The road to success: Interview with Hossein Yassaie, Imagination Technologies

4 min read

Hossein Yassaie tells Graham Pitcher how taking the right road has turned Imagination Technologies into the UK's second largest silicon IP developer.

When Hossein Yassaie joined VideoLogic as its chief technology officer in 1992, he said the company was at a crossroads. VideoLogic had carved out a successful business developing graphics technology. "It was a product company which had done some amazing things," he recalled. "It had brought video to pcs, for example. To do that, it had to write the Multimedia Interface Control for pcs – essentially windows before Windows." He saw VideoLogic having two choices – to remain a product company or to become a technology company. "UK companies have to be at the leading edge," he asserted, "and that's difficult if you're a semiconductor company." The choice to follow an IP centric path has proved to be inspired: Imagination Technologies – as the company is now known – is the UK's second largest IP developer behind ARM and is ranked third in the world by Gartner. VideoLogic found itself handily placed at the start of the consumer gaming revolution. It developed a relationship with NEC and, critically, with gaming pioneer SEGA. "A very tiny mcu enabled great graphics," Yassaie recalled, "and gave us the money we needed to develop." Stood at the crossroads, VideoLogic wondered what opportunities the consumer market held. "The more we looked at this," said Yassaie, "the clearer it became that creating an IP company with technology that enabled other companies to build products was a good proposition." But while VideoLogic translated into an IP company, it continued to make products in order to remain close to its target markets. One of the first areas to be addressed was 3d graphics. "PCs are all about delivering a good user interface," he said. "And why should users interact with a pc that doesn't understand 3d?" He put a team together and asked it how would it do 3d graphics without constraints. The result was PowerVR, graphics technology which continues to feature in a range of consumer products, including the latest iPhones. "We also decided that we couldn't depend on third party cpus," he continued. "We were excited about multithreading, so we developed our own processor core. Everything we develop today is multithreaded; if you want to develop efficient systems, every component must be able to share memory, otherwise they're doing nothing." But Yassaie believes one of the most important decisions was to concentrate on mobile devices. "It had become clear to me that people would want to do on mobile devices everything they could on their pcs." Even though processing power was lacking, the company put the wheels in progress, with Yassaie believing 'teeth would be provided'. But much of the development being done by companies such as Nokia still looked at mobile devices as phones. Apple – a major Imagination shareholder – changed that with the iPhone and, today, smartphones are all about the interface. Intel, the largest shareholder, is using Imagination's technology in some of its devices. Yassaie continues to take a long term view. "I'm trying to understand trends," he said, "and am looking five to 10 years into the future, because the IP development cycle takes many years." This work is being undertaken independently of customer input. "No customer will tell us what they want in five years," he said, "so we have to make our own bets." Imagination is acquisitive; recent deals include the purchase of Caustic Graphics for its ray tracing technology. "We will invest in speculative projects," Yassaie admitted, "but I don't like 'blue sky' stuff. We invested in ray tracing because it's not blue sky; there are strong reasons why it will become an important technology." While 90% of what VideoLogic developed in the early days was disruptive, today's profile is more evolutionary. "About 60% evolutionary, 40% disruptive," Yassaie estimated. "But we still have to think outside the box and solve problems because consumers don't buy technology for the sake of it. Overall, I'd say that 90% of the decisions we've made have been right." Yassaie is passionate about UK electronics and its future. "We're a UK company operating globally, but 70% of our people are here; having R&D and design in the UK has been good in terms of creativity – and we have the two most important IP suppliers in terms of technology that powers devices." While he says the UK's IP industry has impact and influence beyond its size, he adds the country needs more fabless businesses. "There are a lot of good designers and the fact that we don't have consumer brands is a problem. It would be great if Marconi was a consumer brand, but it's gone." The solution, he admits, is complex. "We want students to be creators of technology and leaders of future companies and we want people to believe they can do it." He says the UK has 'huge assets' in terms of engineering talent and IP companies, 'but it needs a strategy'. "And that strategy – developing more fabless companies and developing brands – has to be led by Government, because there isn't a large ecosystem," he said. "Given where we are today, we should be able to do better." One possible way the Government could do this is through the NHS. "We have a large nationalised health service. Why not use that to introduce advanced technology and create more UK businesses?" He's also critical of the tendency to sell companies. "It's a disappointment every time one is sold," he said, "but often people find it easier to sell than to keep a company growing." For the future, it's more long term thinking. "We have quarterly technology reviews at which we decide where the road map will go," he said. "And it's why we renamed the company Imagination – it describes what we have to do," he concluded. Hossein Yassaie After attaining his PhD, Hossein was a research fellow at the University of Birmingham. Prior to joining Imagination Technologies in February 1992, he spent eight years with Inmos/STMicroelectronics, where he set up and managed dsp and digital video developments. Ultimately, he became responsible for the system divisions, including research and development, manufacturing and marketing. He joined Imagination Technologies in 1992 as CTO, joined the board in 1995 and became CEO in 1998.