Microelectronics Commons 'hubs' take shape as leaders discuss future plans

By Georgina DiNardo  / December 5, 2023

Amid newly announced timelines for upcoming Microelectronics Commons project proposals, the program's regional innovation "hubs," which act as connection points for government and the commercial sector, are working to get their programs up and running.

Last week, the Microelectronics Commons announced their expected timeline for the “Call for Projects,” stating that “hub” leads will curate all project submissions, choosing which ones they deem suitable for submission to the Defense Department for evaluation.

DOD, which created the Microelectronics Commons program to advance U.S. microelectronics production by establishing regional innovation hubs that will conduct all related projects and proposals to connect government, commercial and industry technologies together, will choose which projects receive funding.

Before a project can reach DOD evaluation, however, it must be submitted to a regional innovation hub for review. The eight hubs are each allowed to choose a maximum of 15 projects to submit to DOD for review.

The eight hub awardees -- out of the 83 proposals -- that were selected to operate as the regional innovation hubs, were announced by Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks on Sept. 20.

“These hubs are vital to American scientific, manufacturing and economic competitiveness,” Hicks said during an Oct. 17 Microelectronics Commons Conference. “And they will directly contribute to this department’s national defense mission.”

The hubs, which are spread across the country, are intended to serve as ecosystems for producing new technology, strengthening the workforce microelectronics pipeline and helping to bridge the “valley of death” -- a period when many developmental projects don't reach the operational stage due to lack of funding.

The Pentagon has named six critical areas of emerging technology the hubs will focus on: electromagnetic warfare, secure computing at the tactical edge, AI hardware, 5G/6G wireless, quantum and commercial “leap-ahead” technologies.

While the hubs can participate in any technical area of interest, some only focus on a handful of critical technology areas while others intend to lead projects that cover a wide array of areas.

Inside Defense interviewed several hub leads at the Microelectronics Commons conference in October, where they also gave presentations, laying out their top priorities and plans for the hubs.

Northeast Microelectronics Coalition Hub

In Massachusetts, the Northeast Microelectronics Coalition Hub (NEMC) will focus on all six emerging technology areas, led by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. NEMC is made up of over 100 organizations and is concentrated in eight Northeast states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

NEMC will receive $19.67 million in Commons funding for the first year, with an estimated hub value of up to $40 million, with a Massachusetts state match guaranteed over five years, $65 million in Massachusetts capital grants and $1 billion plus in regional assets.

NEMC’s mission is to create a vibrant, well-connected ecosystem that meets DOD needs while also fostering genuine engagement across the region and providing sustainable lab-to-fab enablement, said Ben Linville-Engler, the acting hub director.

“This ‘valley of death’ we talk about, sometimes it’s talked about like it’s ahead of us, like it’s the next step,” Linville-Engler said at the Microelectronics Commons meeting in October. “We have founders who are forcing their way across this valley right now that need help today, so we have programs that we are going to be starting to make sure that those that are in these pathways ahead of where we are going, have as good of a chance as possible to make it to success.”

NEMC will be overseen by an advisory group made up of academia and industry to give diverse perspectives. Advisory group members include ADI, BA Systems, Columbia, MIT LL, MITRE, Nextflex and RTX.

Linville-Engler emphasized that while the hub will specialize in all six areas of critical technology, NEMC has significant strength in electromagnetic warfare.

Silicon Crossroads Microelectronics Commons Hub

In Indiana, the Applied Research Institute will lead 136 hub members in the Silicon Crossroads Microelectronics Commons Hub and will also focus on every emerging technology area of interest identified by the department.

The Silicon Crossroads hub believes that by having such a broad stakeholder base, citing that they have the most hub members across all the hubs, will provide them the best results and they will be able to parlay that into sustainability.

The hub received $32.9 million from the Commons in funding for the first year and has an estimated hub value of $10.3 billion plus an unknown amount that will be gained from their core member value, made up of 32 cores.

They will not be charging for membership but do expect to be gaining most of their funding from university partners, currently totaling $1.5 billion.

“Scale, although primed out of Purdue University that sits in Indiana, it actually involves probably every university that is sitting with us today across those hubs, so we already have a crosspollination happening within our hubs and scale is it,” said Brooke Pyne, S2MARTS director.

The hub also reports that universities are interested in expanding their lab capabilities and have donated an additional $189 million, on top of the $1.5 billion, to be added to university research.

“All of these universities have committed their own dollars into this cause,” Pyne said. “They are investing deep to expand capabilities, to expand the labs that are already sitting at these universities, coupled with some additional help funding as well.”

California Defense Ready Electronics and Microdevices Superhub

In Southern California, the California Defense Ready Electronics and Microdevices Superhub, also known as California DREAMS, will be led by the University of Southern California and will focus on 5G/6G and electronic warfare.

The hub is made up of 17 funded hub members, including seven nanofab and three DOD volume fabs, and 43 additional hub members.

They received $26.9 million for funding year one from the Commons and decided to invest it in the people and organizations they need to make the hub operate and function efficiently. The team has a steering committee that, according to hub associate director Steve Crago, is a small sample of the leaders they have in their hub and is made up of the world’s best people in research, workforce development, fabs, university and nanofab laboratories, system integrators and fab analytics to optimize the process.

For 5G/6G, Crago said his team will focus on N-Polar GaN-on-Sapphire, high-frequency circuits and architectures for integrated chiplets, transceiver IC and module technology, adaptive ultra-wideband sensing and communication and millimeter-wave phrased arrays.

“Because of this focus on RF technologies, we can apply many of these technologies, sometimes with a different sort of slant, to the electromagnetic warfare technologies,” Crago said. “And you can see this domain similarly will be working from materials and devices up through sensors, high-performance transceivers and up to modules and demonstrations.”

California-Pacific-Northwest AI Hardware Hub

California is the only state that has two hubs. Alongside California DREAMS, the California-Pacific-Northwest AI Hardware Hub will also work out of the Golden State, led by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University.

As the name suggests, the hub’s critical technology area of focus will be artificial intelligence hardware and is made up of 45 institutions, including national labs and industry partners.

“Our hub focuses on AI hardware because that’s sort of where our experience is, although I believe that many of the technologies and the lab-to-fab transitions that we will be creating will also benefit a variety of other applications that are a part of the Microelectronics Commons,” said Subhasish Mitra, one of the hub leads.

The hub reports that the DOD’s biggest AI challenges are energy and power constraint systems, real-time involvement, accuracy, continuous learning and harsh environments, like space. They also listed other large challenges like connecting multidomain in battlespace, memory walls, miniaturization walls and neural net size explosion.

To address these challenges, the hub will take an application driven approach through diverse and specialized functions that create multi-chip 3D NanoSystems.

“We are focusing on AI hardware and, especially from a DOD context, we are especially interested in, what I would call, AI training at the edge continuously because that really pushes all aspects of AI modeling, AI hardware, software systems and so on and so forth,” Mitra said.

There will be a small fee for industry membership in this hub, however, government and academia membership will be free. Membership comes with broad participation, mission and vision alignment discussion, being part of the process of formulating hub projects and the signing of an NDA and IP agreement. For users who are not members, the only requirements are registration and signing the agreements.

They also highlighted their opensource chip design class that will help lower barriers across the U.S. to learning about AI. Through this opensource platform, there will be lab exercises and opensource tools and chip design flows.

“Our end goal is that this new AI hardware hub will be a powerhouse that would be key to establishing capabilities, not just regional, not just in the Northwest, but in our entire nation,” Mitra said. “It will reduce barriers to translation between transition, you know we talked about lab-to-fab, and it will address critical DOD needs.”

Commercial Leap-Ahead for Wide Bandgap Semiconductors Hub

In North Carolina, North Carolina State University will lead the Commercial Leap Ahead for Wide Bandgap Semiconductors Hub (CLAWS) which is the smallest team out of all the hubs with only eight members and plans to stay that way.

“Having a smaller hub is by design -- it’s meant to address a key need for how you make partners and create processes that work together for process integration,” said Fred Kish and John Muth in a joint statement to Inside Defense. “Works better for maintenance and scalability. We’ve chosen to focus on a small number of world partners to solve those world problems.”

Their research goal is to leverage commonalities in materials and process technologies with more intelligence to accelerate maturity and technology transition through faster learning cycles.

To achieve this goal, they will use the Commons year one allotted $39.4 million to focus on increasing capability and advancing maturity on commercial leap ahead.

The center of their hub will revolve around a hub nucleus made up of partners, including NCSU, NC, A&T, Wolfspeed, General Electric, Bluglass, Adroit Materials and Kyma.

On the next level of command will be the hub affiliates, the entities who want to participate in the development of the hub including giving their input in the technical direction and collaboration on projects. Hub affiliates can also help develop the workforce development programs and can be anyone from system integrators to academics.

CLAWS has set four goals: to enable leap ahead innovation; enable technology transition; have strong workforce development; and, create economic competitiveness.

To achieve these goals, they plan to leverage their existing capabilities, like their expertise in Silicon Carbide High Voltage Devices, RF Gallium Nitride and UWBG Devices, III-Nitride Photonics for LEDS, lasers, ultraviolet wavelength integrated photonic circuits and more.

Southwest Advanced Prototyping Hub

In Arizona, the Southwest Advanced Prototyping Hub will be led by the Arizona Board of Regents on behalf of Arizona State University and focus on 5G/6G, AI hardware and commercial leap ahead.

The Southwest Advanced Prototyping Hub has 70 hub members, including defense contractors and companies and received $39.8 million for the first year from the Commons, with a planned $99 million in total Commons funding over five years. The estimated hub value is projected to be over $500 million, hub lead Kevin McGinnis said.

The hub model to create a microelectronics prototype will have the project start at a base level of circuits, architecture and testing, move up to power and RF electronics, then go to heterogenous integration, then reach radiation hardened CMOS+X integration, then transition to materials for CMOS+X, then reach metrology and characterization for the final microelectronic prototype.

During the circuits, architecture and testing stage, the hub plans to implement its existing capabilities, including “state-of-the art EDA and IP for co-design, including with new materials/layers; chiplet-based designs, RF IP blocks, including for high-power sub 6 GHz and 28-40 GHz RF front-end, and with GaN, SiGe and CMOS, designs for heterogeneous integration and packaging, rad-hard and trusted and assured by design, [and] automated test equipment,” according to a presentation by McGinnis at the Microelectronics Commons conference.

For the power and RF electronics phase, they will implement their wide-bandgap materials, devices and circuits, use very high frequency tests, and their power converter design assembly for testing.

During the heterogenous integration portion, they intend to use high-density integration of chiplets, discrete devices and power devices via chip-first 300 mm FOWLP.

During radiation-hardened CMOS+X integration, the hub plans on using extreme testing environments and advanced radiation.

Then for the materials for CMOS+X portion, emerging memory materials and device stacks for 2D layers scaled to full-wafer processing.

For the metrology and characterization stage, they plan to use their electronic, morphological, chemical thermal analysis of materials and their offline advanced electron microscopy to scan from probe microscopy.

Midwest Microelectronics Consortium Hub

In Ohio, the Midwest Microelectronics Consortium (MMEC) Hub will be run by the MMEC, composed of over 80 consortium members, ranging across academia, research institutes, FFRDCs and businesses of all different sizes to focus on commercial leap ahead, electromagnetic warfare and quantum.

According to the MMEC hub lead Jackie Janning-Lask, the MMEC is receiving crucial state and federal support, which she believes truly plays a pivotal role in microelectronics mission advancement, research, innovation, academia, industry and commercial success across the nation.

The MMEC received $24.4 million in Commons funding for the first year and has an expected hub value of over $70 million in member co-investment and $7.5 billion in facilities, tools and IP.

The MMEC will spend 69% of their budget on physical needs in the first year, with 16% being spent on digital needs and 15% on human staffing.

Janning-Lask said that the hub intends to strengthen the nation’s microelectronics ecosystem.

They wrote three proposals for the Microelectronics Commons, each in a different technical area, citing why they would be a good hub for “commercial leap-ahead technologies,” electronic warfare and quantum computing. They were awarded a contract for commercial leap-ahead so their lab will focus mainly on that, while also advancing research in the other two areas.

As for the hub’s current capabilities, they have an existing infrastructure with member clean room facilities, materials growth and device test facilities and core foundry access, they report expertise in multidisciplinary skills and knowledge of membership team with a world class research team across academia, industry and government and they plan on investing strategically in equipment supporting ramp lines and on/off water testing.

Northeast Regional Defense Technology Hub

In New York, the Research Foundation for the State University of New York will lead the Northeast Regional Defense Technology Hub (NORDTECH) and its 60 hub members through technology advancement centered around commercial leap ahead, AI hardware, quantum technology and secure edge computing.

For commercial leap-ahead, the hub plans on creating solutions addressing scaling limitations as the hub moves to advanced node devices and chiplets. They also want to create tools to harden security, particularly against postquantum attack algorithms that are rapidly emerging.

To address AI hardware, they plan on developing novel materials for AI computing applications.

Meanwhile, for quantum technology, the hub intends to develop tools that allow repeatable device fabrication and to create packaging for cryo-applications.

When it comes to secure edge computing, they want to develop chiplets that solve the data security needs of data-in-motion.

They received $40 million in funding from the Commons for the first year, with an estimated hub value of $17 billion, with an additional $40 million, from what the hub is expected to produce.

The hub is structured around a couple of main organizing entities: Cornell University, IBM, NY CREATES, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Albany.

The hub process will start off with chip design and design enablement through collaboration between university and industry partners, then it will move to material and device development, also with the same collaborators. Next it will transition to advanced metrology, which will be done by university partners and the Brookhaven National Lab. Finally, it will go through the lab-to-fab transition, which will include wafer fabrication with the cores, chip/chiplet and finally system/application testing and evaluation.

“Our intent is to broaden, enhance and grow the lab-to-fab capabilities,” said John Iacoponi, vice president of technology strategy at NY CREATES, at the Microelectronics Commons. “We have day one readiness. Our existing facilities, we’ve worked across the hub for many years transitioning technologies, so we have some experience doing that, but we need to grow that.”