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Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena
Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at www.aycinena.com. She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.

Silicon Catalyst: Leading the Renaissance in Hardware

 
December 28th, 2017 by Peggy Aycinena


When Sales Force entertains, they really entertain.
And so it was in the first week of November in San Francisco when 175,000 people came to town to be part of the company’s DreamForce confab.

I made the mistake of being on the Streets of San Francisco on Tuesday, November 7th, and was witness to the madding DreamForce crowds – particularly the lucky 50,000+ of them headed to AT&T Park where Alicia Keyes and Lenny Kravitz were waiting to entertain the VIPs of the SalesForce world.

Although the traffic was debilitating on that Tuesday night, the sheer scale of the SalesForce presence (now very obvious in San Francisco as their towering mega-temple is about debut) provided such an interesting compare and contrast to my adventures on the following morning.

On Wednesday, November 8th, I had the good fortune to attend a Press and Analyst briefing at a low-slung building in Silicon Valley.

The hosts of that event were the leadership and evangelists of a small, laser-focused group called Silicon Catalyst – an incubator that intends to pave the way for the semiconductor super stars of the future. The folks at Silicon Catalyst hope that one of the companies in their carefully vetted portfolio may become the SalesForce of tomorrow, the mega-force in technology that dominates cities, skylines, and baseball parks.

Silicon Catalyst does indeed want to change the world, and by the looks of things they have a good shot at doing just that. Led by a team of seasoned semiconductor and EDA veterans, this 2+ year old Silicon Valley based organization has 14 portfolio companies so far, and is looking to add several more in the next quarter.

It was to help promote their brand that Press and Analysts were invited in for lunch on November 8th as part of a 2-day Autumn Forum where the young portfolio companies were busy showcasing their technologies in front of a room of learned investors and thought leaders – with the emphasis being on investors.

It was a fascinating several hours to be in the building – which, by the way, was not the offices of Silicon Catalyst, but a presentation space borrowed from a corporate development center, a 3-story building chock-a-block full of Silicon Valley based Chinese startups.

In the hour-long briefing, our hosts from Silicon Catalyst include CEO Rick Lazansky, Managing Partner Nick Kepler, Partner Rich Goldman of Synopsys fame, and Mamoon Rashid, Senior Vice President of Strategic Ventures at ON Semiconductor.

The point of the debriefing was to present a thumbnail sketch of the history and motivation behind this particular incubator, and to establish a baseline for success here 2-1/2 years into the organization’s existence.

To say the group is enthused is an understatement; they’re almost giddy with the possibilities they see for themselves and their portfolio companies.

They see Silicon Catalyst as the “only incubator focused exclusively on solutions in silicon, building a coalition of in-kind and strategic partners to dramatically reduce the cost and complexity of development.”

Importantly, however, this incubator is not offering money and space as much as they are offering real gold in the form of mentoring.

Silicon Catalyst started in 2015, with the idea that if the group vetted promising startups, they could identify the ones that would benefit most significantly from the type of mentoring the seasoned veterans/founders of Silicon Catalyst could provide.

Rich Goldman noted: “There are thousands of incubators in Silicon Valley, primarily offering office space. If you’re a company designing a chip, if that’s what you want, don’t come to us because other incubators do that better.

“But if you want an ecosystem for silicon to solution, then work with us.”

Goldman emphasized it was the “coach-ability” of a young company that was the ultimate metric the partners at Silicon Catalyst look at when deciding to accept a company into their portfolio.

Even startups with a strong technical offering and team may not meet this rather illusive metric, so not surprisingly, the organization has looked at over 200 companies to date and only chosen 14 so far as being appropriate targets for their help.

“We are in the business to recreate an ecosystem that was vibrant 20-to-30 years ago,” Rick Lazansky pointed out.

“Back then, it was easy to bootstrap a company, to get partners and investment. Now, that’s extremely difficult. So when we launched in 2015, we borrowed liberally from what worked well for startups decades ago.

“Our kickoff in Avaya Stadium in April 2015 was incredibly successful. More than 700 industry and investment professionals showed up,” Lazansky said, laughing. “But we only expected 200 people, so we ran out of booze!”

Since that time, Silicon Catalyst has continued to make steady progress.

Assembling an impressive list of corporate “in-kind” partners that include Synopsys, TSMC, Keysight, Advantest, PDF Solutions, imec, ICManage, Autodesk, Open-Silicon, imt, Amazon Web Services, ANSYS, MathWorks, Leti, EAG Labs, lumerical, SoftMEMS, TSI Semiconductors, AMFitzgerald, Matrix Industries – the November 8th meeting in Silicon Valley also included the formal introduction of ON Semiconductor as a second full-blown “strategic” partner, the first being TI.

Strategic partners have early access to portfolio companies, and “the opportunity to consult with Silicon Catalyst in the pursuit of startups that align with current and future focus markets” for strategic partners like TI and On Semi.

Representing On Semi, Mamoon Rashid told the meeting: “Since 2006, we have acquired many companies, including Fairchild. All of our acquisitions have been around technology, and now as a $5 billion company we want to add to the acquisition ecosystem.

“My role is to look outside the company and see how we can fill in the gaps in innovation, which is why we are partnering with Silicon Catalyst.”

“Yes,” Rashid added, “there are a lot of software incubators, but not a lot of hardware incubators. To reach that community, clearly we need to aggregate [that community] ourselves which is what Silicon Catalyst is doing.”

Of course, it’s not just about mentoring for the lucky portfolio companies of Silicon Catalyst.

There’s also a healthy financial aspect to the help the organization offers: They’ve got VCs on board as advisers, as well as angels, and pipelines to money for “non-dilutive” grant investments – this last being a type of financing that does not require the startup to relinquish equity in the company.

Speaking of control, I asked if Silicon Catalyst partners [the human kind] insist on a seat on the board of directors of any particular portfolio company.

Nick Kepler said, “We expect to be able to place on observer on each board, but do not require a full seat.”

He added that this arrangement is expected to last throughout the Silicon Catalyst involvement with any particular portfolio company.

Which brings us to the most interesting aspect of the Rules of Play as laid out by Silicon Catalyst: They only want to be involved with their portfolio companies for 24 months, max.

That’s a pretty quick time frame for mentoring, introducing, advising, cajoling, coaching, providing business and legal support, etc. and clearly requires a chosen portfolio company to hit the ground running – if and when they’re selected to receive all of the gifts Silicon Catalyst is willing to bestow on them.

And, the folks conducting the November 8th Press/Analyst event were clearly proud that this 24-month thing is working.

Their current pride and joy: The young, dynamic Ayar Labs is about to be the first startup to graduate from the 2-year Silicon Catalyst course.

Ayar is busy “miniaturizing fiber optic transceivers and making them in silicon chips to bring super-high bandwidths and low-energy uses inside the computer,” and they’ve got a dynamite team of young technologist out of MIT, UC Berkeley, and University of Colorado.

Meeting with Ayar CEO Alex Wright-Gladstein after the Press/Analyst lunch, she told me: “Our participation in Silicon Catalyst has not been about the funding, but about the mentoring and community they have provided to us since late 2015.”

At this point, Ayar Labs is on the verge of manufacturing success and the organization is on the verge of being the first Silicon Catalyst success. Expect more in the coming years.

But Ayar Labs is only one of the 14 companies providing satisfaction to the hard-driving futurists of Silicon Catalyst. The other companies are listed below, and represent a wide range of technologies and applications. What they share is a semiconductor-based target product.

Clearly, the people driving Silicon Catalyst are on a mission: They expect to succeed, to overcome the current economic barriers preventing new semiconductor startups, and they expect to be mentors and witnesses to the young companies today who promise to be the mega-organizations of tomorrow.

One Portfolio company at a time.

By the way, following the Press/Analyst lunch, it was excellent to speak with EDA veteran Raul Camposano, also a partner at Silicon Catalyst, who was attending the Autumn Forum. He was both adamant and enthused about everything the organization is hoping to do.

“We are at the forefront of a sea change in the prospects for hardware design,” Camposano said. “As recently as two years ago, the situation looked very bleak. But now things have changed.

“With Silicon Catalyst, you are witnessing a true renaissance in hardware.”


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Portfolio Companies …

ProbiusDX – Reconfigurable solution for assays of proteins without the need for specific probe or label.

Spark Microsystems – A radio, wireless transceiver with unique architecture offering order of magnitude improvement in energy efficiency.

Active Layer Parametrics – System to rapidly measure mobility and activated carrier concentration profiles for semiconductor manufacturing

Xceler Systems – A new processors & platform, a brain-like graph engine built using “digital neurons”.

GMK – A fabless company providing analog/digital mixed IC and related software platform.

ClopTech – Gigabits wireless connectivity for better services.

Power Down Semiconductor – Low Power Processing technology using a “pseudo-adiabatic” technique to recycle charge and prevent CV2f losses in memory.CAP Semiconductor.

One Silicon Chip Photonics – Simple, light, low-cost, low-power, high-performance Micro-Optic-Electro-Mechanical Systems components integrated on SoI substrate.

ACP Semiconductor – Chip sets for LED lighting for smart grid applications.

Zeno Semiconductor – Novel memory and logic technologies.

REX Computing – Hyper-efficient processor architecture for super computing.

Chaos Prime – Connectivity platform for IoT, ultra-scalable purpose-built.

AEPONYX – Fabless micro optical switch chips fr fiber optic access to the Cloud.

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