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UK should play to semiconductor strengths instead of taking on China – Pragmatic CTO

UK semiconductor
Image credit: aPhoenix photographer via Shutterstock

The UK government should play to its existing strengths in the semiconductor industry rather than trying to directly compete with China, Taiwan, and the US, according to the co-founder of Pragmatic Semiconductor.

Richard Price, co-founder and chief technology officer at Pragmatic Semiconductor, told UKTN that the government should not start investing in “very advanced” semiconductor manufacturing capabilities like those found in China and Taiwan.

Both those countries, along with the US thanks to the Chips Act, have benefited from significant investments into semiconductor manufacturing capabilities.

“We’re not necessarily asking for that, because the UK doesn’t have the same manufacturing base,” said Price.

Price remains keen on the government including “tax and investment incentives” for “high-intensity R&D businesses like semiconductors” in its long-awaited semiconductor strategy.

However, he acknowledged that there’s a big difference between the UK and the current semiconductor powerhouses.

“We’re not going to start investing in the very advanced semiconductor capabilities, that are in places like Taiwan, but there are sovereign capabilities that we protect and expand.”

Both the UK tech industry and MPs have said the country needs to publish its semiconductor strategy urgently. It had fallen under the remit of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, but it has now passed over to the newly formed Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. According to leaks, public subsidies for semiconductor startups are among the measures being considered.

UK semiconductor ‘specialities’

Semiconductors are the conductive material – often silicon – housing integrated circuits. These microchips are the ‘brains’ powering almost all electric circuit devices such as smartphones, computers, cars and more.

Price said that when looking at the most advanced semiconductor developments, the “cost of trying to invest” is “prohibitive” for most countries, “even those with a very mature installed semiconductor manufacturing base”.

Because of this, Price believes that as the UK government continues to finalise its upcoming chip strategy, it should “play to our strengths in the UK” by avoiding needless competition at the most advanced end of the supply chain.

“The UK, industry and government acknowledge that this isn’t where we’re going to play, we’re going to be operating in other parts of the supply chain,” he said.

He pointed to “older technology, which is still very useful” as an area in which the UK could thrive, rather than “chips that are powering the latest smartphones, which will be made on the most advanced technologies”.

“There are specialities in the UK where we can play, power electronics is one and the kind of 5G, 6G area for autonomous vehicles,” Price said.

“I think we can play to our strengths in the UK. And I think there’s still a very significant industry that can be grown from where we are today.”

For Price, the UK has an opportunity to make a notable impact on the semiconductor industry by acting as a “first customer”, and utilising the “procurement power” of institutions like the NHS to help “retain our activities in the UK”.

Pragmatic Semiconductor manufactures flexible integrated circuits that are thinner than a human hair. The company added £28m to its Series C round back in December, bringing total investment into the Cambridge-based company to $125m.

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