“Independent group” of China’s chip industry

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Written by Dong Rui, Chen Shuai and Yang Jiankai
Source / Yuanchuan Technology Review (ID: kechuangych)
When it comes to semiconductor talents, there are two schools that stand out: Tsinghua University and the University of California, Berkeley. The two local and overseas schools have provided a large number of top engineers, entrepreneurs and investors to the chip industry in China, and have incubated batch after batch of chip enterprises through the alumni relationship of inheriting generations.
This kind of alumni relationship is embodied in the entrepreneurial process of Zhu Yiming, a Tsinghua student
In 2004, Zhu Yiming of the 89 grade physics department and Shu Qingming of the 85 grade semiconductor specialty set up their own chips. They found Li Jun, who was in the 85 level automation department. Li Jun helped them get a venture capital and introduced it to Xue Jun, a 83 level economic department. Xue Jun contacted Luo Zhuo of the 80 grade engineering and physics department. Luo Zhuo’s fund invested 2 million yuan, and Deng Feng, who was in charge of the 81 level electronic department, finally made 920000 US dollars Start.
Twelve years later, the company, called Zhaoyi innovation, went public, with a market value of nearly 100 billion yuan. Before Zhaoyi’s innovation, Chen Datong, a 77 grade semiconductor major, had already founded a chip design company, Spreadtrum, which was once a strong enemy of MediaTek.
It can be said that Tsinghua is the main force in China’s semiconductor industry, and the trump card force in the main force is “Tsinghua semiconductor major”, which is now Tsinghua Microelectronics Research Institute. It is like the “independent group” in “bright sword”, and it can play well.
The Institute of microelectronics was founded in 1980. Its predecessor can be traced back to the semiconductor specialty established by Tsinghua University in 1956. In December this year, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Institute of microelectronics, our team from Shanghai to Beijing conducted in-depth exchange and study at the Institute. We listened to old professors’ lectures on learning to be a man, and generations of Tsinghua microelectronics people told stories in the field of semiconductors.
Over the past 40 years, microelectronics has sprouted and grown up, and now it is full of peach and plum trees, composing a magnificent movement in the field of semiconductor in China.
The original seed of Tsinghua microelectronics was the “eight member general” plus an academician.
In the summer of 1956, five famous universities jointly set up China’s first semiconductor specialization in Peking University. Tsinghua sent eight young teachers, including Cao Peidong and Zhang Jianren, to attend the study. Later, Tsinghua employed Wang Shouwu, an academician who returned from Purdue University in the United States, to be the director of Tsinghua semiconductor teaching and research group. As a result, Tsinghua’s chip team was set up under the radio department with the combination of Chinese and Western culture.
The office of the smallest teaching and research group in the Department is on the third floor of Lizhai, which is temporarily vacated by several student dormitories. Although the facilities are simple and crude, the research field is “full bloom”: some are engaged in germanium devices, some are engaged in semiconductor radio, some are engaged in rectifiers, some are engaged in optoelectronic devices, and some are engaged in silicon materials. After the Soviet expert Cherkin came to guide in 1959, the group increased the research on silicon carbide nonlinear resistance.
At the same time, Tsinghua University is also in full swing in expanding its team, even using some “clever methods”. For example, Li Zhijian, who once served as the director of microelectronics, is “muddleheaded on the ship of Tsinghua”.
In 1958, Li Zhijian returned home from lillingrad University. As soon as he arrived at the Beijing railway station, he met Li Chuanxin, Secretary of the Department of radio at Tsinghua University. He met Li Chuanxin, Secretary of the Department of radio at Tsinghua University, and quickly appointed him to the Department. In the era of planned economy, Li Zhijian thought that this was the decision of the organization, so he went to it willingly.
But after working for some time, Li Zhijian was unexpectedly informed by the Ministry of education that he had three choices: Tsinghua University, Zhejiang University and xijiaotong University. After that, Li Zhijian recalled that he was also very surprised at that time, and he was quite moved to go back to his hometown in Zhejiang Province and his alma mater of Zhejiang University. However, considering that he had already arrived at Tsinghua University, “it is difficult to face a difficult situation”, so he stayed.
In fact, Tsinghua has done enough homework to win over Li Zhijian. Zhang Li, a professor of Tsinghua University, wrote a letter to persuade him. In 1957, three scholars of Tsinghua University, including nandeheng, Feng Qingyan and Wang Tianjue, wrote to invite Li Zhijian in the name of the preparatory group of semiconductor specialty in Department of radio electronics.
Tsinghua attaches great importance to talents. Li Zhijian also became the actual host of the teaching and research group after Academician Wang Shouwu, laying a solid foundation for Tsinghua Microelectronics Institute.
In 1958, Tsinghua teaching and research group overcame the batch production process of polysilicon. In the same year, the first integrated circuit was born, and Tsinghua University also proposed to focus on silicon integrated circuits. Seven years later, Moore Gordon put forward Moore’s law, and chip development entered the fast lane. However, the semiconductor specialty, which is preparing for the golden age, is waiting for its first rough fate: with the opening of the cultural revolution, the major has been divided into two parts, most of which have moved to Mianyang, and a small number have stayed in Beijing to enter the workshop.
The hard years in Mianyang, Sichuan Province, can be said to be both a miracle and a pity. Tsinghua people have rebuilt the laboratory and started teaching. They have also cooperated with 970 factories in Chengdu. The semiconductor workshop in Beijing has also developed many products. However, the world has entered the era of VLSI. Intel has successively launched the first commercial memory chip, the first microprocessor, and the outside world, which has turned upside down.
After the “Cultural Revolution”, Mianyang branch school, under the personal care of Comrade Deng Xiaoping, all withdrew from Beijing. In order to catch up with the international level, the semiconductor major also ushered in a new stage: independence from the radio department and officially becoming an institute.
Tsinghua Microelectronics Institute, founded in September 1980, has only 74 teachers and 61 students, and the funds are still insufficient. Even the funds for building teaching buildings need to be constructed and raised at the same time. However, in the following 40 years, the Institute of microelectronics has gradually achieved breakthroughs, becoming the recognized Whampoa Military Academy in China’s chip industry.
The growth of the Institute of microelectronics, like every young man, is in the process of encountering difficulties and realizing breakthroughs.
The first crossroads faced by these young scholars is: silicon or germanium.

Although the physical properties of silicon are better than that of germanium, it is more suitable for the semiconductor industry, but in the late 1950s, germanium materials and devices have been mass-produced and quite mature, while silicon technology is still in the early stage of development. Therefore, there are many things that can be referred to and studied in germanium research, which is relatively “safe”; while in silicon research, there are few references and much more difficulties.
Because of the limited resources, we have been arguing about this issue for some time. But in the end, a consensus was reached that rectifiers and the like should not be stopped, but they should dare to look ahead, and someone must study “Silicon”. The teaching and research group even led the 1960’s students to participate in technical research in the laboratory.
Teachers and students are of the same mind, and their benefits cut off gold. In the early 1960s, the Institute of microelectronics has mastered the silicon plane technology and the development of silicon integrated circuits, which is less than ten years from the start-up time in the United States.
After that, the Institute of microelectronics has gone through dispersion and regrouping, and just after the convergence, the institute faces a second choice: bipolar or CMOS.
At that time, my colleagues in Mianyang, Sichuan were responsible for bipolar circuits, while Beijing was responsible for MOS integrated circuits. Once again, both sides are faced with choices under the same resources. In the end, the two sides should focus on the technology and technology of COMS instead of focusing on the technology and technology of COMS.
Soon, the Institute of microelectronics established the first semiconductor ultra clean process line based on the original teaching and research laboratory, and built the first 1-micron silicon CMOS process guide line in China in 1989. With the arrival of new equipment, the Institute of microelectronics has become the envy of national semiconductor colleges and universities. But behind the brilliance, they all pay in silence.
In those years, because the ultra clean equipment could not be shut down, the key teachers in the institute took turns to work overtime to maintain the production line running 24 hours a day. However, due to the lack of environmental monitoring and purification equipment, teachers and students can only “fold a towel into eight sides” and wipe the table and floor to keep the production line clean. The more surprising story is “how to overcome regulation.”.
Under the control of Batumi, the equipment introduced by Tsinghua University is not fully functional. There is no terminal detection module in the etching equipment, which means that the machine does not know where to pause, resulting in etching error and wafer scrapping. Since the machine is not easy to use, the researchers at the Microelectronics Institute intend to rely on people.
Through the way of “real-time manual observation”, we can judge whether we have reached the end point through color change, and then continuously accumulate experience to improve the process control ability. These stories sound interesting, but poignant, always remind us that self-reliance is not a word, but a difficult but correct decision.
Another challenge that Tsinghua microelectronics has overcome is the introduction of photolithography. This is the embodiment of Tsinghua’s international vision, and also inseparable from the efforts of Mr. Yang Zhilian. During his visit to Holland, he facilitated the “marriage” between the Institute of microelectronics of Delft University and Tsinghua Institute of microelectronics. The two institutes started cooperation in academic exchanges and joint training, which promoted ASML to donate lithography machines to Tsinghua University.
Although there is equipment, EDA software is still a hurdle. Many graduates of Microelectronics Institute often go to an Automation Institute of the Ministry of machinery to do circuit simulation research on a minicomputer imported from Japan for plate making system, using spice program compiled by Tsinghua computer department. Although the software is simple and crude, it also lays the foundation for the development of EDA software for chip design in China.
Relying on the spirit of independence and the vision of international cooperation, microelectronics first successfully developed a Chinese character memory chip with 1.06 million transistors in China in 1990. Batumi has broken the VLSI level. Li Chuanxin, then Secretary of the Party committee of Tsinghua University, also sincerely sighed: “so few people, spending so little money (15 million), doing so many things and producing such high-level results!”
The golden card project, launched in 1993, is the time to embody China’s independent capability. At that time, China planned to use contactless IC card technology for the second generation of certificates, but the technology patents were basically in the hands of overseas companies, especially Philips of the Netherlands, which held more than 90% of the shares.
After the news release, overseas companies have launched “public relations” in hopes of getting projects. However, the legal documents involve a lot of sensitive information and are related to national security. Therefore, the relevant departments firmly put forward the idea of “domestic independence”. And this burden, of course, is also borne by Tsinghua Microelectronics Institute and other institutions and companies.
Scholars from the Institute of microelectronics have led graduate students to develop RFID technology and samples for simplex and duplex wireless communication. In addition, the standard elements higher than overseas technology have been continuously overcome. Finally, in March 2000, based on EEPROM, the Institute of microelectronics successfully developed the second generation IC card chip sample, breaking the patent blockade and protecting the national data security.
From the initial technical blockade to independent breakthrough, Tsinghua Microelectronics Institute has been “going through the barrier” all the way, and its “core” journey from academic to commercial has also begun. A number of scholars from Microelectronics Institute began to turn to the commercial stage.
Since its establishment, Tsinghua microelectronics and other departments have contributed three groups of entrepreneurs to China’s chip industry.
The first group was the “overseas luminescent school”, which represented Chen Datong of grade 77 and Deng Feng of grade 81 who went to study in the United States in the early days.
They were active in the Chinese community in Silicon Valley in the 1990s and founded Howe technology and screen company respectively. Interestingly, both of them are old instructors of microelectronics. Tsinghua has a long history of “mentoring” mode, which was also brought to Silicon Valley by two counselors from Beijing. Many of the direct line teachers and students were directly recruited to the United States by them, which constituted the technical backbone of the two companies.
Both Howe and NetScreen are typical startups that challenge global giants. Howe, created by Chen Datong, has defeated the traditional CCD sensor in Japan with CMOS technology. The network screen created by Deng Feng created a mode of network security with chip hardware, which launched an impact on Cisco.

The listing of howay and NetScreen in just a few years also proves that Tsinghua microelectronics, as a collective, has the ability to make subversive and innovative products, and impact on the commanding heights of global chips.
The second group is the “return to power school”, which is the first batch of entrepreneurs to return to China, represented by Wu Ping of grade 79, Feng Chenhui of grade 85 and Shu Qingming of grade 85.
Tsinghua microelectronics’s return to China started with the new policy of integrated circuit issued by the state in 2000. Since the 1990s, Tsinghua alumni have formed a close circle in Silicon Valley, which often discusses potential entrepreneurial opportunities and has a strong sense of trust. With the passage of time, many Tsinghua alumni who are majoring in microelectronics have realized the opportunity of Chinese chip entrepreneurship.
There are two characteristics of this generation of Tsinghua microelectronics alumni who have returned home to start their own businesses.
The first feature is the matching of old and young people, and cross bank matching. We will cooperate with alumni of different majors and ages to achieve complementary advantages and resources.
Wuping and Chen Datong teamed up to create Spreadtrum, starting with 2G chips; Shu Qingming and Zhu Yiming, a junior brother of the Physics Department of grade 89, teamed up to create Zhaoyi innovation, starting from memory IP and turning to norflash memory manufacturing; Feng Chenhui and Xu Zhihan, a junior brother of grade 90 Computer Department, teamed up to create Zhuosheng micro, starting from terrestrial TV chips, and then turned to mobile radio frequency chips, and became the industry leader 。
The second characteristic is that they all rise in the market segment of mobile phone electronic components, which reflects the entrepreneurial style of Tsinghua Microelectronics: choose a big track and do practical work.
At the beginning of its establishment, Spreadtrum avoided the most difficult 3G chip, first made 2G, and then made breakthrough to 3G after having business foundation and market experience; Zhaoyi innovation, on the one hand, avoided building a car behind closed doors and starting from scratch, but completed the accumulation of memory IP through acquisition; at the same time, it also started from flash, and then entered NAND, DRAM and other memories. Zhuo Sheng Wei avoided the difficult PA, and made switch and low noise amplifier first.
The subsequent facts also proved that, in the semiconductor field, under the pressure of American technology, entrepreneurship may be the need for rural areas to surround cities. First, there should be base areas in the middle and low end, with income and business foundation, and then impact on the high-end product market.
The third group is the “local rising school”, represented by 85 grade Zhao Weiguo and Yu renrong.
The overseas returnees of Tsinghua University have made the enterprises bigger and stronger, leaving a precious fire for China’s chip industry. The local alumni of Tsinghua University showed a keen sense of smell. They “maneuver” and opened the era of merger and acquisition of Chinese chip companies ahead of time.
Zhao Weiguo presided over large-scale M & A cases such as Spreadtrum and redico in Ziguang, while Yu renrong took over the overseas Howe technology under Weier. Although there was no Sino-U.S. friction at that time, they were also speeding up their efforts. Before 2018, they quickly completed a lot of complicated merger and acquisition actions, which won a valuable time window for the integration of China’s chip industry.
China’s three generation of entrepreneurs have their mission and strength to go ahead: the first generation of students who went to the United States to study Silicon Valley entrepreneurship, completed the revolution to the giant by subversive innovation, and the second generation returned to China to test local entrepreneurship, and found the most suitable chip industry chain climbing path in the hells level Chinese market; the third generation was longer than the acquisition, to a certain extent, patched the industry, and accelerated the chip production with capital. The initial integration of the industry.
If we go further, the old director of the semiconductor industry is also from the Institute of microelectronics. Zhu Yiwei, 57, was the deputy director of the East optoelectronic factory, the largest semiconductor factory in China in the 1970s. He played an important role in the reform of Beijing’s integrated circuit industry. After his retirement, he still played a waste heat and actively introduced Taiwan entrepreneurs to participate in the reform of Huajing.
In addition to the entrepreneurs who come out of the campus, in fact, the past directors of the Institute of microelectronics are also academic or business models. For example, Wei Shaojun, the former director of the Institute, led a team to develop a SIM card chip at the turn of the century, which broke the monopoly of foreign chip companies on China. He also served as the president of Datang Telecom Technology Co., Ltd.
Wu Huaqiang, the current director of the Institute, is a double degree in materials science and management. He once served as a senior researcher in AMD and Spansion companies in the United States. In 2020, Wu Huaqiang published a paper in nature, which was the first time in the world to realize a multi array memory and computing integrated system based on memristor.
Over the past 40 years, the Institute has trained more than 2000 undergraduate students, more than 1500 master students and more than 300 doctoral students. In the fields of academic, management and business, microelectronics has been practicing the tradition of “helping to pass on” and constantly consolidating the foundation of China’s chip industry.
At the end of the exchange, we specially visited the “micro nano processing platform” in the teaching building. There is a complete set of chip production process, lithography machine, ion implantation machine and other equipment, with a total value of nearly 300 million. And this laboratory, completely open to undergraduates, can carry out research and practice in it. Let the industry enter the campus and supplement the theory with actual combat.
This is very valuable for China semiconductor. When we talk about the semiconductor gap between China and the United States, it always falls on time and talent. It takes time to accumulate technology, but also time to train talents patiently. As the saying goes, it takes ten years to cultivate trees and one hundred years to educate people.
This is what every professor of microelectronics is thinking about. The Institute of microelectronics has done a lot in the past 40 years, but more still needs to be done. It is believed that with the growth of a batch of talents and the inheritance of rigorous learning spirit, China’s independent semiconductor industry will surely go to a faster pace. Neck sticking will no longer be our pain.
What we need to thank is not only the Microelectronics Institute, but also every scholar, researcher, engineer, entrepreneur, and even the students in school who are paying for China’s technological breakthrough. I hope their efforts will be rewarded. Because we still have a long way to go.
(statement: This article only represents the author’s point of view, not Sina’s position.)