CEO interview: Sonderman on SkyWater's technology foundry model

January 17, 2019 // By Peter Clarke
SkyWater Technology Foundry Inc. is approaching the second anniversary of its formation as a "technology foundry" housed in mature facilities in Bloomington, Minnesota. We connected with company boss Tom Sonderman for an update on the development and plans for one of the industry's newest foundries.

As we began our interview Tom Sonderman revealed that he is the President and most senior executive of a company that doesn't use the CEO nomenclature.


Tom Sonderman,
President of SkyWater Technology Foundry Inc.

SkyWater came into being March 1, 2017 to take over a chip manufacturing site that was previously owned by Cypress Semiconductor Corp. and originally established by Control Data Corp. "It was bought by Cypress in the 1990s and in 25-plus years they have taken the technology down to 65nm CMOS. We are running 130nm and 90nm but the fab is 65nm capable," said Sonderman. "The fab has focused on manufacturing a high mix of low volume products such as specialty SRAMs and mixed-signal circuits for IoT. Cypress already had a prototyping and process R&D business that they had moved to Minnesota. That is the essence of what SkyWater was at launch March 1, 2017"

The factory has a manufacturing capacity of about 12,000 wafer starts per month assuming 200mm-diameter wafers with 30 mask layers, Sonderman said. This is somewhat less than was quoted when the facility was put up for sale by Cypress, but such capacity calculations depend on the complexity of the circuits being processed and the product mix, Sonderman said.

Oxbow

The formation of SkyWater was enabled by Oxbow Industries LLC, a Minnesota-based private equity company that specializes in buying and building business in partnership with management. Where necessary, Oxbow also injects management into its companies and recruited Sonderman from semiconductor equipment company Rudoph Industries, knowing of his previous long experience with Globalfoundries Inc.

Sonderman said he has spent the first 15 months of his tenure at SkyWater recruiting management and building up the capabilities of a "technology foundry" that can resonate in the industry and help SkyWater gain traction.

Sonderman argued that after decades when manufacturing processes were stable and the main effort was on scaling, there is now a renewed emphasis on process innovation to prepare for a post-smartphone era driven by 5G communications and artificial intelligence.

On March 1, 2017 SkyWater's revenue balance was 97 percent with Cypress and 3 percent with a company called Parade Technologies Ltd. which acquired the TrueTouch capacitive touch sensing business from Cypress in 2015. Sonderman said that SkyWater exited 2018 with an approximately 60/40 revenue split – 60 percent being with Cypress and the other being technology foundry business. These ratios encompass both wafer production and engineering revenue streams, he added.

Trusted Fab Status

One of the reasons Oxbow Industries got involved with the buy-out was that it could see that a US-based and owned fab had the potential to fulfil programs that support US government objectives, particular with the present administration's focus on US technical leadership and on-shore manufacturing. SkyWater was awarded Category 1A Trusted Foundry by the US Department of Defense within a few weeks of the foundry's establishment (see SkyWater foundry granted trusted fab status).

That certainly helps bring some contracts in SkyWater's direction, Sonderman said. And while it is not required directly by other customers, it speaks to the robust information handling systems required to qualify for accepting US government program work. "That security and rigor in handling sensitive information serves to benefit all of SkyWater’s customers regardless of their location," said Sonderman.

Sonderman said the company intends to pursue both volume production in conventional mixed-signal CMOS and process development that is compatible with manufacturing on 200mm-diameter silicon wafers.

The current stock process is the 130nm S8 process which supports programmable system-on-chip designs with embedded flash and RF and is good for applications in automotive and the Internet of Things. SkyWater can also provide technology to enable infrared imaging with cryo-enabled readout IC's (ROIC) and MEMS-based microbolometer imaging. SkyWater has standard PDKs [physical design kits] for both 130nm and 90nm.

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