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Europe Gives High-Tech a Financial Spark

PARIS--The European Union is about to launch a 4-year, $2.5-billion R&D effort to make up ground in the global battle for supremacy in electronics technologies. The ambitious program, called Microelectronic Development for European Applications (MEDEA), plans to select its first projects next week.

The program traces its roots to the late 1980s, when the European Community saw itself losing ground to the United States and Japan in the development and manufacture of semiconductor chips. In response, European officials established the Joint European Sub-micron Semiconductor Initiative (JESSI) in 1988. Over its 8-year life, JESSI was perhaps best known for forging industrial collaborations. One such project, between Philips Research Laboratories in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, and Thomson in Paris, helped spur the design of semiconductor chips for Europe's digital broadcasting standard, says Philips's Herman Muller. This collaboration, he claims, has given "European industry a small advantage over the competition in the world."

MEDEA, JESSI's successor, was approved by the European Union industrial ministers in June, and will be established in Paris next month with Philips's Ludwig Eggermont as its director. MEDEA "is building on JESSI" in that it aims to help "not only the semiconductor industry but also the semiconductor users," says Hans Meyer, who directed JESSI. The first few projects--on everything from manufacturing technologies to automobile communications and vehicular traffic control systems--will be selected from 80 industry proposals at a board meeting next week. "In this kind of research, you have to collaborate with the best actors," says Roger van Overstraete, president of IMEC, a European Community-sponsored semiconductor research institute in Leuven, Belgium. By funding industrial collaborations, "MEDEA allows us to make these connections."