Latvia Sets Sights on Semiconductors with Initial Focus on Skills – EE Times Europe
EE Times Europe
Latvia uses 5G conference to declare semiconductor ambitions and utilize 5G, AR/VR skills to build its own open metacity.
Twelve partners from industry, government, and academia in Latvia last week signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to develop semiconductor manufacturing capabilities in the country. The initial focus is expected to be on developing relevant skills in Latvia that will support the wider aim of increasing EU independence from other global chip manufacturers.
The memorandum, signed during the 5G Techritory conference in Riga last week, is made up of three key components: developing the microchip ecosystem, developing educational and research capabilities, and fostering development and manufacturing capabilities throughout the entire semiconductor supply chain. Speaking to various people at the conference, it’s clear that the MoU is at present a declaration of intention, and that the MoU partners still have a long way to go to map out what outcomes would be desired. The consensus though was that the initial focus would be on the second element of the mission, which is to develop education and research capabilities, to ensure the right skills are available for the semiconductor ecosystem.
Memorandum partners include Riga Technical University, University of Latvia, University of Latvia – Institute of Mathematics and Computer Science, University of Latvia – Institute of Solid State Physics, LMT, Mikrotik, Tet, the Electronic Communications Office of Latvia, the Liepaja Special Economic Zone, the Confederation of Latvian Employers, the Ministry of Economics of the Republic of Latvia and the Education and Science Ministry of the Republic of Latvia.
Latvia is a country of just under two million people, so we wondered what the partners believed the country would be wanting to develop as part of the semiconductor value chain resilience agenda. In an interview with EE Times Europe, Ingmars Pukis, VP & member of the management board at LMT (Latvian Mobile Telephone), one of the 12 MoU partners, said the introduction of the EU Chips Act led to a discussion in Latvia, presumably to see what they could do to as part of the bigger picture. He explained, “We asked: Do we have a role in the semiconductor supply chain, and what can we do? That led to this memorandum to bring together relevant players. The focus initially will be to develop the human capital, and massively expand the skills. While we are yet to decide what areas this should be in, the ambition is to bring our efforts together and re-establish the competence [in semiconductors] in this country.”
You can hear my interview with Pukis in the audio file below.
This was echoed by Raimonds Lapiņš, deputy state secretary for the Ministry of Economics of Latvia. He emphasized that this was just the beginning, and the partners were evaluating possible desired outcomes. In our discussion, he said that process would involve identifying the skills that would be needed to support semiconductor manufacturing, and that this would then help better define the country’s role in the chip ecosystem. He commented, “The first step regarding semiconductor development strategy in Latvia is building upon existing capabilities, which in our case are human capital and research base. We need to invest adequate resources in these areas.”
Qualcomm’s vice president of government affairs for EMEA and managing director for Germany and Austria, Benjamin Sokolowski, speaking on a panel about regional semiconductor strategies along with Lapins at the 5G Techritory event, added, “In the context of Europe’s and North America’s dependence on Asian chip manufacturers, Latvia can benefit from the growing demand, which doesn’t have to be manufacturing per se but participation in the overall supply chain. Latvia can create the right regulatory environment to support innovation and growth of the relevant skills.”
In their press statement announcing the semiconductor MoU, the partners indicated that Latvia’s electronic and optical device manufacturing sector has been the fastest-growing manufacturing sector since 2010, growing from 3.7% to 7% of manufactured volume in 2022. Approximately 90% of manufactured electronics are exported. It added that Latvia already has a strong electronics manufacturing hub through companies such as Mikrotik, HansaMatrix, and Lightspace Technologies. It is also home to various scientific institutes, which combined with mobile technology innovators and developers such as LMT, developing 5G testbeds and labs. Latvia is home to a full spectrum of partners needed to develop some semiconductor capabilities at a meaningful scale.
Juris Binde, president & chairman of the management board, LMT, said, “Any production, innovation, or supply chain element, which we can provide locally in Latvia, strengthens our positions within the community of international innovators and our independence from other countries’ capabilities or desire to be involved in our projects. The strengthening of the local microchip production ecosystem and signing of this memorandum is one more step toward the extension of the technological horizon.”
If there’s one thing that stood out about the wider tech ecosystem in Riga, it’s the focus on virtual and augmented reality and the skills base this provides for Latvia’s ambitions. At the 5G Techritory conference in Riga, attended by nearly 300 people (in person) from the 5G ecosystem around Europe, that was evident from the practical applications involving 5G networks that speakers highlighted. Emphasizing the VR/AR aspect, in opening the 5G conference, Krišjānis Kariņš, the prime minister of Latvia, said, “What 5G technology gives us is an instant expansion of the now – beyond what our eyes can see.”
From mission-critical networks to connected soldiers, and from maritime communications to smart transport corridors, Latvia has provided a useful testbed not just for the network infrastructure but also for real world and virtual applications.
Paolo Campoli, VP and global head of the service provider sector at Cisco, told EE Times Europe, “What’s unique here [in Latvia] is excellence in solution and systems integration, and access to talent. And locally, there is more of an attitude to co-create solutions.” He added that there’s a tighter connection between academia and industry, analogous to the link that Stanford University and local industry has in Silicon Valley, as well as similarity to Israel.
One of the most high-profile applications highlighted by local speakers, including LMT, is the 5G military testbed, which is a result of several years of work. LMT’s Pukis told us, “Connectivity by itself is just a small part of our operation. We’ve focused on innovation in areas like defense, IoT, transportation and aviation. The most successful area has been in defense. We (LMT) launched the first European 5G defense testbed, in collaboration with the Latvian National Armed Forces and Ministry of Defence, which has been in operation since November of 2020.” The testbed is supplemented by two stand-alone 5G networks, built by Nokia and Ericsson, making it possible to test defense innovations on a variety of networks.
The 5G testbed site at Ādaži has had multinational force training, experiments, and demonstrations, including with NATO, the U.S. Department of Defence, the European Defence Fund, and the European Defence Industrial Development Programme (EDIDP). Previous demonstrations include testing mission management platforms, and unmanned terrestrial vehicles. Applications slated for testing at this 5G testbed include remote AR/VR defense personnel training, command and control, and various maintenance activities with remote specialist participation. Even the Latvian prime minister, Krišjānis Kariņš, said that he was taught at this military testbed how to repair an army vehicle in the field using augmented reality.
With this AR/VR focus, ‘metaverse’ naturally becomes a key topic of discussion. Not surprisingly then, the 5G conference witnessed another MoU signing, this time a state-supported initiative for Riga to develop its own ‘metaverse’. In its press announcement, it said that this would be one of Europe’s largest metaverse projects, driving forward extended reality (XR) research, technology, and applications. The MoU was signed by 22 industry partners committing to the initiative.
This came after a study conducted by Cambridge executive MBA students led by Sylvia Lu, head of cellular technology strategy at u-blox and a board director of CW (Cambridge Wireless), that found that Riga has the potential to become a successful metacity. This is due to the existing connectivity infrastructure, innovators, partners, and political will identified throughout the study. [Lu moderated a panel on the metaverse at the 5G conference in Riga along with panelists from Nokia, Cisco, Meta, and Qualcomm.]
The metacity MoU’s key aim is to develop a central authority on extended reality to coordinate the development of the virtual space. From this, all subsequent action will be derived – developing regulation for the platform, attracting funding, and coordinating the development of the space itself.
Latvia’s key differentiating components in the EU’s AR/VR ecosystem, according to the announcement, are heavily based on the already available infrastructure: for example, a strong cellular network and infrastructure, one of the fastest internet speeds in EU (5th), well-connected within the Baltics (airport, trains, cross-border 5G corridor). Secondly is the ecosystem – a strong technical university with a vibrant student base, local technology companies that are geared towards wireless and AR/VR innovations, and a relatively small yet well-connected population to drive deployment and adoption.
Metacity projects are emerging in other parts of the world, with Singapore being one of the most advanced. Currently, Europe’s only other metacity underway is CatVerse, the Catalonian metaverse in Barcelona. However, it is only available to companies or organizations that share Catalonian interests or values. Most other developed metacity concepts are outside of Europe, notably in Asia and the United States.
So how will this metacity be deployed and how will it differ from others? Neils Kalnins, director of 5G Techritory and initiator of the MoU, told EE Times Europe, “Over the course of the year, the partners will meet to craft and deploy the metacity strategy. The Cambridge study, which identified the security and educational/cultural verticals are having potential, serves as an excellent jumping off point, but the partners are mandated to develop the concept in the directions that they collaboratively agree as the best course of action.”
He added, “The Latvian metaverse will be open to all those who choose to access it. The memorandum stipulates that the metacity should serve as a new tool to access the digital, metaverse economy. Thus, by definition, it should not have any artificial barriers to entry.”
As if to underline the strength of Latvia’s AR/VR community, tech entrepreneur Madara Kalniņa-Kalnmale also launched the Baltic chapter of the VR/AR Association (VRARA) last week. Kalniņa-Kalnmale is co-founder of RedFrog, which aims to provide augmented reality hardware solutions and develops its own platform to foster a broad AR uptake.
The 5G conference provided a platform for me to witness the seeds of something that was much more than just 5G in Riga. The conference itself brought in senior executives from the global telecoms and chip industry, from the ITU to Cisco, Nokia, Rohde & Schwarz, and Qualcomm, as well as European and Latvian government officials and regulators. This showed the level of engagement that Latvia already has with the wider ecosystem. The 5G testbeds and the insights into some of the technologies supporting military training and soldier safety were certainly a demonstration of the ability of the local tech industry to get access to decisionmakers that allow technology trials to be deployed in key areas of defense and civil applications – that would be relatively difficult in most countries.
This also highlights one of the key traits of a successful innovation ecosystem – proximity and access to customers, decisionmakers and funding. This allows startups and breakthrough technologies a faster path to gaining market traction if the solution is viable.
The large number of AR/VR themes demonstrated both at the conference and during my visit seems to indicate a strong skills base in AR/VR, and the local Accenture office provided some highlights of the work in this area and beyond, into software engineering for robotics and even IoT for a major global beer company.
Put all of this together and combine it with a history in manufacturing with its flagship companies like Microtik, which makes network equipment, and you then realize the possible opportunities for Latvia’s role in Europe’s chip ambitions.
One thought that immediately comes to mind is in the opportunities for developing or plugging into the ‘semiverse’ – a semiconductor metaverse concept as outlined by Lam Research’s CEO, Tim Archer, at the imec Future Summits conference in Belgium earlier this year. Archer had talked about creating a hybrid physical and virtual environment where development and testing of semiconductors are done through a virtual environment connected to a physical fab. Essentially, it’s about enabling access to a digital twin of a fab to anyone. Archer said in May this year, “The semiverse will be filled with virtual hardware, so it is always available wherever you are in the world. That means million-dollar equipment and tools will be available anywhere 24/7, for almost nothing in terms of cost. The semiverse will allow us to build virtual processes to see what’s going on at wafer level at each process step. This will cut the time from ideation to commercialization.”
Indeed, this is the kind of thing that I can see some of the experts I met in Riga capable of delivering. Latvia certainly has the ambition, and its small size certainly works in its favor, allowing it to be nimble enough to address the needs of the day, under some of the aspects of the EU Chips Act, and especially in the skills element. Riga looked like it has the potential to be the Silicon Valley of the Baltics, as long as its skills strategy meets what industry wants.
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Nitin Dahad is a Editor-in-Chief of embedded.com, and a correspondent for EE Times, and EE Times Europe. Since starting his career in the electronics industry in 1985, he's had many different roles: from engineer to journalist, and from entrepreneur to startup mentor and government advisor. He was part of the startup team that launched 32-bit microprocessor company ARC International in the US in the late 1990s and took it public, and co-founder of The Chilli, which influenced much of the tech startup scene in the early 2000s. He's also worked with many of the big names – including National Semiconductor, GEC Plessey Semiconductors, Dialog Semiconductor and Marconi Instruments.
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