Bringing Semiconductor Solutions to Brazil

Student group, “Fletcher Frontiers,” places second at Cornell EMI Case Competition
The Fletcher Frontiers pose for a picture, holding their award.

The geopolitics of semiconductors may not have been top of mind when a group of first-year Master of International Business (MIB) students enrolled at The Fletcher School. However, a month after orientation, they were immersed in this complex subject, working on a solution to help the Brazilian government revitalize its semiconductor business after de-privatizing.

Equipped with their proposal, the Fletcher Frontiers, a group of five MIB students—Thomas Fitzgerald F25, Charlotte Lammel F25, Molly Sotangkur F25, Anthony Vu F25, and Desmond Wong F25—traveled to New York to compete in the Cornell Emerging Markets Institute Corning Case Competition. Among proposals from 127 teams from around the world, the Fletcher Frontiers placed second for their presentation—a testament to the value of collaboration and taking a multidisciplinary approach. 

A Brief Education in Semiconductor Geopolitics

For most team members, the semiconductor business was relatively unknown. The team studied up, turning to Professor Chris Miller’s book Chip War to learn more about the political considerations that attend the design and manufacturing of semiconductors. Fitzgerald found Professor Thomas Hout’s Managing Supply Chains and Operations course highly relevant. Through research and collaboration, the team comprehended the complex geopolitical landscape surrounding the semiconductor industry. 

“It's not just the technology,” said Vu. “There's a heavy politics and policy side to this as well, so we had to navigate that as we formulated strategies to advise this company in Brazil.” 

“The semiconductor industry is extremely complicated, with spending on the order of magnitude of hundreds of billions of dollars, across different companies in different countries,” added Fitzgerald. 

The team learned about two streams of semiconductor production: legacy chips and cutting-edge chips, which very few companies have the foundries to produce. Assessing opportunities within legacy chip production, the team divided their recommendations into two buckets: quick win, to secure operations, and long-term. 

“We found a tremendous opportunity, a joint venture with one of the leading chip manufacturers, TSMC. In exchange, Brazil’s SemiconductorCo could produce those legacy chips that TSMC has graduated past,” said Fitzgerald. “One of the other major highlights was investing in a localized engineering workforce and partnering with local university education to produce the engineers necessary to operate these semiconductor facilities at high volume. Part of what makes TSMC such a leader in semiconductor manufacturing is they have a robust engineering workforce and an even more robust engineering education system that churns out engineers to work in the industry.”

A Political Approach to International Business 

The competition draws teams from around the world, and among the five finalists were groups from India, Hungary, and the United States. Fletcher Frontiers brought its international perspective to bear on the question: each team member came from a different part of the world, representing Germany, Thailand, Vietnam, the U.S., and Hong Kong.

“Our team consists of five people from different nationalities,” said Sotangkur. “This added more perspectives to our discussion of the issues. We have a benchmark of how policy has operated differently in various countries. That helped us drill down to understand what makes the most sense in this specific scenario and gave us more diverse knowledge in terms of the geopolitical relationships between these countries.”

The team situated the problem inside of a global market. Wong added that in addition to the group members’ nationalities, their diverse work experience provided them with critical insight; Wong had worked in the Hong Kong government for 10 ten years and was stationed in Beijing, providing him with an understanding of the dynamics between China and Taiwan. 

“I think that our overall strategy was more globalized,” said Lammel, “and not only in the company’s context, but also in our work environment. For example, we talked about political risks with which countries should enter the partnership, for example.”

Wong also attributed the group’s geopolitical approach to the global focus of Fletcher’s MIB program. 

“Our approach was focused on a strategic partnership with TSMC. One of the reasons for this, I think, was that it resembles our MIB education: when we approach international business, the political factor is so important. We cannot befriend everyone in the world, so we have to be focused.”

Further Frontiers 

Reflecting on their experience, each member of Fletcher Frontiers agreed that there is high value in participating in case competitions. 

“I never expected I would be thinking about semiconductors, coming from a finance background,” said Lammel. “The biggest takeaway for me was not just learning about case competitions and how to develop a strategy, but learning something about semiconductors. It was something I’d never planned to do.”

Fitzgerald came to Fletcher from a career in energy and clean transportation. He was familiar with semiconductors but never went downstream to them past electric vehicle charger manufacturing and printed circuit boards (PCBs), a form of semiconductor chips. 

“This in-depth experience has given me a newfound appreciation for some of the supply chain risk mitigation that has to go into large-scale electrification and overall decarbonization of transportation and grids, which I look forward to drawing from in my future professional career,” he said. 

Though the semester has come to an end, the group continues looking for opportunities to participate in future case competitions and sees the educational value for other students too. 

“I would encourage other students to participate in competitions like these,” added Sotangkur. “Not only will they be more exposed to new topics, but also they could bring studies from the classroom into practical business solutions.”

Read more about Fletcher’s MIB degree program