OSU researchers awarded federal grant to stimulate semiconductor industry in Oregon


Jiratana Tungkawachara

Fabrication labs on the fourth floor of Owen Hall at Oregon State University in Corvallis, photographed on May 31. As the only university in Oregon to have a nanofabrication facility during the one million dollar federal grant proposal submission period, Oregon State University will lead development in the semiconductor ecosystem in the Northwest region.

Nino Paoli, News Reporter

Researchers at Oregon State University have been granted $1 million by the government to develop the northwest network of companies that produce semiconductors to renew interest in the industry.

On May 11, the National Science Foundation announced that an OSU-led proposal to strengthen relationships between companies in the “Silicon Forest” – which consists of Hewlett-Packard, Intel and other tech companies that contribute to a semiconductor ecosystem in Oregon and Washington – was accepted, according to Brady Gibbons, the associate dean for research for the college of engineering.

This brings together industry partners, Oregon-based economic development entities and researchers from Boise State University and the University of Washington.

Gibbons said the $1 million endorsement is a “planning grant,” and by the end date, estimated to be in late April 2025, the consortium will submit a proposal for an additional NSF grant for up to $160 million, which would fund actual research over a period of 10 years.

“The idea is to put the strongest foundation together as we can,” Gibbons said. “We have this ecosystem in the state already … what we don’t have though, we’re not connected. To really have a region connected with Boise, Idaho, Washington and Oregon, we need time to get to know each other better, the companies need more time to figure out how they can work together.”

Gibbons assisted Principal Investigator Gregory Herman, an OSU professor in the college of engineering, along with others in submitting the proposal, and stresses the importance of economic development and stimulating the populous northwest semiconductor workforce within the two-year period.

“As (semiconductors) became less and less in your face, and more and more in your hand … we all started kind of taking them for granted. And it was more like, ‘Well, what can I do with this thing? Oh, I need to write code, I need to write apps to make this easier to use,’” Gibbons said. “People started forgetting the fact that semiconductors still needed to be made to do this.”

Gibbons hopes further developing partnerships between industry partners and researchers under this grant will rekindle interest in the manufacturing of semiconductors, as Oregon is home to 15% of the country’s semiconductor workforce, according to a 2021 report by the Semiconductor Industry Association.

To do this, Gibbons said an economic development aspect of the proposal, which brings in the Oregon Business Council and Hillsboro Economic Development Council, looks to spur technological innovation and encourage a more business-focused mindset within the consortium.

“I never thought in my life and my career I would be spending so much time talking to economic development people,” Gibbons said. “The objective is to really just bring the region up, and make it the hub – more so than it already is – of semiconductor ecosystem development.”

Gibbons said that the interconnectedness of semiconductor ecosystems is so important, because many large companies in the industry rely on material manufacturers to construct their designed products.

“You have to understand Intel makes the chip, right? They make the brain. But what they use to make that brain comes from hundreds of other companies,” Gibbons said. “That ecosystem is what Oregon is so strong in.”

To further generate entrepreneurship within the Oregon semiconductor industry, the grant looks to focus on workforce development and provide opportunity for an accelerated lab-to-market process of OSU-made semiconductors, Gibbons said.

As Oregon houses many “fabless” companies – which design semiconductor chips, but do not manufacture them – Gibbons said the consortium wants to capitalize on this.

“You can do so many different things where you can be remote, or you can take our innovation engine and create your own idea,” Gibbons said. “We need to invest in opportunities for that person that lives in Ontario, or lives in Baker City, or lives in Deschutes, or wherever … even just expanding what we have, and being able to reshore some of the jobs that have left.”

Gibbons hopes that, with the help of OBC and HEDC, whose mission is to grow the economy in the state and city, respectively, and with the insider knowledge of their industry partners, which will help the researchers understand what the industry needs are, a more efficient “lab-to-fab” process will inspire more entrepreneurialism within the developing system.

Though the consortium is made up of many collaborators, Gibbons isn’t worried about the large group, because he believes that all those under this grant share the aligned goal of stimulating the economy in the Silicon Forest and expanding the reach of semiconductor companies.

“I think everybody’s really excited to work together to figure out how to make it to (the next NSF grant), where we can really continue to see the impact on the region,” Gibbons said. “It’s really exciting for OSU to be leading it … to have our faculty there from early career faculty, to senior faculty in the college of science and college of engineering, I’m just really proud of everybody.”

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