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How DFW is Reinventing Its Semiconductor Industry

An impressive cluster of high-tech companies has assembled in North Texas.
photography by James Bland

Triquint may not be a household name. But if you have a smart phone or a Kindle, chances are its semiconductor components are making your life easier.

Such is the case with dozens of semiconductor-related companies in North Texas. They employ thousands of people and fuel our technology, yet most people don’t even realize they’re here.

Pioneer Texas Instruments gets the credit for attracting the cluster of Dallas-Fort Worth semiconductor companies, including Maxim Integrated Products, National Semiconductor, STMicroelectronics and Allied Semiconductor Corp.

Eighty-year-old TI introduced the world to the first integrated circuit, powering up portable radios, electronic watches, and computers. Since then the applications for its chip sets have become life changing. And nearly everywhere you turn in DFW’s chip world, you get a feeling of “six degrees of separation”—there’s always someone who has spent time at TI.

John Shellene, director of the Dallas-Fort Worth Semiconductor and Technology Executive Council, says the beauty of the semiconductor industry is that it continues to reinvent itself and discover ways to make technology leaner and meaner.

The newest wave of innovation is bringing even more integration to consumer-focused products. Think of it as a marriage of unlikely partners: a high-definition video projector built into a cell phone, or a cell phone connected to a stent that calls the doctor when a blockage occurs.

Companies like Allen-based Wham!, Richardson-based SNR Labs, and Dallas-based Syndiant have attracted more than $4 million from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund to help bring their products to market.

Shellene says it’s common for smaller companies, like Wham!, to piggyback on technology such as the TI chipset.

“This aids smaller companies so they don’t have the overhead and helps TI grow the capabilities of their technology,” he says.

Mark Denissen, vice president of worldwide strategic marketing at TI, agrees that the collaboration happens often and is mutually beneficial.

“Even though we’re investing like crazy [in innovation] inside TI, there’s a lot of innovation outside of TI,” he says. “So when these small companies have a good idea, we very much like to work with them, partner with them, figure out how our technology can help them make that idea real. So it’s great for them and good for us.”

TriQuint Semiconductor is one example of the apple not falling far from the tree.

Mobile-Device Growth

TriQuint’s Texas operations first took root on the TI campus. The Hillsboro, Ore.-based company acquired a piece of TI’s business in 1998 and worked out of there before setting up its own shop on 33 acres off Renner Road in Richardson. There, TriQuint now employs more than 670 in a 550,000-square-foot office building and 48,000-square-foot Class 1 clean-room space.

The company recently announced plans to hire an additional 100 employees in the first half of 2011, and to infuse more than $100 million into its operations during the next five years, mostly in new equipment.

“Most of that is being driven by huge growth in the mobile devices sector,” says Howard Witham, vice president of TriQuint’s Texas operations, who notes that 60 percent of the company’s business is making components in consumer devices.

Altough some in the industry are struggling—National Semiconductors and STMicroelectronics have closed manufacturing operations in the last three years—Witham says TriQuint’s focus on innovation is keeping it ahead of the curve.

In addition to using silicon, TriQuint builds its semiconductor modules with gallium arsenide, which has proven to operate at higher frequencies or transfer more data when compared to other technologies. The company has  about a 14 percent share of the GaAs market and sees plenty of room to grow.

“It’s absolutely a technology business and high tech when it comes to manufacturing,” Witham says. “You’ve got to have great designers and engineers and be really good at manufacturing.”

The cluster of semiconductor-related companies in North Texas creates a highly skilled labor pool, making it easier to hire, he says.

“We’re able to tap into that network and hire a lot of well-qualified and good people from a number of companies in the area,” says Witham who provides a good example himself, having joined TriQuint from STMicroelectronics in early 2010.

Nationally, 185,000 are employed in the semiconductor industry. Texas holds its own with more than 30,000, Shellene says.

The Dallas-Fort Worth Semiconductor and Technology Executive Council focuses its energy on education and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs to keep a steady flow of qualified people on tap.

“Our constituents know they are going to be hiring for the long term, and they need a qualified work force and population of innovators and technologists down the road,” Shellene says. “Their horizon is set on today’s sixth and seventh graders.