President Pedro Sánchez traveled to the United States at the end of last month to meet with the staff of big technology. The objective was to “sell Spain”, in the words of La Moncloa. Apple CEO Tim Cook or HP CEO Enrique Lores from Madrid were the two most striking personalities he met in Silicon Valley. But there were two other entries on his agenda: Intel and Qualcomm, two of the world’s leading processor manufacturers.
This visit came at a time of microchip shortages due to the sharp increase in demand during the pandemic. This situation has led Intel to announce its intention to build a mega factory in Europe with two likely locations to free itself from its Asian dependency. They are not decisions that are taken lightly: this is a rigid industry that takes three months to change production, and between two and four years to set up a factory that can involve an investment of between five and 20 billion dollars, depending on the cutting edge of its technology, not counting its maintenance.
Despite the difficulties, political leaders and managers of technology companies based in the Canary Islands want to pressure and propose the archipelago as a preferred location. “We cannot aspire to car or computer factories,” explains Pablo Hernández, president of the Canary Islands Special Zone (ZEC), the low-tax zone created in 1994 aimed at generating activity and employment on the islands. “These are so because they need very precise logistics, which leaves us out of the game.”
Part of Hernández’s job, however, is to attract and generate talent in the islands in those industries in which the islands can be competitive. Sell, for this, what qualifies as intangibles. “We have the raw material to attract talent,” he says. For this, he cites aspects such as the generation of professionals that comes from the two universities of the islands, the presence of the Astrophysical Institute of the Canary Islands or “the most stable sky in Europe”, aspects that allow companies related to optical technology to have been developed and implemented . Or the 1,583 kilometers of coastline of the islands, which open up fields in the blue economy, aquaculture, the renewable industry off shore, “And all the activities that are linked to these activities, such as programming or communications in general,” says Hernández.
And in the manufacture of microchips. That is what the president of the ZEC and the Minister of Economy, Knowledge and Employment, Elena Máñez, maintain. “In the Canary Islands”, affirms the counselor in statements to EL PAÍS, “we have a wonderful and unique natural laboratory to carry out R + D + i in many key fields for the coming decades”. The counselor defends in this sense the strengths of the islands. There is, firstly, “a differentiated and attractive tax regime for investment”, which, as he explains, is “the highest in Europe and one of the best in the world” comparatively in fields such as R + D + i, as well as others in the audiovisual sector, and many others, in addition to having a low tax area that offers a reduced rate of 4% in corporate tax.
Dealing with silicon
In addition, the Government of the Canary Islands wields two other weapons. The first, that the Canary Islands already have specialized companies related to silicon. Especially Wooptix, a company registered in the ZEC and which was the first spin-off (spin-off) of the University of La Laguna and that it is the only company in Spain in which Intel itself is listed as a shareholder. The company was born from experience in astrophysics and imaging technologies. It currently employs 20 people in its three locations (La Laguna, in Tenerife; Madrid and San Francisco).
Microchip factories work on these silicon wafers, which are round mirrors on which the circuits are mounted. Accuracy is key here, since the smaller the patterns to be installed there, the better. Currently, the Taiwanese company TMSC works on a seven nanometer scale Wooptix has developed and prototyped, among other patents, a new technique to measure wafers (wafers) of 300 millimeter diameter silicon in milliseconds. Its speed and precision allow, according to its CEO, José Manuel Rodríguez, “a faster and smaller manufacturing in silicon units and 100% quality control”. The technology of this Tenerife company, he assures, could be part of the new chip factories that are necessary throughout the planet.
Rodríguez has no doubts about the archipelago’s possibilities. In his opinion, the Canary Islands can claim for themselves the installation of this Intel factory, “or at least the metrology tools [la ciencia que estudia las mediciones de las magnitudes] that will be used in this factory ”because in reality it offers“ the same conditions ”as any region in Spain.
And the problem of distances? Rodríguez minimizes its impact. “The chips that are used in the Barcelona car factories come from Taiwan, and the Canary Islands are much closer,” he says. “And we also sell gray matter, we have invested in education and the graduates of our universities are of high level,” he says. “This would create a true Canarian Silicon Valley. In fact, that’s how the original started. “
Rare earths, another hope
In addition, the islands have another possible argument: the existence of the so-called rare earth in Fuerteventura and on the coast of the islands. This is a resource dominated by China and Japan and that is essential for the manufacture of microchips. The team led by the professor of Geology and member of the Institute of Oceanography and Global Change of the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, José Mangas, and the professor of the Department of Physics of the University of La Laguna, Jorge Méndez, has managed to certify the existence of mineral resources of this type in concentrations of less than ten kilos per ton of rock in a group of more than 100 samples of magmatic rocks from Fuerteventura.
“Rare earths are the vitamins of the industry,” explains Méndez in a telephone conversation. Not surprisingly, some of the 15 chemical elements that receive this qualification are essential to manufacture computers, mobile phones, advanced ceramics, wind turbines, electric or hybrid cars, microwaves, fiber optics, lighting systems, lasers, missiles or satellites.
The discovery of these resources may be key for both the Spanish and European technology industry and to ensure the technological projection of the Canary Islands, says Méndez. “You have to keep your feet on the ground, because any mining project has a minimum term that is close to 10 years. We are not going to open a mine in Fuerteventura for five years. There is a lot of research left for that ”, he explains. “But it is more than that. Even if a stone is not removed, incalculable knowledge is being generated for the Canary Islands. And this one is salable. It is not only about exporting the mineral, but also the knowledge ”.
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