In the more than 32 years that Intel has been present in Ireland, it has grown and evolved so that today there are nearly 5,000 people who work for the company here. The majority of employees support the manufacturing operations in Leixlip, where it manufactures 14nm products at volume and is preparing to bring Intel 4 technology online in its expanded fab development.

The journey of manufacturing over the past three decades has helped to drive opportunities in a number of other important areas – one being that of research. We recently caught up with Bernie Capraro who first joined Intel in 1997 as a process engineer and today is the Intel Ireland research manager, a role he has held since 2015. 

Tell us about the Intel research programme in Ireland? 

Intel has a good history of engaging the Irish ecosystem into our research agenda since about 2004. It started with the sponsoring of a single PhD student and developed from there.

We worked together with the student, supervisors, university department etc throughout the PhD which then grew to a point that attracted interest from our corporate research partners in the US. From there, a firmer relationship with corporate research was struck and there was an introduction to other researchers of prominent standing in Ireland.

The key thing for our research partnerships is that they have to be relevant, world class and have measurable research value.

In 2006 we had the advent of our researcher-in-residence programme inside some of our partner universities. This meant that Intel people could co-work on research activities and ensure that research priorities were on track – because any work in this area that is done in partnership with Intel corporate research has milestones and deliverables that need to meet in order to continue to receive funding. This has been a really successful programme for us, and we’ve had some really good wins from it. We have four researchers in residence in Ireland today.

Science Foundation Ireland centres began to be introduced from about 2013 onwards and this provided an opportunity to leverage the money Intel invested in research to greater effect. This was an important development for high-risk research – the real yes/no, fundamental questions like, can we work with his material? Will it integrate into our process? Will it work in future tech nodes?

By working with the wider research ecosystem in this way, Intel gets an insight into some fundamental properties of new materials, process technologies and device architectures, and our research partners get the chance to publish on this work and build their own research standing in the world because of the work they do with us. It’s a great symbiotic relationship.

Over time the research relationship between Intel and Ireland has grown and become very well respected. Year on year we have found new opportunities that exist. In 2020, for example, we announced an agreement to enable our fundamental research activities to continue within the AMBER centre for the next six years. AMBER – Advanced Materials and Bio-Engineering Research – is an SFI Research Centre with labs in Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Dublin City University, and the Tyndall National Institute. 

How do you win a research project? 

These projects are not easily won; they have to be competitive. First, there is a call process: you submit a proposal on what you can do, negotiate with our corporate partners on the details and build the project which is then put through review to compete for the funding.

This is, of course, a challenge as the funding is finite. From there, a project goes to the corporate research council for final approval. Then it is the job of the researcher in residence to keep the foot on the accelerator and ensure the project is moving at the right pace.

This has had its own challenges recently with navigating the restrictions brought about by Covid which meant, for example, that there was no easy access to lab and test fab facilities.

Intel worked with our research partners at AMBER and Tyndall to share some of the procedural and process approach to managing the spaces so that they could learn from our onsite experiences and safely get researchers back in the lab environment.

Are all of the projects linked to Intel’s manufacturing research? 

Having the research ecosystem established has enabled growth and diversity to other business groups in Ireland beyond manufacturing. For example, the team at Intel Shannon work in partnership with the CONNECT centre at TCD.

The research partnership focuses on making Passive Optical Networks (PONs) capable of supporting 5G wireless network cells and edge computing nodes in order to deliver new applications such as high-speed mobile streaming, augmented reality and autonomous driving.

How does Ireland do when it comes to research at a global level? 

Ireland certainly punches above its weight in terms of publications and citations in areas like nanotechnology. Having a significant amount of foreign direct investment and high-tech companies in Ireland has given an impetus for the universities to do more, to do better in this space, and to leverage activity that we have here in Ireland.

There are individuals, too, that are very well regarded at an international level. For example, John Boland, who was awarded an Intel outstanding researcher award in in 2018. This was a very prestigious recognition and one that gave Prof Boland a clear direction for the kind of work he is doing. We have won three other such recognitions, which have been achieved by our research colleagues at the Tyndall National Institute over the past 10 years.

Ultimately, Intel only works with world-class research partners – we don’t do it simply for public relations. Research that Intel has done with partners around the world in the past has found its way into our manufacturing and process technologies. It is a wide funnel that feeds our process technology, and Ireland is part of that funnel.

The research partnerships in Ireland have also had an important impact on our talent pipeline. We have hired many people (PhD and postdocs) into Ireland and the US from our interactions with the research community in Ireland and Europe. Their engagement with us in research often sends a wave of interest through the university departments, which drives further successful approaches to come and work for Intel, which is really fantastic.