A hi-tech company, partially leveraging the internationally acclaimed expertise of the city in microelectronics, is dedicated in assisting China in producing its own microchips — and it proves as an example that the development of the hi-tech industry is feasible in Macau
Though the city has only been committed to developing the hi-tech sector in recent years, some local scientific achievements, much to the surprise of many people, have actually long been recognised globally, and been applied to our daily lives. A team led by local academic, Professor Ben Seng Pan U, has been behind some of the microchip designs that are now commonplace in mobile phones, cameras, video devices, USB and other electronic devices.
With major economies now competing to manufacture their own chips amid the global semiconductor shortage over the trade war between China and the United States, the Covid-19 pandemic and other reasons, Professor U, and other like-minded partners, have set up AkroStar Technology Co., Ltd, a semiconductor design company that could bolster the power of China in this race, and further facilitate the development of the hi-tech sector in Macau.
“Our life is inseparable from chips nowadays, which are used in almost every industry,” says Professor U in an interview, who is the co-CEO and managing director of the Macau branch of AkroStar. A microchip, also known as an integrated circuit, is a set of electronic circuits on a small flat piece of semiconductor material, which empowers every electronic device nowadays; the performance and capabilities of each chip depends on the overall design and the intellectual property (IP) cores it has. And this is exactly the area AkroStar, established in nearby Hengqin Island, Zhuhai in June, 2020, focuses on: the research and development (R&D) of semiconductor IP cores.
“IP is the key technology of chip design, and it is also the upstream of the industry of chip manufacturing,” Professor U explains the major business focus of his firm. “The value of the global semiconductor IP industry alone, is only about US $5 billion, which is pale in comparison to the value of hundreds of billion dollars for the semiconductor sector, but the semiconductor industry could not exist without the IP cores.”
Following its establishment for about a year and a half, AkroStar has had support — namely financing of about RMB1 billion (US$156.9 million/MOP1.26 billion) — from over 30 institutions and organisations in the Greater China region. These include two Macau entities, University of Macau Development Foundation and Macau University of Science and Technology Foundation; leading Chinese venture capital firms like Gaorong Capital and Matrix Partners China; and the state-owned firm in Hengqin, Zhuhai Da HengQin Group Co., Ltd. On the other hand, the sales of AkroStar were expected to reach about RMB 300 million by the end of 2021, with mainland Chinese chipmakers and technology firms as their major clients.
AkroStar could manage to win a share in the market quickly due to the extensive experience of its management team. With more than 20 years of experience in the semiconductor IP sector, Professor U was the co-founder of the State Key Laboratory of Analog & Mixed-Signal VLSI (SKL-AMSV) at the University of Macau (UM), and had served as the R&D director at U.S. based Synopsys, a leading electronic design automation company in the world. The chairman and CEO of AkroStar, Zeng Keqiang, also had more than two decades of experiences in the sector with a stint as the deputy general manager for the China market at Synopsys, while the industry veteran Anwar Awad — who was once the vice president of global R&D at Synopsys, and vice president of global R&D at Intel, the world’s largest semiconductor chip manufacturer by revenue — and now serves as the global president of the company.
“We’ve established AkroStar because we’ve seen a rising demand for chips in China. Given the robust development of e-consumption and technology in mainland China, many tech giants like Alibaba Group, Tencent Group and ByteDance are also determined to make their own chips, requiring a large number of different IP [cores],” Prof U illustrates.
Nonetheless, the sector of interface IP is dominated by overseas companies like Synopsys at the moment, with a market share of over 90 per cent. “Many of these interface IP [products] have actually been made by us at Synopsys,” he continues. “As the semiconductor industry has been a focus in the China-U.S. trade war, we think we could assist China in producing our own IP [cores through AkroStar], in order for the country to be self-reliant in core technologies.”
The headquarters of AkroStar is now located in Hengqin, but it also has a main office in the city. “Hengqin and Macau both serve as the centres for the development of our company, which also have R&D centres across different cities in the country, such as Shanghai, Nanjing, and Wuhan,” the co-CEO remarks. Among a current headcount of about 200 staff currently, several dozen come from Macau, namely graduates from the UM, and Macau residents who have studied in non-local universities or worked in leading chip or technology firms abroad. “Our company has a lot of Macau elements with part of the team and capital from the city,” he says.
The involvement of Macau in the chipmaking segment has been much earlier than the inception of AkroStar at the helm of Professor U and others. The local scholar has focused on the research of microelectronics — the study and manufacture of small electronic designs and components, like chips and other semiconductor products — since he was a student. “I have been involved in and led students to engage in making chips since the 1990’s,” Professor U adds, who was a professor at the UM, and is a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the world’s largest professional association in the fields of electronics and electrical engineering. “After spending 10 years laying down the foundations, we presented the first world-class chip from the city at a major conference [of the related field] in 2002,” he adds.
Though local universities — namely, UM with the creation of the Analog and Mixed-Signal VLSI Laboratory that had later been upgraded into the SKL-AMSV — had nurtured local talents in the microelectronic field with world-level scientific results, there was a lack of job opportunities for them at the time. Thus, Professor U led about 10 students to establish Chipidea Microelectronics (Macau) Limited in 2002,essor in conjunction with Portuguese analog semiconductor IP design centre Chipidea. “It provided job opportunities for the students at the time after graduation, constituting a small ecosystem,” he adds.
Professor U had continued to lead the Macau team in IP R&D — even after Chipidea, including the Macau division, was purchased by Synopsys in 2009 — until he quit for AkroStar. “I still remember when I went overseas to present my paper and scientific results years ago, people didn’t know where Macau was, at the time,” he illustrates. “But Macau has yielded many world-top level results in the area of microelectronics, so that everyone in the field now knows about Macau, which plays a leading role in IP R&D.”
Talking about the challenges of developing the hi-tech industry in the city, Professor U says there have been different types of hurdles throughout the years: Macau faced a shortage of resources, capital and market when he first started out in the field more than two decades earlier; given the economic development, like the gaming industry in the recent decade, the predicament for the industry has become a surging cost for space and a fierce competition of talents with other sectors.
Another major problem is the lack of atmosphere for scientific research and development. “Some people in the local community do not believe that the hi-tech industry could exist in Macau, and the chips designed by Macau could be top-notch, but the atmosphere has been improved in the past few years,” the veteran remarks. “I hope our achievements over the years could showcase that it is feasible for the city to develop the hi-tech segment.”
Apart from the Macau government’s recent commitment in expediting the development of the hi-tech industry, to reduce the city’s reliance on casino gaming, the recently inaugurated Guangdong-Macau In-depth Cooperation Zone in Hengqin — whose main purpose is to help facilitating the industrial diversification of the city — also underscores “the development of scientific and technological research and high-end manufacturing industries” as one of the main sectors on the island. The development plan of the zone particularly states: ‘[The authorities will] make great efforts in fostering integrated circuits, electronic components, new materials, new energy, big data, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things (IoT), and biomedicine industries; expedite the development of microelectronic industry chain for specialised chip design, testing and inspection.”
“Before the inauguration of the in-depth cooperation zone, we’ve already known Hengqin is a special place that will help the development of Macau, and the Hengqin administration has been proactive in supporting the development of technology and innovations,” Professor U exemplifies. “The development plan clearly underpins the future directions of the zone, and we now only need to await the gradual implementation of new policies and measures,” he adds, for instance, there could be tax breaks and incentives for innovative businesses and talents.
Describing the hi-tech industry as a talent-oriented segment, he highlights that the key to the success of the development of the sector in Hengqin, and in Macau, is ultimately about talent attraction and cultivation. “We need to wait and see what types of policies and ancillary facilities [the zone] will feature to attract professionals from elsewhere in the mainland to work in Hengqin, as well as talents from Macau and elsewhere,” he says, pointing out, for instance, there could be more accommodation choices particularly designed for professionals in the zone. As it takes a long time for the application of scientific research results in everyday life, he adds that enterprises and academic institutions could work together, in order to facilitate this transformation process.
Looking ahead, AkroStar is now collaborating with the UM to set up a joint laboratory in the future, that will focus on research with industrial value and cultivate talents in respective fields. “We have spent the past year and more laying down the foundation, and from now on the development of our company will be accelerated, so that we will become the biggest IP R&D firm in China, and even in the world,” Professor U adds.