Taiwan's semiconductor industry is home to over 1,000 companies, but few gain international recognition. One exception is Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), founded in 1987, which is now the world's second most valuable semiconductor company. However, TSMC's billionaire founder, Morris Chang, only recently gained significant name recognition.
The semiconductor industry in Taiwan is largely made up of small and medium-sized enterprises and employs around 600,000 local workers. It holds an 18% share of the global market, second only to the United States. In terms of revenue, Taiwan's semiconductor industry generated $170 billion in 2022, compared to the US's $378 billion.
Among the top semiconductor companies in Taiwan, only the top five generate revenue exceeding NT$100 billion ($3.1 billion). These five companies are TSMC, MediaTek, ASE Technology Holdings, United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC), Novatek Microelectronics (a subsidiary of UMC), and Realtek Semiconductor. Out of these, only the top three companies have founders listed on Forbes' billionaire ranks: TSMC's Morris Chang, Tsai Ming-Kai of MediaTek, and the Chang brothers of ASE.
Interestingly, many founders and major shareholders in Taiwan's semiconductor industry prefer to maintain a low profile. They often leave the management of their companies to professional managers rather than their own family members. This has made the industry attractive to foreign investors.
The Chang brothers of ASE, Jason and Richard, are currently the wealthiest semiconductor company founders in Taiwan, with a combined net worth of $6.3 billion. They are followed by Tsai Ming-Kai of MediaTek, with a net worth of $2.45 billion.
Morris Chang of TSMC may not be the wealthiest, but he holds significant influence both domestically and internationally. At 92 years old, Chang has had a high profile in various leadership roles, including representing Taiwan at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Another notable figure in the industry is Robert Tsao, founder and former chairman of UMC, who has recently garnered media attention for his outspoken criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party.
TSMC and UMC were originally created by the Taiwan government through state investment funds. However, the government now remains a minority shareholder in both companies, with approximately 7% and 2% ownership, respectively.
The semiconductor industry in Taiwan owes its beginnings to economist Li Kwoh-ting, also known as K. T. Li, who played a pivotal role in attracting Morris Chang to Taiwan from the US. Li gave Chang the freedom to establish Taiwan as a hub for contract chip-making, which is now one of Taiwan's key semiconductor niches.
Despite the challenges of heavy investment and high entry barriers, Taiwan's contract chip manufacturing, particularly led by TSMC, has propelled the country's semiconductor industry to great success. TSMC currently dominates 90% of the world's advanced chips, with transistors etched down to 5-nanometer or smaller sizes.
Other local families with traditional wealth have also entered the technology industry early on, with their tech startups now ranking among the top ten in the industry. These include Realtek, Taiwan's second-largest chip design firm, controlled by the Yeh Nan-Horng family, and Winbond Electronics, a DRAM memory chip manufacturer controlled by the family of Arthur Yu-Cheng Chiao.
These visionary founders recognized the potential of the electronics and semiconductor industry early on, leading to their ventures achieving outsized returns despite remaining relatively small and lesser-known.