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Semiconductor knows no borders: Q&A with Silicon Catalyst partners


While many might be deterred by the hefty costs of starting a semiconductor company, there are still many other entrepreneurs with a silicon dream knocking on the door of Silicon Catalyst (SC), an incubator and accelerator for semiconductor startups.

Digitimes recently talked to SC's managing partners Richard Curtin and Tarun Verma, as well as partner Lance Bell over Zoom trying to better understand the company and their insights into the latest industry trends.

Q: Please give a brief introduction to the accelerator and the background of the core team. Semiconductor is a very sophisticated tech and involves very complicated process. Do you have any specific aspect that you focus on?

A: We are Silicon Catalyst, the world's only incubator exclusively focused on accelerating semiconductor solutions, including IP, MEMs, and sensors. We started operation in 2015, co-founded by Rick Lazansky, Dan Armbrust and Mike Noonen, against the backdrop of a falling growth in R&D in the industry, due to massive consolidation in recent years. Our executives and partners all have long careers in the semiconductor industry. We understood there is still significant room for improvement in industries developed by silicon. Based on that we try to address the largest problem silicon ventures have, mainly to lower infrastructure costs to make it happen. We put together an ecosystem of in-kind partners, that provide goods and services at either no cost or at a significantly reduced cost, spanning the pre-silicon and post-silicon stages of development, as well as an ecosystem of advisors, strategic-partners, and investors.

We started this vision in 2015, at that time we had 18 in-kind partners, and a score of advisors; today we have 42 in-kind partners, almost 200 advisors, 300 investors, and seven strategic partners. We have expanded our footprints to other areas in the world. We have a JV in China, operations in Israel, and have been in discussion to expand to EU, India, Taiwan, and Korea as well. While we've done that, we are strengthening our partnerships with Global Semiconductor Alliance (GSA) and SEMI. We have recently expanded our university ambassador program on a worldwide basis.

Q: Out of the 350 startups that you have engaged with since 2015, you have only admitted 35 of them over the years. And your Chengdu joint venture has accepted 16 Chinese startups since 2019. How do you pick startups? What are the criteria?

A: We look at all the factors that venture capitalists would look at. But we bring real experts to bear - some of whom have built companies, been CEOs, or have been at the forefront of the industry for decades. That is part of our secret sauce. The seasoned semiconductor veterans in our ecosystem see their engagement with Silicon Catalyst as a "give back" to the industry.

How do we screen the startups? For example, first we look at the team: is it a capable team? We look at the market, what pain they are solving? We look for evidence of customer traction. What is the value proposition? Are customers willing to pay for it? Finally, can they execute their plans to hit the market window? Do they have access to the right channels and go-to-market strategies? And then to get to the right design, and realize the revenues? We are very selective. We try to help every startup that chooses to engage with us, providing feedbacks to them. Some of them come back and get admitted later. We use the same formulae in China. China is a market with huge demand, with thousands of startups. It's been almost two years since we started operation there, and our joint venture will finish this year with a dozen startups in their incubator.

When we first started, we only look at early-stage companies. As we have grown our ecosystem, we now have later-stage companies that have joined us. People that have raised may be US$5-10 million, may be more. We don't focus on any specific area. We are really looking for a business model that needs a piece of silicon to differentiate itself. So whether it's 5G, data-harvesting, AI, it's ok. We don't focus on a specific market segment at this point.

Q: You mentioned that you have established a joint venture in China. Can you elaborate on the details?

A: We partnered with a company called Silicon Power Technologies. The primary ownership is a Sino-American company headquartered in Hong Kong. The Chengdu venture is focused on semiconductors for the power electronics market. There is a lot of semiconductor demand in China, and so the innovative products that the startups are developing can address the needs of the market.

We help the generally techno-centric people to round out their value proposition, reduce the seed investment amounts and the time to prototype for them through our 24-month incubation. We provide in-kind partner goods and services. Everything from pre-silicon to post-silicon, all the way through to businesses support services, such as corporate attorneys, IP attorneys, business development consultants, advisors, etc. And this is done on a worldwide basis. We have an application cycle twice a year, and we are coming to our application deadline on January 11, 2021 for the next batch of applicants. We go through the screening processes, meet with the entrepreneurial team we select with an agreement, and bring them into the incubator. During those 24 months of incubation, all in-kind partner goods and services are provided free of charge, or at a dramatically reduced cost, so they don't need to raise the money just to get business off the ground. We take that burden of design tool and shuttle run cost completely off the table. We can take them with their concept, and everything through from design, IP, design services, foundry. We have been working with TSMC since the first days of our incubator, enabling the startups with rapid access to MPW shuttles. When a company comes into an incubator, they have full access to all these goods and services that are only available with Silicon Catalyst.

Very clearly, TSMC is front and center for companies in our incubator, being able to provide shuttle runs for their designs. We have access to the process-design kits (PDKs) for all the models. They can immediately start designing and knowing they can get onto a shuttle when they are ready to tape out.

Q: For the 16 startups of your JV incubator in China, do they use the local foundry or TSMC?

A: Since they are focused on the power space, they have some specialty foundries in China applied on the power IC segment. When we set up a joint venture overseas, what they do is take our methodology and recipe and then localize it. They have experienced a very rapid learning curve because we have been at this for so long. We have a process that is second to none, and you need the support of an industry to get them from a concept on the back of a napkin all the way to have a cashflow-positive business that maybe ultimately ends up with an acquisition, whether domestic or international.

Q: Due to the geopolitical competition, some people are saying that the G2 trend are going to last. What do you think?

A: Silicon Catalyst is really looking to be "the Switzerland of the semiconductor industry." The semiconductor industry has been growing incredibly over the last few decades. This has always been a global innovation market. The inventors know no borders. Let's find a way to make that continue. There are too many problems to be solved. Some people focus their attention on 5G, but there are far more problems than 5G. Silicon Catalyst is a worldwide incubator, we stay agnostic and work with startups and partners from all countries. More than half of our startups are from outside of the United States. We find our incubator provides essentially an epicenter of synergy to connect those startups with industry experts, as well as access to all the resources they need. We have engaged with over 350 new applications to enter our incubator - we have incubated companies involved with diverse market segments, from memories to biotech, to 5G, to energy harvesting. Where do we see a startup that is applying to our incubator? How will they fit into our ecosystem of advisors, strategic partners, and in-kind partners? And that really is the secret sauce of our organization because there is so much support in each and different areas.

We only accept a startup that we think will be enabled with the access that we provide. One thing we do is truly unique: we de-risk the investment. So you have a company like TSMC that offers us shuttle runs to companies in our incubator, with their knowledge and access to manufacturing experts. And Synopsis or Advantest, and other leading pre-silicon and post-silicon vendors of design tools and services, coupled with experienced semiconductor executives. Once accepted, the chances of succeeding for those startups become ultimately greater. They come from all over the world, which is very exciting for us.

Q: You seem to have an interesting startup portfolio.

A: Let me show you the landscape of applications: everything from life-sciences, to edge-computing, to artificial intelligence (AI), machine-learning, inferencing for edge-computing, energy harvesting, cyber-security, etc. Everything has to do with semiconductors. Just recently we expanded our footprint into the MEMS, sensors, and actuators markets. One of the recent partners is ST Microelectronics, which is the world's largest MEMS manufacturer. This is an exciting development for us because there are many applications such as microphones, all the way to life science, etc.

Q: People are much concerned about the bottleneck of Moore's Law. But as you mentioned, there are emerging applications and developments in the industry. Do you foresee a period of "golden years" for semiconductor industry? Any new trends spotted?

A: We are now down to 3nm process technology, enabling billions of transistors per design. But there is an interesting new segment we are seeing in our companies of portfolio, which is optical computing. Optical computing probably is going to be the next wave. So if you are thinking computing horse power is reaching its limit, because there are so many parallel machines and architecture. But the next bottleneck is interface communication, I/O. Now we are seeing enormous growth in optical interconnect. One of our portfolio companies, Ayar Labs, is doing optical connectivity. Many of the startups spawn from university environment. Ayar Labs had a foundation technology developed by a professor in UC Berkeley, collaborating with two PhD students and one master's student. They developed a revolutionary I/O solution that they are able to push for significantly faster data transmission speeds. The key to their success is that they answered one of the questions we asked during those screening meetings: in order for your technology to be successful, does the entire industry need to lean towards your direction? Or are you actually a plug-and-play the existing ecosystem? In fact, they are manufacturable. They not only had a break-through technology, but also easy for the industry once they overcome the hurdles as a startup. This optical I/O is truly a game changer.

We introduced them to various venture capitalists, guided them and helped to establish their strong foundation for business growth. They recently closed on a Series B round, raising US$35 million from investors. We would like to think that our very early engagement with them in our incubator aided them on their meteor path to success. We have multiple success stories like that. New technologies are coming everywhere, and over 50% of our startups are located outside the United States. It's our knowledge-based connection to a unique and growing ecosystem that is heart of our success, coupled with a comprehensive screening process to filter out early, those companies that have the greatest chance to succeed. With a willing group of participants as in-kind partners, they brought in with their services at no cost or low cost to our startups, because they, too, are in search of potential customers at this significant age of consolidation. Budgets for research and development had been slashed, so innovation from large companies have been limited.

The future landscape could not be healthier. It has a worldwide footprint, and we are beyond delighted to explain our model and communicate to Digitimes readers. You cannot think about semiconductor without mentioning Taiwan. Silicon Catalyst is looking forward to even more semiconductor innovation in the years ahead.

(Editor's note: Digitimes Research analysts Eric Chen and Jim Chien contributed ideass to the making of the interview.)

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