This is the 12th in a series of interviews we will do with executives inside the fabless semiconductor ecosystem. Michael Wishart, efabless Chairman and CEO, retired from Goldman Sachs after thirty years covering the technology industry as an investment banker. Michael is currently on the board of Cypress Semiconductor and before that he was on the Spansion board. Mike and I talk about the upcoming eFabless Design Challenge.
TELL US ABOUT EFABLESS AND ITS MODEL?
efabless corporation is building a community of analog and mixed signal engineers and equipping them with tools and an innovative crowdsourcing business model to solve the critical electronic enablement bottleneck to IoT and smart hardware design. IoT brings with it an explosion of consumer and industrial designs, each of which requires a unique combination of sensor, analog and mixed signal electronics to connect their digital “smarts” with the world in which they operate. IoT is therefore a very customized world requiring intensive collaboration between a multitude of visionaries with creative product ideas and a multitude of equally creative experts in electronics. This is a new type of ecosystem that is not easily addressed by conventional methods of electronics design and traditional IC companies. We employ crowdsourcing models proven deliver creative, customized solutions in other aspects of system design and adapt these models to the specific requirements of IP and ICs.
- Customers will pose requests for unique ICs and IP which are then filled by community members.
- Community members will design IP and ICs with no upfront cost and sell or license them through our marketplace.
An important element of crowdsourcing is the use of the Design Challenge, which proves the feasibility of the model, solves unique sets of problems and engages and attracts community members. Today we have approximately 600 community members from 30 countries. We look to grow this community as we roll out design challenges for IP and ICs and enable new categories of sensor and mixed signal intensive hardware products in areas like IoT, wearables and eHealth.
Mohamed Kassem, ex of TI, and I had independently pursued the idea of crowd sourcing hardware and IC development and innovation, until introduced by VC Lucio Lanza who saw our complementary experiences and had his own vision of the eBay of analog IP. Jack Hughes has also been a powerful influence on our company and has been intimately involved in the building of our model. Jack, a director and a founding investor in efabless, was the founder and CEO of the extremely successful software crowd sourcing company, Topcoder. The four of us are blessed to lead a great team of successful and experienced open source thought leaders, technologists and executives.
WHY ARE THE EFABLESS DESIGN CHALLENGES INTERESTING?
efabless is dedicated to democratizing the design process and believes that results will speak for themselves. Challenges are powerful, effective, fun ways to solve real problems and they prove the feasibility of crowdsourced design of ICs and IP. We host Design Challenges where community members design and compete against other community members for cash prizes, badges acknowledging capability and ratings of relative performance. The efabless Challenges are “open” to all comers, with only minimum exceptions (Designers must be of minimum age, have no contractual restrictions and not be from one of the limited number of “restricted countries”). The fact is that “open” is commonplace and even essential to a design challenge and have been fundamental to design challenges in other disciplines. Until efabless, though, design challenges have been virtually unheard of in IC design because IC design and manufacture is too expensive and restricted to truly attract any and all comers. We solve this. The efabless design environment provides our community with everything needed to design, verify and deliver analog and mixed signal designs. The design flow is based on foundry supplied design kits and proven open source tools, which allows contestants to design for no upfront cost, and monetize the results of their efforts. We protect the underlying process technology of the foundry which allows us to provide access to tools and IP without foundry NDA. Now a student in university can compete head to head with a 20-year veteran. A famous saying goes as follows: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but that is the way to bet.” Our emphasis is on the “not always”! Powerful, effective, fun …. FAIR.
HOW DOES THE EFABLESS DESIGN CHALLENGE WORK?
Here is how the Design Challenges work. We work with the Challenge Sponsor to create a spec for an IP to post as a challenge. Designers register on our site and, after reviewing a detailed description of the Challenge, accept the Challenge. The designer then completes and simulates the design and submits it to efabless. We then re-verify the design to confirm that it meets the overall spec of the Challenge and rate the qualifying designs by the relative success in the specific parameter or parameters of choice in the Challenge. The challenge winner selection is objective according to clearly specified and published criteria. Prizes are typically awarded to multiple designers.
In many cases, the Challenges will be sponsored by customers of efabless. In many cases, we will host our own Design Challenges.
WHAT IF I WIN? WHAT IF I LOSE? WHO OWNS THE DESIGNS?
efabless Design Challenges are design challenges with a twist. There are winners but there are no losers. Power to the designer! If you win, there is a cash prize and public acknowledgment of the achievement. efabless will publish on its websites the results and in many cases, so will the Challenge Sponsor. In certain cases, there may be a transfer of ownership to the Challenge Sponsor but in many cases, ownership will be retained by the designer.
Designs that are not chosen are owned by the designer and may be offered through our marketplace. A design that may not lead in the spec of the challenge may have other attributes that make it attractive to end-customers in the marketplace. We have all heard of the undrafted walk-ons that make it big in professional sports. Well, the “undrafted” designs have a second chance in the real marketplace where designs are licensed, bought and sold.
WHY SHOULD A COMPANY SPONSOR AN IP CHALLENGE?
Challenges are a very powerful means to combine product development with strategic marketing in one package. The Challenge format allows for a complete and compelling description of a unique or non-traditional problem. It maximizes the exposure to the global community, and hence the participation in the problem solving.
We see initial demand for the Challenge offering as a strategic and tactical solution for foundries in design enablement. Foundries tell us that they are concerned that their significant investments in differentiated process nodes go underutilized because of IP gaps in the associated IP portfolios. Challenges done through efabless will generate multiple IPs for a given spec, each with different and nuanced value propositions. Importantly, the efabless approach to design challenges provides a unique format to articulate the benefits of the node and of the foundry’s service to designers. Once the IP pump is primed with the Challenge process, various IPs will be created by the efabless community filling gaps identified by designers and customers.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR UPCOMING X-FAB DESIGN CHALLENGE
In the week of November 28, we will launch an industry first, a foundry sponsored design challenge for an IP. This will be the first of many for us to engage the community and deliver value to our customers. The X-FAB Design Challenge will feature a low power band gap. It will last for 12 weeks. All successfully verified designs will be entered into our marketplace. We will offer multiple cash prizes and feature the winning designs and designers on our website and in an ad, here on SemiWiki. We imagine that X-FAB will run its own promotion. Importantly, all designers will own the resulting IPs and all designs that pass our verification will be available to X-FAB customers through our marketplace. We and X-FAB see this initial Challenge as a first in what will be a series of Challenges of increasing complexity. Great for X-FAB, great for X-FAB customers, great for our community.
X-FAB is a leading foundry for analog/mixed signal ICs and has been a great supporter of efabless and our mission as we have built out our solution and community. The first process technology that is supported on our platform is X-FAB’s XH035 process on the 350 nm node.
We invite your readers to approach us with interesting ideas for new Design Challenges for IP. As we go forward, efabless will expand its capability to enable its growing community of analog and mixed signal to fill the custom mixed signal electronics gap in IoT and smart hardware design. Please visit our site and post a request or reach out directly to Mohamed (email@example.com) or me (firstname.lastname@example.org).