The opportunity Is Tremendous For Engineers And Entrepreneurs Getting Into Chip Design

Electronics and semiconductors are occupying headlines across the globe. What are the learnings for our industry? What are the key opportunities opening for India? To find out answers to such questions we spoke to industry veteran Venkata Sudhakar Simhadri, CEO of MosChip. Here are some extracts of our discussion.

Q. How would you define your journey with respect to the evolution of the semiconductor industry?

A. I have been in the industry for the last 30+ years, starting my career at Silicon Valley. The semiconductor industry had its own ups and downs. There were times when semiconductor companies were laying off people. We had some degrowth or stagnant times in between but, overall, the industry continued to grow.

During my early days in Silicon Valley the growth was fuelled by the PC industry followed by networking and communications. Fabless start-ups like Broadcom and Qualcomm did very well and grew rapidly.

The next wave came through mobile phones and cellular industry. As the mobile industry started getting mature, the emerging fields like IoT, 5G, electric vehicles and ADAS, and artificial intelligence started creating more opportunities for start-ups as well as established players. The VC funding into semiconductor start-ups has been picking up in the last 5-6 years.

When I started my career in 1990, the transistor sizes were 1.0 micron and today the same transistor size is 5nm. So, the industry is never in steady state, it is constantly evolving, and the journey continues to be exciting. India never played a leading role in semiconductor industry, but things are changing. The semiconductor designers in India are as good as the talent in in other parts of the world.

However, we still do not have any large semiconductor product companies out of India, except for a few start-ups trying to break-in. But I strongly believe that it’s going to change. The opportunity is tremendous for the engineers and entrepreneurs who are getting into this field. They just need to pick the right opportunities and stay focused.

Q. While most of the chip design work that happens in India is targeted for global markets, are there any low hanging fruits that are developing into a major market in India?

A. There are many opportunities for addressing local markets. Products like set-top boxes, smart meters, LED lights are all good examples. Automobiles, especially two-wheeler EVs, is another fast growing segment. Another example is security cameras with built-in AI capabilities. These are all large-volume markets in India that can provide chip firms an opportunity to develop India-centric chips and carve out a niche.

Q. How do you see edge computing playing a role in set-top boxes?

A. IESA (Hyderabad chapter) recently hosted a two-day summit on artificial intelligence. Edge computing was an important topic during the summit. The consensus is that every electronic device on the edge is going to have some AI built into it. A set-top at home can create a personalised user experience with built-in AI capabilities.

Q. What is your view on the RISC-V phenomenon that is becoming a rage in the chip-design eco-system? What are your views on it?

A. I think it is gaining a lot of momentum. At MosChip, we are also quite excited about opportunities RISC-V can open for us, especially in India. ARM has been the leading processor for mobile and IoT applications and I think they made good progress into server market as well. ARM is in the process of getting acquired by Nvidia. Countries like India and China are focused on self-reliance and have started investing in RISC-V.

A few weeks ago I had an interesting meeting with Professor Kamkoti of IIT Madras. (The timing is a nice coincidence wrt what we are talking about.) IIT Madras has been doing good work and investing a lot in development of Shakti processor. In parallel, MosChip has been developing an edge-computing platform around RISC-V and we do see opportunities.

A lot of work still needs to be done to make RISC-V a viable alternative to ARM. MosChip will work closely with IIT Madras and support Indian government initiatives towards indigenous processor platform.

Q. For local semicon majors to grow, many claim that we need a fab in India. What’s your take on this issue—should India invest?

A. If you look at the whole supply chain, most of the chip companies are now fabless companies anyway, including companies like AMD, Broadcom, and Qualcomm. None of them have their own fab. Most of them get their chips fabricated at TSMC, GlobalFoundries, and others. And the packaging and testing of the chips is done through other partners.

Packaging and testing of the chip (usually called ATMP or OSAT) addresses 30% to 40% of the chip cost.

ATMP facility, which does not cost as much as a fab, can help create a local eco-system and support local fabless start-ups or multinationals operating out of India.

Q. With a lot of buzz around shortage of semiconductors, what are the opportunities opening up for India, if any?

A. The Indian government has invited ‘Expression of Interest’ to set up fabs in India. I do see opportunities in some specialty fabs, but it will take time for India to make significant contribution. And it needs a focused effort for the next ten years and sustained efforts thereafter.

Q. How do you see the evolution of Moore’s Law? Will it remain relevant?

A. It has remained relevant for longer than the industry anticipated. In my own career, I have seen the transistor shrinking from 1 micron to 3nm. The hunger for more computing will continue to innovate new transistor structures and new technologies like quantum computing.

Q. While semiconductors are powering AI and ML, are AI and ML enabling R&D, development, and manufacturing of chips too? Are they going to play an important role in the future?

A. AI and ML certainly created R&D opportunities to develop new architectures for handling the special computing and data processing needs of AI applications. AI is changing the way the data is stored, processed, and handled (security). I do see AI playing a role in semiconductor manufacturing as well, to improve both efficiency and reliability.

Q. Can you share some details about the MosChip Institute of Silicon System? Who does it target—freshers or industry professionals? And does having your own institute help in getting industry-ready talent without having to invest in training them?

A. Training has been my passion since 1999, when I was running TTM (Time to Market Inc). We were the first company in India to offer Physical Design training. The team from the Institute of Silicon Systems has recreated and done a better job; the Institute is now a part of MosChip. We are endorsed as the best Physical Design training institute in India currently, and we offer similar training in RTL Design/Verification, Analog Design, and Embedded System Design.

Most of the engineers who come to our institute are freshers and the training prepares them to start contributing in design, with some handholding from seniors. The institute certainly helps us in recruiting the talent and, in fact, we let other product and design services companies also recruit from the training institute.

Q. There was a recent announcement with respect to a focus on Turn-key ASICs. What has changed or is going to change now?

A. When MosChip was started around 1999, it was actually a product company. It was the first fabless semiconductor company out of India, designing and selling their own chips. The chips were mostly connectivity based for USB, PCI, Ethernet, etc. MosChip got the chips fabricated mostly at UMC and sold them in millions. So, it was a true product company selling chips with their own logo on it. But, unfortunately, for various reasons, the company had to divest that group and started focusing on the design services.

When I took over the role of CEO at MosChip, I evaluated the strengths of the organisation and came with a long-term strategy. Turn-key ASIC was one area we really wanted to focus on. Turnkey ASIC allows us to build and sell products instead of pure play design services. MosChip has done turnkey ASICs for the Indian government with an ARM processor and other connectivity interfaces. The ASIC was actually fabricated at TSMC and we delivered the working parts to the Indian government; the ASICs were targeted towards handheld applications.

The expertise of designing an ASIC and taking into production remained with MosChip, helping us with the turnkey ASIC strategy.

Q. Am I correct to understand that rather than just be a design house, you now want MosChip to be an ODM for ASICs?

A. Yes, right now we are already giving the design to the customer. So going forward, we will actually give the chip to the customer. We are already doing that with a small number of customers, but we want to focus on large-volume customers.

Q. There seems to be a lot of buzz around Wearable IoT—what are the opportunities opening up in this domain for chip firms? Also, any Ips being developed by your firm specifically for this market?

A. Yes, MosChip is working with a customer on ASIC platform with embedded MRAM. We taped 1st silicon in TSMC 22nm. For Embedded applications, on-chip memory based on emerging NVMs like MRAM can provide better access speed and low power which is very attractive for AI chips for edge devices like wearables that work with limited power availability.

Q. For this new division announced, has there been a hiring of a new different kind of talent having more experience with respect to design in manufacturing capabilities and also with working on edge computing applications etc?

A. If you look at our company right now, we are pretty strong in designing the chip, testing and validating the chip. There may be some areas where we need some outside help (the fabrication, packaging and testing the chip is outsourced anyways ) and we have built strong 3rd party relationships.

Our existing interface IPs are an important value-add to our customers. And our IP partners like CEVA, SecureIC and others bring additional value to our end customers.

Q. You mentioned a government project, which is exciting, but am I correct to assume that majority of the customers would be global right now and hopefully India will grow some customers? Or are you expecting growth of revenue from Indian customers too?

A. Right now, most of our customers are multinationals. But we do feel that there are some applications in India that can support large enough volumes to do custom chips for them and the market is growing fast in India. We are hoping to see some success stories in the local market.

Q. How was the COVID phase for MosChip and how did you manage your operations during the lockdown period?

A. I don’t think it is something specific to MosChip. Every, IT and semiconductor design company in India has faced a similar situation. In fact, we were one of the first companies in Hyderabad to realise what was happening and started implementing work from home. We were lucky in that aspect and were able to get some laptops ready in time for the engineers to work from home. I must say that most of the engineers adapted well, and they were spending more time than what they usually do to meet deadlines and worked around the problems related to connectivity, communicating with their peers and managers.

However, it was more burden for the project managers and lead engineers, because they had spent additional time to conduct regular meetings and monitor the progress. The team has done a phenomenal job in delivering the projects on time and our customers have been extremely happy about it.

We started getting back to offices recently with limited capacity and taking enough precautions for the safety of the staff.

Q. If everything goes back to normal, will you asking all your engineers to come back to office? Or will you be giving them the flexibility to work from home?

A. We will never be able to do 100% work-from-home. We prefer to have majority of the work-force in offices for efficient communication and project management. However, there will always be exceptions.

Q. You mentioned IIT-Madras earlier, are you also doing any other project with the academia? We are seeing a lot of high-tech companies have a very aggressive connect with academia to be able to access their resources, their labs and the people. Is there already some strategy already at play or are there plans to do something on those sides?

A. IIT-Madras is the first premier institute in India, I had a dialogue with. I had some interactions with Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, but on a different context. There are some good institutes in India which are doing valuable research and I would continue my dialogue with them. Even in IIT-Hyderabad, they are doing research in 5G that we can tap into.

Q. There are loT of design houses–from India and other countries–which are focusing on chip design and ASICS. How would you position MosChip as unique?

A. Let us look at the Indian market itself. There are many companies at Bangalore and Hyderabad which provide design services, but most of them focus on staffing business. I’m not saying that Moschip doesn’t do it, we also do it. But the key difference is that MosChip is one of the few companies that actually invests in EDA tools, design flows and automation setup in the house. We are the only company that can take a 5nm or a 7nm design all the way from specifications to the fab using our own design flows and methodologies.

Connectivity IP (SerDes) is one of most complex building blocks in a chip and I am proud to say that Moschip is the only company in India with production proven serDes.

Another difference with MosChip is that we are selling our own products with Moschip logo. We have 2 IoT products focused on smart-lighting and Telematics that are shipping in volumes. Our Telematic is used by a multi-national customer for industrial applications.

Q. What is your target for the next year? What would you like to achieve?

A. Since I came on board, I made few changes, keeping in view of our core strengths. Scaled down in few areas and refocused on the core areas. We continued to invest in IP and R&D. I feel the results are showing up steadily. The numbers are speaking for themselves. My immediate goal is consolidate what we have done and continue to grow steadily.

Q. What’s next for MosChip? What’s the ultimate ambition?

As I told you earlier, MosChip was a product company. We had our own products with our logo. Moschip had its own brand. It is our vision to do ASICs that go into large volumes. Our dream and vision is to offer one stop service for complete SoC development and MosChip becomes true silicon partner to our customers.


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