The State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) is to invest CHF26 million in the development of microchip design, with partners ETHZ, EPFL and CSEM contributing a further CHF7.8 million. The SwissChips initiative is setting out to defend Switzerland's position as a world leader in this vital technology.

Of the EPFL professors involved, all were Principle Investigators at Nano-Tera, and most are currently members of EcoCloud. These kinds of synergy are exactly the kind of network, built on academic excellence, that SwissChips is designed to foster.

Two of the leading players in Swiss microchip design are Prof. Luca Benini of ETHZ and Prof. David Atienza of EPFL. Their collaboration goes back a long way, including Nano-Tera project YINS.

[interview with David about the initiative, and about collaboration between insitutes]

As keynote speaker at the EcoCloud Annual Event last year, Benini made the point that RISC-V technology, being open source, scalable and extendable, is the way forward for microchip design. A good example of a Swiss chip design based on RISC-V technology is X-HEEP, a low-power wearable chipset architecture that can be used for a huge range of biomedical sensing applications. A product of Atienza's Embedded Systems Lab, X-HEEP was recently featured in the EUROPRACTICE annual report.

Another is PULP, which was developed by Benini's Integrated Systems Laboratory at ETHZ. Its stated aim is to break the energy efficiency barrier within a power envelope of a few milliwatts, while receiving the data streams generated by multiple sensors, such as accelerometers, low-resolution cameras, microphone arrays and vital signs monitors.

It is clear that EPFL collaborators have been using and contributing to ETHZ's PULP technology, and that ETHZ have also been developing work on EPFL's X-HEEP architecture.

Once you add CSEM, with their vast expertise, hardware resources and industrial network, you get exactly the kind of holistic design culture SwissChips is intended to encourage, especially given that Switzerland has left the Horizon program of European funding, and other EU funding programs.

If we are not designing chips, we are out of the game

We spoke to two co-leads of SwissChips, Dr. Alex Levisse and Dr. Miguel Peón of EPFL.

"When monitoring illnesses such as cardiac and epileptic conditions, off-the-shelf integrated circuits for detecting seizures can work," explains Levisse. "However, current microcontroller architectures lack energy efficiency, versatility and scalability, particularly in the context of applications leveraging artificial intelligence, making them extremely inefficient. One of our goals is to explore and design circuit architectures which can meet these needs.

"Being part of programs like SwissChips enables us to teach young researchers how to design chips and develop open-source hardware platforms such as X-HEEP and PULP. With Swisschips, we intend to foster scientific collaboration between Swiss universities in the field of integrated circuit design through the development of common design platforms and chips designed together."

Miguel Peón outlines the current reputation of Swiss microchip designers: "Until now, Switzerland has produced a surprisingly high amount of chip designs for the size of the country. EUROPRACTICE has just published a graph of the number of chip designs that they received from each country in Europe in 2023. Switzerland is third, behind only France and Germany. Given the size of this country, this is astonishing.

"But these designs were mostly developed while Swiss universities were still participating in European-funded research programs. Switzerland is no longer a member of Horizon Europe and other programs, so the future of Swiss chip design depends on initiatives like SwissChips.

"Although Switzerland does have some foundries, and manufactures some chips for watchmaking, automative and other industries, it is not a country that mass-produces chips like Intel (USA) or TSMC (Taiwan).

"If we can't manufacture chips, and we are not designing them either, we are out of the game."

[final statement from David]