Minster Jong-Ho Lee briefing the success of the Nuri (KSLV-II) at the Naro Space Center pressroom on the 21st of June. Photo: Ministry of ICT
“The organic cooperation between industry, education, and research is the beginning of a country with hegemony over semiconductor technology. Through this process, high-quality talents can be nurtured, and a virtuous cycle ecosystem of super-gap technology can be created.”
This is what Jong-Ho Lee, the Minister of Science and ICT, said at the Seoul Chamber of Commerce and Industry on June 22 about the conditions for becoming a semiconductor powerhouse. Recently, Minister Lee gave a special lecture on semiconductors for the State Council meeting attended by President Yoon, ministers, and the People Power Party members. During the lecture, Minster Lee emphasized, “The semiconductor industry is suffering from a shortage of skilled manpower, such as high-level field workers.” Although the previous Moon administration set the goal of nurturing 36,000 semiconductor workers, the more important area is nurturing “high-quality experts” that can contribute to developing leading technologies of the future.
Minster Lee picked industry-education-research cooperation as the main strategy for nurturing such high-level experts. If students were only to get a theory-based education, companies will incur additional costs and time for practical training. However, if an industry-education-research cooperation ecosystem where technologies that companies need are developed in universities and research institutes, skilled labor apt in practical tasks will naturally be nurtured during the technology development process, and the burden of corporate R&D can be shared with universities and research institutes.
Semiconductor hegemony, the formula is ‘organic industry-education-research cooperation’
Minster Lee came to have this philosophy while he was developing the ‘3D bulk FinFET’ technology for the first time in the world, which became the standard technology in the non-memory semiconductor industry. This gave Minster Lee the nickname of ‘the father of 3D semiconductors’. Before his inauguration as Minster, he served as the director of the SNU Inter-University Semiconductor Research Center, where he fostered semiconductor experts.
Minster Lee is considered one of the most elite semiconductor experts in Korea, having published more than 700 journals and conference papers, and registered more than 100 domestically and internationally. He was elected as a fellow of IEEE in 2016, and from 2018 until he was appointed as a minister, he was the director of the SNU Inter-University Semiconductor Research Center. Minster Lee met President Yoon during the lecture he gave on semiconductors to the then-candidate Suk-Yeol Yoon in May of last year.
Lee said at the ‘meeting with directors of government-funded research institutes to overcome crisis’ held at the Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute inYuseong-Gu, Daejeon, on June 23, that “The institutes have to play a leading role as a repository of national strategic technology and a medium for industry-education-research cooperation.”
During the meeting, the minister cited the successful launch of the Nuri as a representative achievement of the industry-education-research cooperation. The Nuri is evaluated as a culmination of high-tech industrial efforts that domestic industries, universities, and research institutes all concentrated their capabilities on. For example, structures such as the tank and the fuselage of the Nuri were managed by Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), and private companies such as Doowon Heavy Industries and Innocom. KAI was also in charge of assembling parts supplied by nearly 300 companies. The 4 cube satellites ejected into space were developed by Chosun University, Seoul National University, Yonsei University, and KAIST. The entire process from technology development, such as the development of launch modules and satellites, to design, production, testing, and launch, was completed through industry-education-research cooperation. Minster Lee said, Through the success of the Nuri, we have seen with our own eyes what kind of results can be achieved by steadily researching core technologies.”, and evaluated the success as a “scenario that government-funded research institutes should aim for”.
Minister Lee won a case against Samsung Electronics for patent infringement
Minister Lee has a special relationship with Samsung Electronics. He conducted a joint research with Samsung Electronics for the development of next-generation semiconductor fabrication process technology in the 2000s, and continued developing bulk FinFETs after the research was completed. As a result, he succeeded in developing the ‘3D Bulk FinFET’ technology which lowers power consumption and improves speed, in collaboration with KAIST when he was working at Wonkwang University.
There is a physical limit to reducing the size of semiconductors through the planar semiconductor design. Normally, 20nm is considered the minimum size that can be designed for a non-memory semiconductor with a planar structure. FinFET, a 3D semiconductor fabrication technology, was developed to overcome such limitations. With the use of the FinFET technology, non-memory semiconductor fabrication and devices are being designed with sizes as small as 3nm.
Minster Lee applied for a patent for this FinFET technology in the US in 2003. Afterward, in July 2016, the patent rights were altered such that the rights would be shared with KIP, a patent subsidiary of KAIST, in an agreement to share the patent royalties at a certain rate. Intel and Apple have been paying royalties after agreements with KIP in 2012 and 2019 respectively.
However, KIP filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Samsung Electronics to the Eastern District of Texas in 2016, claiming that Samsung Electronics has not paid royalties for the technology since the development of Galaxy S6 in 2015. This is when the uncomfortable relationship between the then-candidate Lee and Samsung Electronics began.
In 2018, the local jury found that Samsung Electronics infringed on the KIP patent, and the jury returned a verdict ordering Samsung Electronics to pay $400 billion to KIP in compensation. Samsung Electronics then announced its intention to appeal, but in 2020, the two sides came to an agreement and withdrew from the lawsuit. The sides did not disclose specific terms of the agreement, but it is said that they signed a patent contract like Intel and Apple.
Minster Lee, who has experience in industrial, educational, and research environments, is the ‘right person’ for the R&D reform
Due to Lee’s such unique background, those in the industrial sector evaluate him as the right person to lead the ‘industry-education-research semiconductor one team’. He is a researcher who has developed a world-first technology through industry-university joint research, and is a beneficiary of huge patent fees for successful research results. In particular, while serving as a professor in universities, he accumulated ways to prevent IP disputes with companies, education facilities, and research institutes, and create synergies instead.
Experts analyze that the establishment of an industry-education-research ecosystem could be good news for domestic semiconductor companies, such as Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix. Compared to the memory sector, which has dominated for more than 30 years, the technological competitiveness of the non-memory field is weak. The ecosystem built from the said cooperation could distribute the development works between universities and government-funded research institutes to motivate progress. The Ministry of Science and ICT also announced its intention to redesign the R&D policy, which had been the ‘follower’ type, to a ‘leader’ type.
In his inauguration address in May, Minster Lee said, “In an era where technology is crucial to sovereignty, we will strive to strengthen investment and omnidirectional support by concentrating the capabilities of the public and private sectors, and promote a more practical innovation through an industry-education-research innovation ecosystem.” A university professor, who requested anonymity, said “Minister Lee is a researcher who developed the FinFET technology, and although he did not directly file the patent lawsuit against Samsung Electronics, he watched over the entire process.”, and that “he has accumulated enough knowledge to create synergy between relevant bodies, such as in the case of how researchers provide technologies to companies.”
Translated by: Do-Hyung Kim, English Editor of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, firstname.lastname@example.org