With over 600 CHIPS fund applicants seeking over $70B, don't get your hopes up

Commerce secretary warns priority will go to shovel-ready projects

US commerce secretary Gina Raimondo shared some hard truths about the $39 billion in CHIPS Act funding up for grabs in a speech on Monday.

Among them was that the vast majority of the more than 600 applicants that expressed interest in the funding are going to walk away empty handed.

"The point of this program isn't to sprinkle a bunch of money out to as many companies as possible," she warned. "Our job is to make targeted investments in the relentless pursuit of achieving our national security objectives."

The CHIPS Act has become much more important following the rise of generative AI, she explained

"You can't lead in AI if you don't lead in making leading-edge chips," Raimondo declared. "We lead in the design of chips; we lead in the development of AI large language models; but we don't manufacture or package any leading-edge chips that we need to fuel AI. The brutal fact is the United States cannot lead the world as a technology and innovation leader on such a shaky foundation."

While critically important to addressing this deficiency, she warned that even the most advanced chipmakers are likely to walk away with less than they'd hoped. These chipmakers have requested more than $70 billion despite only $28 billion in funding being earmarked for investment.

"My conversations with CEOs of these chip companies pretty much goes the same way. They come in, ask for billions of dollars – reasonable – and I tell them you'd be lucky to get half that," she recounted. "Then they come in again to finalize the deal where they get less than half of what they wanted, and they tell me they're not feeling lucky."

During the speech, Raimondo highlighted a new criterion for CHIPS funds. "We've decided to prioritize projects that will be operational by 2030," she revealed. "It's not responsible to give money to a project that will come online 10 or 12 years from now, if it means saying no to excellent projects that could come online this year."

This is likely to narrow the field considerably, as it can easily take three or more years to build and operationalize a new fab – assuming there aren't any delays. Taiwanese chip giant TSMC has already been forced to push back the opening of its Arizona chip project due to a shortage of skilled workers.

The Commerce Department's decision to prioritize the 2030 timeline suggests that the majority of funding will be directed toward Intel, TSMC, Samsung, and other large foundry operators that have already broken ground on several new US fabs.

Raimondo also suggested that memory vendors would receive a sizable chunk of funding. "We also believe we will be successful in having leading-edge memory which is also a critical input for AI systems right here in the United States," she indicated.

Micron and SK hynix have both announced plans to expand memory manufacturing in the US. Back in 2022, Micron committed to a $100 billion fab site in New York state, which would be built out in phases over about 20 years. However, only about $20 billion was planned before 2030 and the chipmaker has made it clear that it'll need the taxpayers' help to make it happen. That same year, SK hynix said it would invest $22 billion in US-based semiconductor manufacturing, green energy, and bioscience research.

Despite the emphasis on advanced chip manufacturing, Raimondo stopped short of announcing firm funding for any of the major chipmakers.

Of the few CHIPS Act announcements we've seen so far, most have gone toward mature nodes. This includes the $1.5 billion in funding that GlobalFoundries was awarded last week and the $162 million and $35 million that Microchip and BAE are already set to receive, respectively.

"We're not losing sight of the importance of current generation and mature node chips, which you all know are essential for cars, medical devices, defense systems and critical infrastructure," she noted, harkening back to the pandemic era chip shortage which hobbled the automotive industry. "We have got to improve the fragility of that supply chain."

However, moving forward it appears that advanced chip manufacturing will take precedence.

"The legislation requires that we invest a minimum of $2 billion into foundational chips," she said. "We'll certainly exceed the $2 billion and statute. We think of that as a floor. And look, if we had more we would do more, no doubt about it. We're just going to have to say no to excellent companies with excellent proposals." ®

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