Rapidus hunts for engineers to help Japan regain faded chip glory

Tetsuro Higashi, the Chairman of Rapidus Corp., poses for a photograph during an interview with Reuters at the company headquarters in Tokyo, Japan February 2, 2023. REUTERS/Issei Kato/File Photo

TOKYO (Reuters) - Government-backed Japanese chip foundry venture Rapidus is hunting high and low - including among industry veterans and overseas - to find engineers to help it revive a chip industry that was once the envy of the world.

Underpinned by billions of dollars in subsidies, Rapidus aims to mass manufacture 2-nanometre logic chips, competing with industry leading companies such as Taiwan's TSMC, which has spent decades refining its processes.

Securing engineers in a country with a declining population is among the most pressing issues for the company, which is partnering with IBM and research organisation Imec and in September broke ground at its fab on the northern island of Hokkaido.

Rapidus is helmed by veteran chip industry executives who were working in the 1980s when Japan boasted a market share of around half of the global chips market. That has shrunk to about 10%, with the industry losing prestige domestically even as Japan remains a leader in chipmaking equipment and materials.

"At first the main target was people who wanted to work on the cutting edge, but recently we have made a list of people who left Japan to work abroad and they are now joining," said Tetsuro Higashi, the 74-year-old Rapidus chairman and former head of toolmaker Tokyo Electron, in an interview in August.

Rapidus has around 250 employees as of November, with its swelling ranks including Masami Suzuki, a senior manager in her 50s in the 3D package department.

"If I do something new, I need about 10 years to do it. I wanted to make one more flower bloom and the timing of Rapidus starting was just right. I decided to bet my remaining time on it," Suzuki said of her career in an interview.

Rapidus' ambitious plans have been met with scepticism from chip industry insiders who have questioned whether the company will be able to achieve mass production and secure a sufficient customer base.

"When I first heard about Rapidus I thought it had a hugely challenging goal," said Naoto Yonemaru, who is in his 30s and is lead engineer in the process technology department. "While we will receive technology, we will also have to develop our own techniques."

Yonemaru last month relocated to work with IBM in New York state, part of a cohort of Rapidus engineers heading there as the fab is being constructed.

"I'm excited by the thought that we could achieve such a thing," he said.

(Reporting by Sam Nussey, Miho Uranaka and Tim Kelly; Editing by Jamie Freed)

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