Chinese startup hires chip godfather and TSMC vet to break into DRAM biz

They're putting a crew together, and Beijing's tossed in $750m to get things started

A Chinese state-backed startup has hired legendary Japanese chip exec Yukio Sakamoto as part of a strategy to launch a local DRAM industry.

Chinese press last week reported that Sakamoto has joined an outfit named SwaySure, also known as Shenzhen Sheng Weixu Technology Company or Sheng Weixu for brevity.

Sakamoto's last gig was as senior vice president of Chinese company Tsinghua Unigroup, where he was hired to build up a 100-employee team in Japan with the aim of making DRAM products in Chongqing, China. That effort reportedly faced challenges along the way – some related to US sanctions, others from recruitment.

The company scrapped major memory projects in two cities and was forced into bankruptcy last year, before Beijing arranged a bailout.

While that venture failed, 75-year-old Sakamoto's CV remains hard to match. He was once president at Japan's Elpida Memory – a major Apple supplier with the capacity to produce over 185,000 300mm wafers per month. Micron bought the company in 2013.

Sakamoto's new employer, which he claims will be his last, was established in March with ¥5 billion ($745 million) of registered capital and 100 percent controlled by Shenzhen state-owned assets, according to Chinese state media.

Its main products are listed as general-purpose DRAM chips for datacenters and smartphones, developed by teams in Japan and China.

Sakamoto will join Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) veteran Liu Xiaoqiang, said Chinese state media outlet Global Times. Although Liu left TSMC three years ago, the employment choice raises eyebrows given China's yearning for Taiwanese talent, complete with accusations of poaching and speculation of aggressive methods to obtain it.

Beijing has been extremely eager to achieve tech self-sufficiency amid US sanctions in an already critical supply chain environment. In October 2020, China set a goal of growing all its own tech at home by 2035.

Unfortunately for the Middle Kingdom, that goal seems more elusive by the day. Analyst house IC Insights predicted that by 2026, China will only produce 20 percent of the chips it uses.

Previous attempts to create a steady domestic DRAM stream in China have been thwarted by pesky things like IP laws. In addition to Tsinghua's failure to thrive, state-owned Fujian Jinhua Integrated Circuit Company was indicted on industrial espionage charges in the US and banned from importing semiconductor equipment and materials from the States.

Instead, the market remains dominated by the likes of Korea's Samsung and SK hynix, plus US company Micron. According to IC Insights [PDF], the trio held 94 percent of global DRAM market share in 2021. ®

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