CEO Talk: Thomas Sonderman, SkyWater Technology

This interview was held with: Thomas Sonderman, President & CEO, SkyWater Technology.



Tell me a bit about your background


I’ve been serving the semiconductor industry my whole career and have a manufacturing background. I have seen the industry transform through its various stages and we are in a new stage now. Watching that evolution has allowed me to position SkyWater to where we need to be to help drive this transformation. Having been through two spin-offs of manufacturing operations into foundries, including serving as part of an executive team at AMD that spun-off to form Globalfoundries, I have a unique perspective. When I joined SkyWater, my goal was to drive the company’s business from an IDM to a pure-play foundry. We effectively diversified SkyWater’s customer base by defining new product markets and target customers while improving operational efficiencies. We have built a world class leadership team that inspires 500 employees to deliver process R&D innovation and operational excellence.


How did you first get started with SkyWater Technology?


I began working with SkyWater in 2017 about five months after its spinout from Cypress Semiconductor. After being introduced to the company, I saw the unique capabilities of the Minnesota fab and that piqued my interest. It was clear that having the ability to differentiate with process and design in a cohesive fashion was something that SkyWater uniquely had and that’s what got me really interested in leading the charge here.



Tell me about SkyWater (what do you like about being here and the company’s opportunities):


When I came to the company, I saw an opportunity to leverage SkyWater as the only U.S.-based and U.S.-owned pure-play semiconductor foundry to expand the company’s government business. We have also focused on reinstating a strong commercial manufacturing presence. SkyWater has an engineering centric culture and through our Technology as a ServiceSM model, we offer R&D and technology development inside a high-volume manufacturing environment. When I was with AMD and we were competing against Intel, we also had embedded R&D capabilities at our manufacturing facility. I saw early groundwork for this in the Minnesota operation, and coupled with the creativity of the management team, it made me believe we could drive disruption in the industry – and that’s what inspired me and got me excited to move my family to Minnesota.

What problem did you see that needed to be fixed? What is your approach to solving that?


The industry had gotten into a fabless-foundry space where there wasn’t a lot of innovation happening at the product process optimization level. Foundries were only offering standard processes and customers had to differentiate on design alone, and as a result we were losing the IDM effect. When you’re an IDM you own the product design, technology process and manufacturing of that design. By having two of those three in a manufacturing operation, I thought we could really solve the innovation gap that was going on.


And then the other dynamic that was happening in the industry is that we were exiting the smart phone era and moving into the next wave of computation with artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, the revolution of medical devices, and IoT. All of these things required a new model for manufacturing innovation. That’s why our Technology as a Service model works so well. It offers the right capabilities to capture that gap in the industry.


Another problem frankly has been IP protection. There were a lot of companies feeling that in order to get their manufacturing done, they had to risk their IP leaking offshore. SkyWater achieved DOD Trusted status just two weeks after the spin out from Cypress and through our close relationship with the U.S. Government, we were able to bring that IP protection protocol to the industry – at a time when people not only wanted to innovate, but also protect their innovations – and do it here in the U.S.


How has the role/offering of SkyWater changed during the recent years?


We focus on early engagement with customers by offering what we call Advanced Technology Services. Through ATS, we provide support for product designers wherever they are in the technology readiness level of their product. This ranges from adjustments of an existing process to improve quality and prepare for volume production, to integrated process/device teams who are working from an early-stage concept.


When we originally spun out from Cypress, we inherited a handful of customers that were using the embedded R&D capability. Once we were an independent manufacturing service provider, it unleashed a pent-up demand for having access to a U.S.-based capability for R&D in the early stages of product development with a path for going into scaled manufacturing.


We’re doing this work with the backdrop of the U.S. Government having realized they need to support and invigorate domestic semiconductor manufacturing. What was an undefined concept has proved to be instrumental in positioning SkyWater to bring emerging, disruptive technologies quickly to the market in a way that protects customer IP.


Which market segment seems promising to you? And why?


The automotive and industrial IoT markets are, and will continue to be, very important for SkyWater because of the applicability of our technology capabilities to those markets. Those markets are focused on mixed-signal/analog process technologies, which is our strong suit; they don’t require bleeding edge technologies and there’s a high degree of customization required in analog vs. traditional digital CMOS.


In addition, because SkyWater is the only U.S.-investor owned, pure-play foundry servicing the aerospace and defense market, this will continue to be a key focus for our business. This segment has invested in SkyWater to provide unique capabilities such as carbon nanotubes, rad-hard and read-out ICs. Advancements in these technologies start in A&D and allow us to offer those capabilities across the other verticals where we participate.


We also see opportunity in advanced packaging across numerous applications. That was part of our strategy in taking over operations of the facility in Florida. We are breathing new life into 200 mm fabs. We help facilitate technologies that are at a low readiness level and get them through to volume manufacturing.


Are you currently hiring? What type of jobs?


SkyWater is a fast-growing company; we went public in April 2021. People enter our technology space because we are in a high growth industry. We hire a lot of engineers and people in the R&D space. We look for the best and the brightest. We’re working on emerging technologies like superconducting, silicon photonics and MEMS. If you want to create something that doesn’t yet exist, be at the forefront of advanced packaging or other emerging technologies, SkyWater is the place to be.


What is your #1 advice for people who want to work for your company?


I think SkyWater is doing something unique in the industry, and for people who want to work here, it’s important to be agile and have an entrepreneurial mindset. We’re a small company that is working to become a big company, and to do that we all have to drive towards 10x growth. We act with urgency to take advantage of the unique opportunities in front of us. We recognize that the industry moves fast, so we’re looking for high intensity people who really want to change the future of semiconductor manufacturing.


Where can one find more information?




What is the best moment in your day?


The beginning of the day is full of opportunity. It offers a fresh perspective and the chance to continue moving the SkyWater story forward. Then at the end of day, I like to reflect on our progress.


How do you spend your time outside working hours?


I enjoy playing guitar, it’s a great way to unwind. I also enjoy watching football and hockey and collecting sports memorabilia.

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