LONDON — The U.K.’s semiconductor industry is crying out for financial support from the government, with insiders warning the country risks losing its microchip firms to the U.S. and other countries if it doesn’t act soon.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government is yet to announce a strategy outlining U.K. efforts to support the chip industry. And semiconductor bosses in the country are growing frustrated.
Pragmatic Semiconductor, a Cambridge-based startup that produces non-silicon chips, warned it may be forced to relocate overseas if the government doesn’t issue a plan for the industry soon.
“It has to make economic sense for companies like ours to continue to operate and manufacture here, and if there are greater potential economic benefits and governmental support packages abroad, then relocation is the only sensible business decision,” Scott White, CEO of Pragmatic Semiconductor, told CNBC.
Britain is an understated player in the global chip market, specializing in design, intellectual property, research, and fabrication of compound semiconductors.
It is also home to one of the most coveted semiconductor-related assets in the form of chip designer Arm. Based in Cambridge, England, Arm-licensed chips are used in roughly 95% of the world’s smartphones.
Semiconductors, and the mainly East Asia-based supply chain behind them, have become a thorny issue for world governments after a global shortage led to supply problems for major automakers and electronics manufacturers.
The Covid-19 pandemic exposed an overreliance on manufacturers from Taiwan and China for semiconductor components. That dependency has become fraught with tensions between China and Taiwan on the rise.
TSMC, the Taiwanese semiconductor giant, is by far the largest producer of microchips. Its chipmaking prowess is the envy of many developed Western nations, which are taking measures to boost domestic production of chips.
IQE, a microchip firm in the semiconductor “cluster” in Newport, Wales, has also warned it may be forced to relocate to the U.S. or EU if the government does not act in the next six months.
“We would love to stay in the UK and have committed to grow in the UK … but we also have to do what shareholders want and go where the money is,” Americo Lemos, IQE’s CEO, told The Times newspaper.
A U.K. government spokesperson was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.
In the U.S., President Joe Biden signed into law the CHIPS and Science Act, a $280 billion package that includes $52 billion of funding to boost domestic semiconductor manufacturing.
The EU, meanwhile, has earmarked 43 billion euros ($45.9 billion) for Europe’s semiconductor industry with the aim of producing 20% of the world’s semiconductors by 2030.
China, too, has been forced to revamp its chip strategy after facing strict trade sanctions from the U.S. In December, the country was said to be preparing a more than 1 trillion yuan ($147 billion) package for its chip industry, according to Reuters.
‘Act of national self harm’
U.K. tech industry executives have said the lack of a similar strategy from the government is hurting the country’s competitiveness.
The U.K. likely won’t have the kind of financial firepower to match those bold spending packages, they say. However, they’re hopeful the country will commit to investment in the several millions, tax incentives, and an easier immigration process for high-skilled workers.
“Chasing to catch up is not within the spending power of the U.K., not even remotely,” Simon Thomas, CEO of Paragraf, a British firm developing and producing graphene-based electronics, told CNBC.
On Feb. 3, lawmakers on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) committee called for government action on the semiconductor industry, labeling the lack of a coherent microchip strategy an “act of national self harm.”
The government’s BEIS agency was on Tuesday disbanded and replaced under a reshuffle from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
The business and industrial strategy portfolio now falls under the remit of Kemi Badenoch, minister for a newly-formed Department for Business and Trade, while a Department for Science, Innovation and Technology is being headed up by Michelle Donelan.
Sunak became Britain’s third prime minister last year, inheriting a gloomy economic backdrop from his predecessor Liz Truss.
He is under pressure from chip bosses to outline a strategy for the industry — and fast.
Russ Shaw, founder of London Tech Advocates, said the government needed to “step up.” London has been “inordinately distracted by chaos.”
A U.K. semiconductor strategy was expected to come out last year. But it has faced a series of delays due to political instability. The government previously suggested establishing a national institution, among other initiatives, to boost its semiconductor industry.
“The rumours I’ve heard is [it may arrive] any day now,” Chris Ballance, co-founder of U.K. quantum computing startup Oxford Ionics, told CNBC. However, he added the process had been “going on for the last four or five months.”