New Partnership Aims to Make Vermont a Tech Hub, Create Jobs

Source: WCAX News

Vermont was one of 31 places around the country that was designated a “Tech Hub” by the U.S. Economic Development Administration this fall. That makes the state potentially eligible for up to $75 million of federal CHIPS Act money designed to promote technology made in the USA.

The state pitched to the feds that Vermont could advance Gallium Nitride or GaN. It’s a material that could be the future of smartphones and more because it can transmit data faster and charge faster than silicon, which is what semiconductor chips found in most electronics nowadays currently use.

And Vermont officials say we’re ready to seize the moment.

“I was blown away and I realized this is a huge opportunity,” said Doug Merrill, the regional innovation officer at the University of Vermont.

Merrill is running the newly created tech hub in Vermont and says the potential for gallium nitride is immense. “For energy efficiency, for communications efficiency, for communications access it’s going to be a real game-changer in those niche markets.”

He says Vermont wants the federal government to bet on that game-changing potential and make the Green Mountain State the place to be for tech companies.

“If this works, it will be a big talent magnet for Vermont,” said Kirk Dombrowski, UVM’s vice president for research and economic development.

That was one of the reasons Dombrowski spearheaded the tech hub push. He says it could bring young people and new businesses here, and highlight Vermont’s innovative tech sector.

He says the university will leverage its academic programs, including its new semiconductor lab unveiled this fall, to help supply talent. And while most of the tech hub’s benefits are indirect for them, he says this is a way to attract new students.

“We will benefit from Vermont and this area being seen as an emerging technology center,” Dombrowski said. “That’s the kind of thing that draws attention and students from across the country.”

He says their pitch was possible because GlobalFoundries already has the wheels turning on GaN here. GlobalFoundries got Department of Defense money to convert their Essex Junction facility to make GaN semiconductors.

“By being a leader in introducing GAN, we expect to have a competitive edge in this area,” said Scott Johnson, the senior director of technology development at GlobalFoundries’ Vermont plant.

Johnson says they’re betting on high demand for a faster, more efficient semiconductor.

“GlobalFoundries will be the first high-volume manufacturer of GaN, so we’re counting on the industry moving to many products that use GaN and there being a high demand,” he said.

The tech hub is planning two new facilities next year– locations still to be determined– that will support GaN semiconductor design and jump-start this new semiconductor industry. Two Vermont tech companies, OnLogic and Resonant Link, have already said they want to be part of it. And no other states are competing with us.

“I think it’s ours to lose if I can be so aggressive as to say that,” Vt. Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein said.

Goldstein wants this to be where GaN happens. She says there’s a lot of momentum. But she says it will require lawmakers and others to get on board with the idea and the changes that come with it.

“We will need them to embrace this as well, and why? Because it’s about the future,” Goldstein said.

It’s a future she says includes more high-paying jobs that could allow more Vermonters to afford homes, where more local students are trained to enter lucrative careers, where more tech companies are setting up shop here and bringing tax dollars into the state. And because tech offers the possibility for remote work, she says the benefits would extend beyond Chittenden County.

“I think we’re ready for it,” she said. “We’re poised for it. We have to do the right things.”

If Vermont does the right things in the next five to 10 years, Merrill says some of the cutting-edge technology that Vermonters use in their phones and more might actually be designed here, too.

“We’ll know we’re successful when companies are trying to relocate here or entrepreneurs are trying to start businesses here because they realize if they’re not in Vermont, they’re going to be left behind on the technological curve. That the advances are happening here,” Merrill said.

Everyone I spoke with said the goal is not to make Vermont the next Silicon Valley. They said the growth here will be appropriate for the size of the state and will be ramped up over the span of about two to five years.

They want Vermont tech companies to think about how they might want to get involved. Interested businesses can click here to learn more.

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