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Chipmakers to fund more research

A new semiconductor consortium will likely pump more dollars for university research efforts.

A consortium of semiconductor companies, their respective trade groups, and the federal government launched a new research organization today that will likely lead to a vast increase in the amount of dollars going toward university research departments.

The effort is designed to keep U.S. semiconductor manufacturers competitive by funding long-range research projects that individual companies are reluctant to shoulder on their own, said Paul Peercy, president of Semi/Sematech, one of the groups involved the effort.

The new push for funding also follows a compromise worked out last year between the private sector and educational institutions over who owns the patents derived from funded research, said observers. Prior to the compromise, funding from the chief semiconductor industry consortium came to around $35 million annually, said sources. If the program succeeds, the figure could rise to $60 to $100 million.

Under the Focus Center Research Program, the Microelectronics Advanced Research Corporation (MARCO), a subsidiary of the Semiconductor Research Corporation, will work to create four focus research centers at major universities dedicated to studying new methodologies for designing and testing microcomponents. In turn, the four focus centers will recruit other institutions in an effort to create a coordinated national research network. The University of California at Berkeley, and the Georgia Institute of Technology are on target to become the first two focus research centers.

MARCO will mostly function as the middleman in the effort. Participating semiconductor companies and semiconductor trade groups will funnel research grants to MARCO. MARCO will then monitor research efforts to try bring about the "commercialization" of various projects.

Approximately 50 percent of the funding for the project will come from semiconductor manufacturers and their trade group, the Semiconductor Industry Association, according to Peercy. Another 25 percent will come from semiconductor equipment makers and Semi/Sematech, their trade group. Twenty-five percent more will come from the federal government.

The program will start small, contributing about $8 million in the first year, but will grow substantially, if successful, said Peercy. The Semiconductor Research Corporation now contributes approximately $35 million a year to university research projects.

The increase in funding follows a deal worked out between the industry and universities last year over the ownership of patents created through research, pointed out Michael Odza, president of Technology Access, a newsletter dedicated to studying public-private technology transfers.

Historically, the industry has viewed research universities essentially as outsourcing centers. "The companies have felt that they should own all of the intellectual property that resulted from the grant," he said. Universities, by contrast, saw things differently. Schools, in fact, had been gaining more autonomy over the past decade. Under the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, for instance, ownership of federally funded research was transferred to universities.

Disagreements flared in recent years over access to "background patents" he added, that is, patents that are crucial to the new inventions but were not funded by private sector research. Semiconductor companies claimed they had the rights to this intellectual property while universities disagreed.

Under last year's compromise, the universities gave the rights to intellectual property discovered through grant money back to the donor. Semiconductor companies, in exchange, agreed to give up claims to background patents, he said. The compromise will also likely lead to an increase in funding from $35 million to $60 to $100 million, he added.

"The semiconductor industry faces many technical challenges that need to be addressed if we are to maintain the rate of progress that has been the hallmark of our industry," said Craig Barrett, Intel chief executive officer and president of the Semiconductor Industry Association, said in a prepared statement. "The focus center program is designed to create a nationwide multiuniversity network of research centers that will help keep the United States and U.S. semiconductor firms at the front of the global microelectronics revolution." "This is one of the most ambitious projects for the chip industry in a number of years," said Jeff Weir, spokesman for the Semiconductor Industry Association. "Not only will it be beneficial for the chip industry, it should be a shot in the arm for U.S. industries."