There is no way around it: the year 2020 will go down in history as the year of the coronavirus pandemic – featuring a global health crisis and unseen post-war measures, including lockdowns and curfews. Not to mention the economic impact of this crisis, which will linger on for years to come. And yet, imec is heading for a record-breaking performance.
We talked with imec CEO Luc Van den hove about 2020 – a true annus horribilis (horrible year) – and asked him about his outlook for 2021. According to Van den hove, the new year will be all about searching for, and finding, new equilibria.
Looking back at 2020: a virus controls our lives
The economy is struggling, and many companies are relying on government support to get through this crisis. Can you briefly outline what impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the high-tech/semiconductor industry?
Luc Van den hove: “Much like any other sector, the semiconductor industry has had to deal with the shock wave that tore through society. First and foremost, we needed quick answers to critical uncertainties, including how our partners would respond to the crisis and how it would impact people's consumption patterns. After all, if smartphone and computer sales were to come to a sudden stop, the high-tech industry could be under severe pressure in no time.”
“Digital tools have prevented us from being thrown back in time.”
“Yet, it is precisely the high-tech industry – in addition to the health sector, of course – that’s helping us navigate through this crisis as well as possible. Computers, smartphones, and online tools have been crucial to accommodating governmental teleworking and e-learning initiatives. I would even argue that without digital tools, we surely would have been thrown back in time. Hence, it should come as no surprise that our industry is doing relatively well – although some sectors have certainly been hit harder than others. For instance, while automotive companies suffer greatly, the computer industry is doing great, and the data center business is even witnessing almost unprecedented growth.”
How did the crisis impact imec’s activities?
Luc Van den hove: “This may seem strange, but imec is actually heading for a record-breaking performance. While periods of prolonged uncertainty typically result in our partners taking fewer risks, there are no indications today that the coronavirus crisis is interfering with their innovation strategy.”
“That being said, I must admit I was very concerned during the first few months of the crisis. We had no idea whether we would be able to keep our labs and cleanrooms operational, which is fundamental to upholding agreements with our partners. In the end, we managed to do so and even signed new contracts.”
“This success has only been possible because of the stringent safety guidelines we implemented from the very beginning of the pandemic: everyone who can work from home should do so. This decision gives our colleagues in the labs and fabs the necessary space to carry out their tasks safely and responsibly. In other words: the fact that we have been able to keep our cleanrooms running is the merit of the entire imec community.”
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have chosen to implement stringent safety guidelines: everyone who can work from home should do so.”
“Obviously, this is a very unusual situation for colleagues who are still expected to be present on-site. But we realize that the imec employees who have had to telework for weeks have been suffering as well. Still, despite all challenges, together, we are making it work.”
That is undoubtedly an observation that imec's partners appreciate as well?
Luc Van den hove: “Our strict contingency strategy has indeed been well received – especially by those partners employing people on imec's premises. They understand that we have found a good balance between keeping our facilities operational and protecting the wellbeing of our employees – and theirs.”
When looking back at how imec performed in 2020, which realization(s) are you most proud of?
Luc Van den hove: “As I already mentioned, 2020 was ruled by uncertainty. But when you ultimately come to see that imec continues to perform well – with the entire organization going the extra mile – it’s incredibly satisfactory! We are even doing better than expected.”
“We are achieving higher volumes than planned in our fabs; we are realizing the best cycle times ever in our cleanrooms, and our life sciences activities are reporting significant growth. All of this success amid a pandemic! It is quite a paradox, but the coronavirus pandemic created a sense of urgency that allowed us to rise above ourselves.”
“Moreover, from an organizational perspective, we haven’t been sitting idle either. Over the past year, for instance, we have finetuned synergies between our application-oriented research and our technology expertise, because we expect future developments to stem from system/technology co-innovation.”
“We are achieving higher volumes than planned in our fabs; we are realizing the best cycle times ever in our cleanrooms, and our life sciences activities report significant growth. All of this success amid a pandemic!”
“I'm very proud of each of these accomplishments!”
What was the biggest setback of 2020?
Luc Van den hove: “I guess it would have to be the start of the second lockdown in Belgium, last November. During the summer holidays and the following weeks, we had introduced a series of measures to allow our employees to return to imec safely. Just when we had managed to get back to a healthy mix between teleworking and being present on-site, a second lockdown was imposed on us. That was a slap in the face.”
“Initiatives such as virtual coffee breaks have allowed us to keep focusing on the all-important aspect of social cohesion. Still, they cannot fully replace creative discussions that happen spontaneously at the lunch table, in the coffee corner, or in the hallway.”
“For although we have been able to continue to work together beyond expectations, we should not underestimate the importance of spontaneous discussions that stimulate creativity in the longer term. That worries me. Initiatives such as virtual coffee breaks have allowed us to focus on the all-important aspect of social cohesion. Still, they cannot fully replace the creative discussions that happen spontaneously at the lunch table, in the coffee corner, or in the hallway. So far, I haven’t been able to come up with a solution to that challenge.”
2021: a search for (new) equilibria
The past year was, in many ways, a year of extremes. It was a year of heatwaves and record dryness, of crashing financial markets and peaking stock exchanges, and increasing geopolitical tension. Will we face more of the same in 2021?
Luc Van den hove: “We have to face the facts: we cannot carry on like this. It is important that we learn from the mistakes we made and that we thoroughly reflect on what the post-coronavirus era should look like.”
“It is clear that society as a whole needs to evolve. But a new equilibrium will also have to be found between economy and ecology. I, therefore, expect that 2021 will see an even greater focus on sustainability.”
“On the one hand, this is an opportunity for imec because the technologies we develop contribute to creating a more sustainable society. Think of our research towards making artificial intelligence (AI) or the hardware used in data centers more energy-efficient, our experiments with smart cities, and the development of personalized health solutions.”
“I expect that in 2021, we will see an even greater focus on sustainability.”
“On the other hand, such increased focus on sustainability should also invite imec to deal even more consciously with scarce materials, to further reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions, and to double our efforts when it comes to promoting green mobility.”
The way we collaborate will continue to evolve too.
Luc Van den hove: “Absolutely. There, as well, new equilibria will have to be found. Teleworking, for example, is currently the new normal for many people. Still, we should not neglect the disadvantages and limitations that come with this new way of working. As a result, in 2021, we should try to strike a new, healthy balance between teleworking and being present on-site.”
“Of course, the safety of our employees will always prevail. It goes without saying that any corporate measures will have to comply with the rules that apply to society as a whole. But we have proven abundantly over the past months that we are very much capable of collaborating responsibly – even in challenging conditions.”
“We have also used the past few months to refine further the relationships between imec and its employees, and between our employees mutually. That has led us to focus even more on cross-team collaboration and to launch targeted initiatives on diversity, inclusion, and respect. As part of imec’s smart workplace approach, we also took the time to review our digital and physical office infrastructure – thereby looking at the specific challenges that come with the current pandemic. In 2021, we want to keep a close eye on all of those elements.”
Finally, how do you see geopolitical tensions evolve?
“What is really needed to tackle the semiconductor industry’s challenges is global collaboration!”
Luc Van den hove: “Over the past year, geopolitical tensions have indeed become more outspoken. Just look at the troubled relationship between the United States and China, or between the European Union and the United Kingdom. I do not think these problems will suddenly disappear, but I do have high hopes that diplomacy will play a more prominent role again in 2021.”
“Also, I am convinced that Europe should continue to be a fierce proponent of global collaboration – especially in our sector. We face daunting challenges, so there is simply no room for protectionist measures that negatively impact this sector’s innovation capabilities. Of course, that does not mean we should be naive; we have to start by focusing on Europe's strengths in order to make a difference on a global scale. But, ultimately, global collaboration is the way to go – even more so in 2021!”
We are looking forward to that already. Thank you, Luc!
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5 January 2021