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Starting out

SAME offers a good showcase for start ups; particularly those offering eda tools. By Louise Joselyn.

The Sophia Antipolis Microelectronics Forum is a great place for start ups to be seen and two of those at this year's event were taking a pragmatic view of eda tools. Their practical, no frills approach was calculated to deliver improved productivity, but to leave the engineer in control. Meanwhile, another company had the world's best interests in its sights.

Romania based Amiq Consulting started by offering consultancy and design services for the emerging electronic system design community. Founder Cristian Amitroaie admitted to a rather idealistic and altruistic rationale. "I wanted to help bring my country into the industrialised world, bringing together qualified engineers and good communicators. Most of our good engineers go abroad to work and I wanted to show them that Romanian companies do not have to adopt the traditional Eastern European dictator style of management to succeed."

He found a gap in the market when Verisity (since acquired by Cadence) launched its 'e' verification language, since donated to the IEEE and now an approved open standard as IEEE 1647.

Amiq has launched the DVT integrated development environment (IDE) for developers using e and SystemVerilog. Based on the Eclipse open source standard, and featuring an e language parser, an import viewer and a name checker, DVT is aimed at newcomers and experts working on system design and verification.

"I had experience of IDEs in the software development world," he explained. "We urgently needed one in our consultancy business and would have bought one if it existed!" Instead, Amiq developed its own IDE and, when customers saw the productivity gains in verification, they wanted it too.

"There's no loan culture in Romania and we are not experienced in working with investors," said Amitroaie. "So product development and launch was entirely funded by our consultancy services revenues." The 10 person spin off eda division has been set up to run separately in order to protect the growing consultancy business.

Amitroaie explained that, in the verification bottleneck, engineers have to be seen to be writing code. "Our IDE provides a degree of automation, of course, but it is a somewhat elemental tool; a logical solution." Not a fan of fancy graphical front ends, Amitroaie believes DVT has gained fast acceptance because it is not seen as a 'new thing'. Although it does have a graphical element, it works at the higher levels of abstraction necessary to increase efficiency and can be incorporated into existing design and verification methodologies.

"It is very attractive in what it does and in its price," he added. Traditional eda vendors, Amitroaie admitted, probably regard the tool as very cheap. "We aligned ourselves more towards the software development world, looking at Java tools as a model. EDA tools are typically expensive and are then sold at huge discounts. We didn't want to play that game," he said.

An evaluation version of DVT is available and Amitroaie expects that engineers who like it will pay the asking price.

With users now numbering thousands, it seems Amiq's business model is working. Offering a time based licence, customers always get the latest release, bug fixes and some training. Features are added when necessary. "Now it is being used more widely, we are getting more feedback and new ideas. We have a good framework and are building on that," he concluded, adding the next development phase will see a more innovative approach.

Increasing demand for low power operation and greater integration means analogue circuitry is becoming more prevalent. While often a small proportion of the overall design, analogue circuitry represents a huge design challenge, taking some 40% of design effort and is responsible for 50% of respins. More complex devices on smaller geometries are exacerbating the problem, with physical effects making optimisation especially difficult.

While analogue design automation has long been a dream, a spin off from an Indian multinational believes it can offer at least a partial solution. AgO, headquartered in California, but with R&D in Bangalore, has launched AnXplorer, a synthesis and optimisation tool for analogue and rf circuits (see fig 1). Using Spice simulation and design equation based synthesis, designers can explore different schematics, while the tool automates the routine job of sizing circuit elements to meet user configurable design objectives. Essentially, anything that can be simulated and measured can be set as a design objective. The output from the tool is an optimised and centred circuit netlist.

The tool can help improve yield by assessing the impact of variations in the manufacturing process, supply voltage and temperature. The differentiating feature of AnXplorer is its ability to support arbitrary functions with multiple local and global optima.

According to Roddy Urquhart, AgO's European agent, AnXplorer avoids the major pitfall of some less than successful analogue automation tools that have come before. "Start ups and mainstream eda vendors have launched simulation tools during the past 10 years with no major impact," he reckoned. "This is not a pushbutton automation tool that takes the analogue designer out of the loop," he explained.

"AnXplorer is an intuitive and flexible platform that leaves the designer in control." He added that other tools do not tackle the problem of local minima, which are particularly inherent as designs move to geometries of 90nm and beyond. AnXplorer is claimed to be interoperable with industry standard Spice simulators and netlists, allowing it to be easily integrated with mainstream tools.

The tool was initially introduced in early 2010 and trials are underway with various potential customers designing with geometries of 180nm, 130nm and 90nm. AgO expects to gain a 10% share of this market sector, generating annual revenues of $150million by 2013.

Green differentiator
Most likely a great idea, but possibly premature, is a start up offering ecological electronic design services. Eric Louveau, founder of 3eco Concept, believes that, with the energy efficiency movement gaining ground, 'ecodesign' will become a product differentiator.

"Designers need to think differently when trying to understand the environmental impact of the products they are developing," he said. Key concepts to embrace are lifecycle management, increasing shelf life and end of life management. This is potentially at odds with today's 'throw away' attitude.

Based in Sophia Antipolis, 3eco Concept's skills lie in the areas of electronic product optimisation for energy efficiency, software (programmable upgrades) and meeting legislation such as WEEE, RoHS and EuP. In the area of home automation, innovative design is essential, Louveau says, if consumers are to be motivated to play their part in reducing power consumption.

The company has already designed a smart multiplug for home/office use which provides a simple mechanism for switching off all unnecessary appliances and peripherals in standby mode.

Advice for start ups
•Have an aggressive, but realistic, business plan
•Expect to spend 80% of your time chasing funding
•Don't underestimate how much cash you will need
•Watch the cash
•Although patents cost a lot of money, they are essential
•Develop a focus and a clear vision
•Don't hire unless there are long term positions to be filled
•Don't expect overnight success

Author
Louise Joselyn

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