A chip startup is pushing into Taiwan in search of ever-smaller chips

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NanoWired is a startup by any standards. The German company, which was spun off from the Technical University of Darmstadt in 2017, has just 22 employees and only a handful of customers.

But chief executive Olav Birlem believes his technology could revolutionize chip manufacturing and has set his sights on a sale to industry giant Taiwan Semiconductor. TSMC already works with more than 700 suppliers, many of which are multinational.

Birlem’s company has commercialized a technology to grow tiny metal hairs on surfaces and use them to tightly bond two objects together, a solution that could be used to package chips together.

There is a demand for more and more computing power semiconductor manufacturers are continually cramming more transistors on each chip and more chips into a single device and packing them closer together.

NanoWired may be small, but new connection technologies like the one the company is proposing could help solve big problems the industry is looking to develop smaller and smaller chipssuch as short circuits and voltage drops in connections.

From an office in Taipei that opened two weeks ago, NanoWired is now trying to sell it TSMC and many other semiconductor manufacturing companies in Taiwan.

“Taiwan is the heart of microcontrollers, so we had to come here,” Birlem said.

His ambitious proposal shows how important TSMC, as well as Taiwan, has become to the global chip industry. With revenue forecast this year of $75 billion, the company accounts for more than half of the custom chip market.

Largely thanks to TSMC, more than 90 percent of the world’s most advanced semiconductors are manufactured in Taiwan.

Until now, NanoWired has worked with chipmakers and their customers in the automotive supply chain, a sector where Europe is strong. It landed German chip maker Infineon and automotive supplier Continental as clients, and began working with Japanese car company Honda and its semiconductor supplier Murata.

But automotive applications account for just over 10 percent of the global semiconductor industry’s revenue, is projected to reach $639 billion this year. It’s the rest of the pie that Birlem is aiming for.

Potential customers for NanoWired are everywhere in Taiwan, from GlobalWafers, the world’s No. 3 silicon wafer supplier, to Advanced Semiconductor Engineering, the world’s largest chip packaging and testing company, to Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics contract manufacturer.

But Birlem finds TSMC extremely difficult to win over, underscoring how much market power the leading contract chipmaker has amassed.

“We’re not at the level where TSMC will agree to put our machines there even for testing,” he said.

“When you’re as involved in the ecosystem as TSMC is, you can afford to be picky,” Birlem added. “So they have very high expectations.”

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