Chip Start-up Ventures into Taiwan in Search of Ever Smaller Chips

NanoWired is a start-up in every way. Spun off from the Technical University of Darmstadt in 2017, the German company has just 22 employees and just a handful of customers.

But CEO Olav Birlem believes his technology can revolutionize chip production and has set his sights on selling to industry giant Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company. TSMC already works with more than 700 providers, many of them multinational.

Chip Start-up Ventures into Taiwan

Birlem’s company has commercialized technology for growing tiny metal hairs on surfaces and using them to firmly connect two objects, a solution that can be used to package chips.

The demand for ever-increasing computing power requires semiconductor manufacturers to continually pack more transistors into each chip and more chips into a device and pack them closer together.

NanoWired may be small, but new connection technologies like the one the company offers can help solve big industry problems as it seeks to develop ever-smaller chips, such as short circuits and voltage drops across connections.

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

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

Its ambitious launch testifies to how crucial TSMC, and by extension Taiwan, has become to the global chip industry. With forecast revenue of $75 billion this year, the company accounts for more than half of the market for custom chips.

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

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

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Chip Start-up Ventures into Taiwan in Search of Ever Smaller Chips
Chip Start-up Ventures into Taiwan in Search of Ever Smaller

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

There are potential customers for NanoWired everywhere in Taiwan, from GlobalWafers, the world’s third-largest supplier of silicon wafers, to Advanced Semiconductor Engineering, the world’s largest chip packaging, and testing company, to Foxconn, the manufacturer of the world’s largest contract electronics.

But Birlem is finding TSMC extremely difficult to conquer, highlighting just how much market power the leading contract chipmaker has amassed.

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

“If you are as relevant in the ecosystem as TSMC is, you can afford to be picky,” Birlem added. “So they have extremely high expectations.”

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Abram left his e-business studies to devote himself to his entrepreneurial projects. In 2017, he created the company Inbound Media and wrote articles about high-tech products for his Chromebookeur site. In 2019, Chromebookeur was renamed Macbound and became a general purchasing advice site. Today, Abram manages the development and growth of Macbound, surrounded by a young and talented team.

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