Calfornian startup goes multi-die to customize MCUs

Calfornian startup goes multi-die to customize MCUs

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By eeNews Europe

The company, which trades as Indie Semiconductor, was founded as AyDeeKay LLC (Aliso Viejo, Calif.) by four engineers in 2007 although work really began in 2009.

The problem the team chose to address is the well-known one that achieving the right mix of peripherals on a microcontroller for any given application, and thereby saving power and cost, is almost impossible. Indeed most microcontroller families, which can include 100s of stock-keeping units (SKUs), are often created by laying down the superset of peripherals and memory and then disabling different parts of the design to create particular family members.

Having previously founded and worked at Axiom Micro Devices, a manufacturer of CMOS power amplifiers for cell phones, Indie’s founders were aware that multi-die packaging was reducing in cost as volumes increased for smartphones.

Paul Hollingworth, vice president of sales & marketing at Indie Semi.

The company’s approach to the market has been to split the design of its Cortex-M0 based microcontroller between the processor part and the peripheral die. The first is made in a digital CMOS manufacturing process with embedded flash while the second is made in mixed-signal, mixed-signal with RF or mixed-signal with power processes, as necessary.

Paul Hollingworth, who joined the company in 2013, as vice president of sales and marketing, said the approach allowed the company to bring the custom performance advantages of ASIC design while maintaining much of the low-cost and easy design advantages of a microcontroller.

Next: Doubling sales

The company has a set of manufacturing partners it works with, said Hollingworth. On the digital side these include Hua Hong Semiconductor and United Microelectronics Corp. and its sources provide an eFlash process from 180nm down to 55nm. For the mixed-signal die Indie works with X-Fab Silicon Foundries. On the packaging side Indie works with ASE Group.

Volume production in thousands of units. Source Indie Semi.

Indie Semi’s first volume products were developed for automotive customers and shipped in 2010. The company also has experience of designing for industrial applications, said Hollingworth. The company expects to ship more than 10 million units this year (see figure). It is profitable and employs about 50 people around the world including a design center in Edinburgh, Scotland. It also has an application support and PCB development center in Shenzhen, China, that is a joint venture with Indie’s Chinese distributor.

So far Indie’s products have not incorporated MEMS technology but that could change in the future as the company broadens its horizons.

Next: From custom to standard

Up until now much of Indie’s work has been custom and has sometimes included customer IP, but it has also negotiated various IP rights for itself. So some customers have requested a period of exclusivity before Indie is allowed to sell products on the open market, said Hollingworth.

"The result is we’ve now got a catalogue of products that are silicon-proven and in production," Hollingworth added. The company also a library of analog, power and RF IP blocks available for reuse. The typical application sectors that Indie pursues are automotive, industrial and medical where its profile of capabilities almost serves as a definition of what is required for the Internet of Things.

Indie Semi’s "Clough" microcontroller core. Source: Indie Semi.

The company has achieved AEC-Q100 automotive qualification and ISO13485 medical qualification. Its standard products now include: the "Krankl" microcontroller plus wireless transceiver, the "KamCho" general purpose microcontroller, the "Feynman" Wi-Fi transceiver, the "Ashoka" Bluetooth LE 4.2 radio that is due to tape-out in the third quarter of 2015, to be available as engineering samples in 4Q15 and be in mass production in 1Q16.

Next: Self-funded success

Indie is unusual in that it was able to move to profitability without requiring venture capital. The founders’ previous company, Axiom, was sold to Skyworks in 2009 for an undisclosed sum. At the time it was bought Axiom had shipped more than 250 million power amplifiers to cell phone manufacturers.

Donald McClymont, CEO of Indie Semi.

Donald McClymont, founder and CEO of the company, said that when it came to funding AyDeeKay venture capital had fallen out of love with semiconductors and that in any case the founders did not want to give away too much control.

Next: Expanding into IoT

The company was founded with personal capital and a couple of customers who were prepared to pre-fund custom work. "In 2012 we did take a minority round of venture capital from Anthem Venture Partners," said McClymont although he declined to quantify it.

Now that Indie is profitable it’s financial options have opened up, he said. Indie can choose whether to fund further growth from profits or to take more venture capital. "We have no formal plans for a venture capital round," he said.

Indie Semiconductor;

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