Billionaire-backed tech fund hits headlines as US helps semiconductor industry

USA: The White House issued a fact sheet on May 23, just hours before the leaders of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan gathered in Tokyo for a summit to discuss their shared concerns about the Indo-Pacific region, but in hindsight, it was most notable for its omission.

A number of initiatives were listed in the document, including the creation of the Quad Investors Network, which was described as "an independent consortium of investors" and intended to increase access to capital for critical and emerging technologies for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, to which the four democracies are parties.

"The Quad" is widely believed to be motivated by Beijing's expanding influence in the region on many fronts, including technological competitiveness, even though it is not specifically billed as an alliance against China.

The name of the organisation tasked with directing the network, however, was not mentioned in the White House's announcement: The well-known investment firm America's Frontier Fund came to public attention weeks earlier when President Joe Biden appointed Gilman Louie, a co-founder, to the President's Intelligence Advisory Board. AFF was described as a "public-private partnership established to ensure that America leads the next wave of technological innovation" in a press release from the time. Biden has signed legislation that will provide US$52 billion in subsidies for parts that the military and a number of industries rely on, as US lawmakers and government officials across the political spectrum push for action to keep up with China technologically. However, AFF has recently caught the attention of some tech industry watchdogs because it is in a prime position to help determine government priorities under the Chips and Science Act. They worry that excessive private influence will lead to a "clear conflict of interest" within the government.

AFF bills itself as the nation's first non-profit private capital fund and says that it works to "protect democracy throughout the world" and maintain America's "technology leadership." It claims to be a "force multiplier" for government spending on cutting-edge technologies like semiconductors, artificial intelligence, 5G, and quantum computing. The Chips Act is the current area of focus for the fund. According to Jordan Blashek, president and co-founder of AFF, "We want to help give granular insight into where we think the biggest opportunities are for disruptive US semiconductor leadership." AFF claims that it does not currently receive or spend money from the government and instead intends to obtain its own investment capital from the private markets. The fund is exempt from disclosure requirements because it is non-profit. According to Xiaobo Lu, a political economist and professor at Barnard College at Columbia University, it appears that the US is attempting to "take a small, but important page out of China's playbook" regarding public-private partnerships, a tactic where "industrial policy is not regarded as a negative word."

He noted that the US Congress had approved subsidies to protect and advance the semiconductor industry and queried how the funds would be used. How to avoid wasting tax dollars Lu noted that officials connected to a state-owned investment fund tasked with boosting China's semiconductor industry were being looked into by anti-corruption authorities in China. The mission of AFF aligns with some of the objectives of the Biden administration's China policy, including fostering private-public partnerships to invest in crucial technologies and maintaining US leadership while reducing reliance on Chinese supply chains. The National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence discussions, according to Blashek, a former executive at Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic organisation founded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy Schmidt, were the inspiration for the tech fund (NSCAI).

The 2018 establishment of the NSCAI gave it the authority to advise the president and Congress on how to "advance the development of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and associated technologies." In March 2021, the commission headed by Schmidt turned in its final report and issued a dire warning that China posed a threat to American technological dominance. According to Blashek, Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist and co-founder of PayPal, and Schmidt are both donors to the AFF. Schmidt is not a member of the AFF's board of directors or listed among its executives. However, the AFF has a roster of defence industry insiders and Schmidt's close connections in Silicon Valley and Washington.

 

Gilman Louie, a co-founder of the AFF, served as the first CEO of In-Q-Tel, a privately funded, non-profit venture capital firm. Louie was one of the NSCAI's 15 commissioners while it was run by Schmidt. The Department of Defense adopted a number of the commission's recommendations in 2021. Other prominent figures associated with AFF include HR McMaster, who advised President Donald Trump on national security matters, Ash Carter, a former defence secretary, and Michèle Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defence under President Barack Obama. The three of them are directors of AFF.

Prior to leading the NSCAI, Schmidt worked for the Pentagon. From August 2016 to September 2020, he served as the chairman of the Defence Innovation Board, a nonpartisan group that offers the Defense Department technology innovation advice. After the AI commission, a number of people got together and brainstormed ways to combine the US's current strengths with its new capabilities in order to close the innovation base gap.AFF now hopes to advise the US government on where to invest in chip technology in order to achieve this. The task of selecting which businesses are eligible for subsidies will fall under the purview of the Commerce Department and its secretary, Gina Raimondo.

 

This isn't a free pass for these businesses, Raimondo reportedly said. There are numerous restrictions and safeguards for taxpayers.Blashek sees AFF as linking private sector innovation to governmental priorities because semiconductors are a crucial part of everyday electronics, medical technology, and military hardware.Where should we spend our time, talent, and money to make the breakthroughs necessary for the next wave of innovation in microelectronics? Blashek enquired. "The Chips Act does allocate substantial funding in numerous ways, and some of that money may be used for start-up investment."

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