Clear Shape Technologies is a three year old startup with $10 million in venture funding that has developed a model based approach to DFM as opposed to the traditional rule based methodology. The firm has already established strong ties with TSMC, UMC and the Chartered-IBM-Samsung Common platform. The company has two initial products: InShape, a model-based full-chip Design Manufacturability Checker that predicts accurate silicon shapes, providing designers the ability to do fast, accurate DFM hotspot detection of catastrophic failures and OutPerform, a complete and silicon correlated electrical DFM analysis and optimization product to enable designers using sub-90 nm processes to optimize and control the impact of lithography, mask, etch, RET, OPC, and CMP effects on their chip parameters.
I recently had an opportunity to discuss the company and its products with Atul Sharan, President, CEO and one of the founders.
Would you provide a brief biography?
I have been in the semiconductor industry for over 20 years now. The first half I spent more or less on the manufacturing side. I worked for companies like Integrated Device Technology and then I was in on the first stage of VLSI Technologies. Then for the last 10 years I have been more on the design and design automation side. At VLSI Technologies they actually had a subsidiary in their tools division called Compass Design Automation. They spun that off. As you remember in the old days before the likes of Cadence and Synopsys, the large semiconductor companies, the ASIC companies, did their own tools. At VLSI Technology we had our own design tools. When the industry sort of segmented out, they spun that out as a separate company called Compass Design Automation that was subsequently acquired by Avanti. In any event from there I was at Ambit Design System which was a logic synthesis company acquired by Cadence. Then I was at Numerical Technology for six years along with Yao-Ting Wang, who is also a founder of Clear Shape. That company went IPO and was subsequently acquired by Synopsys. I ran the sales and marketing force for Numerical. I was the VP for DFM at Synopsys. Then I spent some time in residence at a venture capital firm, Mohr-Davidow Ventures. Three years ago Yao-Ting, myself and a gentleman by the name of Fang-Cheng Chang, who was VP of Engineering at Numerical, started Clear Shape Technologies.
How was you experience in the world of venture capital?
I was not there long. The idea was to look into where the next opportunities might be. One of the areas I identified was DFM. I looked at a lot of business plans of different DFM startup companies. Since then some of them have got funded. It was a good experience. It gave me a different perspective into what investors were looking for. That's when you realize that there are a lot of ideas that are good ideas but are not necessarily franchiseable and can not be turned into companies.
Did the technical guys come to you with the idea behind Clear Shape or did you see the market opportunity and approach your former colleagues?
A few of us from Numerical saw the problems associated with manufacturing as they were going to be manifest on the design side. It really just evolved out of seeing that what we thought would be the right solution wasn't being pursued by anybody. We all decided to jump in. This was a good opportunity and we believed that we could make it work.
Did you self-fund, get seed capital, ..?
We got going and then got funded by USVP (US Venture Partners). Cadence was also an investor as was Asia Tech Management. My partner Yao-Ting was actually resident at Asia Tech, another venture fund with an Asian bent if you will. We got venture funding in April 2004. One of the things we realized was that in this economic environment it is important to build something that is capital efficient. We could have raised a lot more but we raised $5.1 million at that time. Actually the second time we raised the same amount about a year and a half later. Intel Capital led the round which at that time was a little unusual for them. KL-Tencor also invested at that time.
I noticed that Mohr-Davidow where you were in residence is not listed as a Clear Shape investor.
Bill Davidow was on our board at Numerical and retiring at that time. The semiconductor specialist there was Rob Lobilinski. He has since started his own fund. Things were changing at Mohr-Davidow.
What was the problem you identified that Clear Shape was going to solve?
That's a good question. What we did at Numerical and what you hear a lot about is called improving the resolution problem in lithography, all this OPC (Optical Proximity Correction) and RET (Resolution Enhancement Technology) Because the feature sizes were below the wavelength of the light source used to manufacture them which was the 193 nm stepper at that time people were focused on improving resolution on the manufacturing side after the designer has signed off and taped out their design. As it turns out in the last five years one of the big changes is that the lithography roadmap for the industry is for the first time really fixed. A few years ago people were hoping for 157 nm steppers. Of course that is off the road map as are all the other advertised techniques people were pursuing. It was really 193 nm with a lot of resolution enhancement technologies like phase shifting and OPC including immersion. The only other technology on the horizon that could be a savior is EUV but it is clear that is way out there, 22 nm at the earliest by most forecasts. Clearly no matter what you do on the manufacturing side, you are going to have a resolution problem. That's what people are focused on. From a designer's point of view what that really means is that I am going to have a variability problem. What I have designed and modeled ideally is not what is going to be produced in silicon. Primarily because of the lithography issues but also because of the copper interconnect or CMP (chemical mechanical polishing) issue that is coming downstream as strained silicon and which adds a different kind of variability. From a designer's standpoint it did not matter what he did, he was going to have variability. In fact if I could make my design more robust, I could actually alleviate the problem of resolution because I wouldn't have to work as hard to manufacture tighter tolerances everywhere. That was sort of the fundamental observation. Then you have to look at what it takes to solve the problem. That is where we made some of the technology picks early on. How do you model the lithography, the edge and all the associated impact in a manner that is accurate, fast and visible on the design side and that can be tied not just to catastrophic yield issues but also to electric issues like timing, signal integrity and leakage power? The development of those technologies would be disruptive in nature but not disruptive to the design flow. The incumbents like Synopsys and Mentor have OPC and RET market today not primarily but solely by the acquisitions they have made. It wasn't something they have developed on their own. Their approach is to really shove what is used on the manufacturing side upstream which is a non-starter. We have the luxury to build everything from the ground up, a variability platform and developing the technology that could account for variability upstream in a manner that is accurate and fast.