OpSIS’ Demise: Politically Incorrect Si Photonic Wafers

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This past July, OpSIS announced that the program funding its core operations for silicon photonic Multi-Project Wafers (MPWs) had ended and that it would cease operations. Evidently, the US government around that time was uninterested in supporting the continued existence of the foundry, which had been receiving all of its capital from the private sector. Only about a few months later, the Administration along with the Department of Defense (DOD) apparently changed its mind on the importance of such MPWs, as the White House came out with its $200 million initiative – in effect, making OpSIS a loser before the Integrated Photonics Manufacturing Institute (IPMI) was even established.

A fundamental problem with public-private partnerships is that it not only puts the government in the position of picking the winners of technological solutions, but the actual players involved in the game. While the uses of silicon for active photonic components is very likely to remain very “nichey,” at best, how does it make sense to throw five years of a learning curve totally out the window – and to not give OpSIS at least a small place at the table? Obviously, the answer is that such corporate welfare programs tend to favor the larger equipment suppliers and the bigger, educational institutions.

OpSIS has been part of the University of Delaware, apparently lacking an engineering department with the perceived prestige (a factor often overrated at more prominent places of higher learning) that would appeal to certain elitists in Washington and in the corporate world. Of course, Delaware is also a tiny in size with little political power and can hardly come close to offering a financial incentive package that can compete with a Texas or a New York. It also lacks the cultural attractiveness of the more substantial states (if they have to travel, some executives at major companies place entertainment at a premium).

More legitimately, Delaware is not exactly around the corner from other sizeable chip R&D facilities and it does not provide access to a lot of direct flights. Unfortunately, the only potential benefit for the state will be that it is a favorable place to incorporate IPMI.

Getting back to the most critical issue, smaller vendors will be hurt in four major ways:

  1. their dependence on OpSIS;
  2. the DOD’s proclivity to go with larger suppliers;
  3. the inability to afford the matching fees; and
  4. the expected tactics of the giant firms to leave them out in the cold.

On this last point, look for stipulations insisted by the big folks that might include separate and exorbitant entry fees as well as having to become members of one or more other consortiums – again, at a heavy investment.

[written by Mark Lutkowitz]