Obama taps Triangle for tech innovation
Using a display of colorful computer screens and electrical devices, an engineer on Wednesday gave President Barack Obama a close-up look at what workers at Vacon Inc.’s Research Triangle Park research and development office are doing.
Then from the company’s offices, Obama traveled in his presidential motorcade down cleared-off highways to Raleigh, where people stood along Western Boulevard, lifting cell phones to take pictures of the passing line of vehicles. Some stood on a street corner holding signs that read “Repeal Obamacare” and “Hands Off My Health Care.”
To the 2,000 people standing and sitting in a hot room at N.C. State University’s J.W. Isenhour Tennis Center, the president described a plan to involve Vacon and other companies and universities in a new partnership, led by N.C. State, that will focus on the development of next-generation power electronics.
“The reason I came here today is because we’ve got to do more to connect universities like N.C. State with companies like Vacon to make America the No. 1 place in America to open new business and create new jobs,” Obama said.
According to a release from The White House, the new manufacturing institute will be the first of three such institutes that the president hopes to launch to help “bridge the gap” between applied research and product development. The idea is to bring companies, universities, agencies and others together to invest in technology that will encourage investment and production in the United States.
N.C. State has been selected to lead the 18 companies and six other laboratories and universities in the institute, according to the White House release. The institute would offer shared facilities, equipment and testing and modeling capabilities to companies, particularly to small- and medium-sized manufacturers, to help invent, design and manufacture new semiconductor chips and devices.
The effort is backed by $70 million in federal dollars from the U.S. Department of Energy across five years, and another $70 million commitment from non-federal sources. Of the non-federal commitment, the state of North Carolina is contributing $10 million to the effort, according to an announcement by Gov. Pat McCrory’s press office. The University of North Carolina system is providing $5 million, said Terri Lomax, N.C. State’s vice chancellor for research, innovation and economic development.
The institute here would focus on making what are called “wide bandgap semiconductor” technologies cost-competitive with current, silicon-based power electronics. The technology was described by the White House as better-performing and more energy efficient, because it can operate at higher temperatures, it’s more durable and is more reliable at higher voltages and frequencies.
It’s envisioned as helping to power electronic devices, such as motors and consumer electronics, according to the release, making them faster, smaller and more efficient.
In his speech in Raleigh, Obama said that while he was “just schooled” on the specifics of wide bandgap semiconductors, he also said he wasn’t sure he was “fully qualified” to describe their technical elements. But generally, he said semiconductors are the “heart” of electronics like smart phones, and it’s hoped that the wide bandgap semiconductor can help devices operate using less power. He said the country that “figures out how to do this first” will attract jobs along with the technology.
He said the country has some “catching up to do,” and warned that the United States wants the next “big job-creating discovery” to be within its own borders.
"A lot of jobs were lost in the textile industry and furniture-making," Obama said. "But the great news is, is that ultimately, because our people are good and smart and hardworking and willing to take risks, we are going to be able to start bringing those jobs back to America. And that’s what we do."
Turning to reporters on his tour of Vacon with U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, Obama touted the company’s devices as energy-efficient technology that can translate into energy and money savings down the line. The company’s devices are designed to control the speed of electrical motors.
Sebastian Linko, a spokesman for Vacon, a Finland-based company that established its U.S. subsidiary Vacon Inc. in 2008, said in an interview that the company uses semiconductors in its products. If the company can get better, more efficient, and cost-efficient semiconductors, “that could be very important,” he said.
Linko also said that he’s not an expert on the economy, but “on a certain level, it does make sense” to build clusters of competencies in specific business areas.
Wideband gap semiconductors already are used in a lot of technology, including in the light-emitting diode, or LED, lighting products of Durham-based Cree Inc., a spin-out of N.C. State. However, the use of that type of technology is not ubiquitous, Lomax said.
“What needs to happen now is redesigning of a lot of products so they can utilize this new technology, and also creating new products -- like the LED light bulb is a great example -- to create whole new markets,” she said.
John Palmour, a co-founder of Cree, said all of the company’s products use wide bandgap semiconductors, but the focus of Wednesday’s announcement is for a different application for them in power devices. Palmour said Cree is mostly known for developing LED lighting products, but he said it also has a business unit devoted to power and radiofrequency devices. He said the company gets about $100 million in revenue annually from that business segment, but they expect that to grow “much, much larger.”
“It has reached a new level of attention,” Palmour said. “Literally, at the highest levels of government now, they’re saying this is a very important area for two reasons: one, for manufacturing jobs, because the U.S. does have a pretty good lead in this technology area, and it’s a growing business, and that could get much larger than it is today. And the other is that the technology saves energy.”