Federal Intelligence Researchers Court Austin

By YASMIN GHAHREMANI
Special Contributor to Silicon Hills News

Austin’s high-tech business and academic community is being courted by the research arm for the federal intelligence community. Officials from IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity) were in town for a full-day session June 5 to meet with potential partners for R&D grants.
IARPA invests in high-risk, high-payoff research programs that will give the US an overwhelming intelligence advantage against future adversaries. Projects fall into three categories: incisive analysis, data collection, and safe and secure operations.
“We want to make it difficult for our adversaries to take down communications that we rely on for day-to-day life,” says Dr. Peter Highnam, acting director of IARPA.
Austin is the public launch site of the agency’s program to conduct round-table discussions with science and technology leaders outside the beltway. It piloted the idea in Raleigh-Durham, NC and is planning a trip to the West Coast. Highnam spent 10 years in Austin as manager and senior researcher at Schlumberger Computing Lab in the 1990s and knows its strengths as a growing technology hub with academic research muscle.

Secure chips
One of the more high-profile programs the agency is working on is called Trusted Integrated Chips. TIC aims to address the fact that the US lags in the production of very high-performance, high-volume chip foundries. Many of these fabrication plants are now in Taiwan, Singapore or China. “Our adversaries can exploit these capabilities,” says Dennis Polla, program manager of the TIC Program for IARPA. “We need to make sure the chips we use are free of bugs that can affect performance and also free of malicious circuits.”
To do so, TIC is researching a split-manufacturing system that would build security right into the chip. The transistor layers that make up 85 percent of the chip would be fabricated overseas, with the final metallization steps done at a trusted fab in the US. Those working on the transistor process would never have access to information about the design intentions of the chip.
IARPA will grant full research contracts for split-manufacturing by early July to foreign and US manufacturers. In the meantime, the agency has been working with SVTC as well as former UT professor Dim-Lee Kwong on some of the initial research for the program. Prof. Kwong is now the executive director for the Institute of Microelectronics in Singapore.
IARPA wants to see demonstrations of its split-manufacturing concept in six design systems, including mixed signal, MEMS-CMOS and power-CMOS.

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