A group of technology organizations is calling on the federal government to bolster Canada’s semiconductor industry or risk talent and companies moving elsewhere.
With the rapid growth of artificial intelligence and advancements in quantum computing, the group known as the Semiconductor Industry Leadership and Innovation Canada Action Network (SILICAN) said Monday that Canada has a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to set up the country for success in the semiconductor field.
“This is not something that you can kind of sit out or wait,” said Benjamin Bergen, president of the Council of Canadian Innovators, a group supporting the country’s tech industry through advocacy work.
“It’s a train that is leaving the station and either you’re on it or you’re not, and being smart and strategic is really going to matter here.”
Bergen’s council, along with CMC Microsystems, Deep Tech Canada, Canada’s Semiconductor Council, Alliance for Semiconductor Innovation Canada and Optonique are SILICAN members. Rounding out SILICAN are the U15 Group of Research Universities, Canadian Innovation Network and the Semiconductor Ecosystem and Centre for Talent and Research.
Semiconductors, often called chips for short, are a key component in electronics.
Most companies rely on Taiwan, South Korea, China and Japan to produce their semiconductors, however geopolitical tensions and a microchip shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic have pushed several nations, including the U.S., to focus more on reshoring semiconductor businesses and talent.
Bergen said Canada’s semiconductor industry is concentrated on compound semiconductor chips for high-powered machinery like cars and photonics — technology based around light waves that is frequently used in medical devices.
The country also has strength in advanced packaging, which puts chips together and delves into how to connect them and create better systems.
“Semiconductors is a sector that is hard to be the leaders in everything,” said Bergen.
“You have to pick where you want to be in the supply chain.”
Many Asian countries, for example, have large foundries where companies can go to mass produce chips for their products, but building such facilities can take billions of dollars and the work they’ll do is time consuming.
It can take three months to engrave and transform silicon wafers into semiconductors and the process can be upended by a disturbance as small as a speck of dust.
The U.S. is throwing plenty of money at ramping up production within its borders through the CHIPS Act.
“We don’t have money like the Americans just to throw at the problem,” said Bergen.
“That’s not how we’re going to be successful at this. How we’re going to be successful is having a strategic plan.”
SILICAN thinks that plan should come from a focus on the design components of chips. It is urging the government to prioritize funding cost-effective manufacturing, making more capital available to companies in the sector wanting to scale and supporting development and retention of the semiconductor workforce.
It says Canada could achieve these goals by creating a dedicated office or strategy table for chips policy within the country to ensure it’s focused on expanding and supporting commercial operations.
“That coordinated effort, as banal as it sounds, is actually required in order for us to build successful areas where Canada can lead,” said Bergen.
Funding and addressing gaps in capital and research must come too, along with efforts to attract workers to the industry. SILICAN wants more semiconductor-related scholarships, co-ops and internships, and brainstorming around how to bring top technical talent to Canada.
Failure to act could mean Canada is left out of a burgeoning part of the global economy SILICAN says is forecast to reach $1.3 trillion in sales by 2030.
Bergen is “cautiously optimistic” Canada won’t miss the moment because his group has met with the industry ministry and prime minister’s office, who he says was receptive to SILICAN’s concerns.
“Hopefully, now the government is seized with a sense of alacrity in terms of dealing with this,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 23, 2023.