 million initial award, 27 hub members
Midwest Microelectronics Consortium: $24.3 million initial award, 65 hub members
State University of New York: $40.0 million award, 51 hub members
Stanford University: $15.3 million award, 44 hub members
The department plans to explain more details about each hub’s specific capabilities and how government organizations and private firms can make use of their services during a kickoff meeting in Washington next month. But some of the design and fabrication projects should be ready to start fairly quickly.
“When we asked for proposals to come in, we asked the hub proposers to include a number of initial projects — so we’re essentially priming the pump inside each of the hubs. Each one that’s been awarded has a set of projects that are ready to get underway almost immediately,” a Defense official told reporters on the condition of anonymity. “In the fall, there will be a call for new projects; some of those projects will be funded within the Commons program. But it’s okay and it’s even encouraged for industry to go directly to the hubs to tap the people expertise, the specialized tools, the access to foundries. That’s why we’re doing this: to really up the game so that schools and companies, traditional and non-traditional defense companies can up their game and make use of this.”
While the hubs are meant to be “dual-use” — helping to design and build chips that have applications in both the commercial and defense arenas — DoD says it will work to make sure its acquisition and requirements officials are aware of what each of the hubs are up to, so that they can incorporate advances being made in the new “ecosystems” into the plans for their systems.
But the hubs are also meant to be testing grounds for new approaches to microelectronics design, said David Honey, the deputy undersecretary of Defense for research and engineering.
“Previously, a lot of the prototyping and experimentation work that the hubs will support, people had to go overseas to get it done. Now they’ll be able to get it done here, and we’re also building out in technology areas that are just not available anywhere else,” he said. “The first major accomplishment will be just getting the hubs established, getting some projects running through them so that they can work out the bugs in their operations. The next big accomplishment will be when we start getting projects in from the broader community, and those are probably going to be fairly mature ideas … my expectation is that you’ll probably see chips coming through this well before the five years of the program is over.”