CEO interview: Palma Ceia’s Jewell on a pivot to fabless

CEO interview: Palma Ceia’s Jewell on a pivot to fabless

Interviews |
By Peter Clarke

We asked Jewell to tell us more about plans for a startup that was founded in 2012.

Jewell, started his career at Texas Instruments in the 1980s in the emerging field of modelling manufacturing process technologies. He spent the 1990s as CEO of Technology Modeling Associates. After a brief spell with Avant! Jewell spent from 2000 up to 2012 with Magma Design Automation ending up as chief operating officer.

When Magma was sold to Synopsys for about $500 million in 2012 Jewell decided the next adventure would be the development of RF and analog IP, a sector for which there was obvious demand but which was also technically demanding, giving a chance for excellence to shine.

The company then spent several years creating high-speed data converter and transceiver IP, the building blocks of the burgeoning communications sector and that has kept the company humming along.

“But in 2018 we decided we wanted to move into the fabless chip business,” said Jewell. “The problem with IP is that every customer wants a different specification. I did not want Palma Ceia to become a design services business.” It is well known that design services, while providing cash flow, do not allow a company to scale the same way as strictly-controlled IP licensing or product sales. With design services to double sales you have to double the engineering resources.

And that’s why Palma Ceia has a couple of IC initiatives; one complying with the Wi-Fi Halow standard and one to Wi-Fi6. The company already has an NB-IoT IP offering completed and shipping.

Next: Hello HaLow

The HaLow standard was originally announced in 2016 and so has been a long time coming. It promises to provide Mbits/s of bandwidth over distances from tens of meters up to a kilometre while supporting thousands of nodes per access point. It is intended to sit in a sweet spot between the long range and modest data rates at low cost of LoRa and SigFox and the higher bandwidth of LTE Cat-M and Narrowband-IoT networking.

But 2021 is the year Jewell expects Palma Ceia to be shipping in IC products volume with HaLow on 40nm process and Wi-Fi 6 on 28nm, both being made for Palma Ceia by foundry TSMC. “We can still do IP licensing on an opportunistic basis,” said Jewell.

Palma Ceia had hoped to be out with a Wi-Fi HaLow transceiver design in 2019 but since then has moved to a superior chip architecture, and those are the chips expected to tape out in May. But the timing is more in line with the development of the market for Wi-Fi HaLow, which the company admits has been slow.

Wi-Fi HaLow chip market (US$ millions). Source: Palma Ceia SemiDesign.

The company’s strategy for HaLow is to help seed the market with access point silicon in 4Q21 while evangelizing the standard with suppliers and key customers.

Jewell emphasized that the company is looking for higher value lower volume applications. “We are avoiding consumer markets. We are looking at industry 4.0 and machine-to-machine communications but not meter reading,” Jewell said, adding: “The consumer market is too price sensitive.” Although not intuitively obvious the focus on industrial, medical and agricultural applications in a fragmented standards domain also gives rise to a “China-first” strategy for many aspects of the business. Hence the extended trip to China.

Next: Wi-Fi 6

Palma Ceia has already produced the PCS11ax28 Wi-Fi 6 transceiver chip, and it has been demonstrated to a few customers. But an improved Wi-Fi 6 transciever scheduled to tape out in May is of a more advanced, scalable architecture.

Wi-Fi 6 chip market market (US$ millions). Source: Palma Ceia SemiDesign.

And since the decision was made to become a fabless chip company Palma Ceia has acquired an experienced engineering foot print in the UK. “We acquired some of the people from the old CSR team. We have about 20 people in Cambridge,” said Jewell.

Cambridge Silicon Radio – or CSR – was the first company to put a Bluetooth transceiver into CMOS. After going public and a series of acquisitions taking the company into adjacent technology sectors, CSR was bought by Qualcomm for $2.5 billion with the deal completing in August 2015. However, prior to that many of the Cambridge-based engineers had previously joined the local startup white-space communications startup Neul, which had then been sold to Huawei for $25 million in 2014. Subsequently Palma Ceia was able to recruit several Cambridge engineers from Huawei who were “loose in the saddle,” said Jewell.

“These people are much better than my original design team,” Jewell added. This is in the context of the team that brings experience beyond just creating circuits as IP. Having come from CSR, Neul and Huawei the team have a track record of developing manufacturable chips and shipping them in high volume up to billions of units. The team also has expertise in software and power management, Jewell said.

Palma Ceia SemiDesign has also been on a recruitment drive recently at senior executive level. The latest recruits include Kevin Steptoe, previously with UK design services company Sondrel, as an executive vice president; Bo Liu, previously with Artosyn Microelectronics, as senior director of engineering in China; Mark Redford, previously with ARM, as vice president of operations and supply chain; and Nicky Wilkinson, previously with Huawei, Neul and CSR, as director of analog and RF engineering.

These efforts and Jewell’s sometimes arduous trips into China appear to be paying off. Jewell said the company has $17 million worth of contingent orders primarily out of customers in China and one in Lisbon, Portugal. And contingent means that the orders depend on Palma Ceia being able to deliver on time and to specification.

Next: Cayman to Cambridge

Another aspect of Palma’s pivot has been the re-organization of the company as one with its headquarters on the Cayman Islands with subsidiaries in Hong Kong, the UK, and the US.

“In these times its best not to operate out of the US because of China,” said Jewell. “CFIUS is becoming more and more associated with export control.”

CFIUS, or the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, is US government committee that reviews the national security implications of foreign investments in US companies. However, President Trump’s administration started to require more stringent licensing for sale of so-called dual-use technologies to China and created blacklists of companies that could not receive certain semiconductor products. In return Chinese companies, even where they are still allowed to purchase US technology, are looking to avoid US suppliers.

“We’ve got a few people in North Dallas. We’re trying to avoid doing R&D in the US. We’ll do more digital work in China,” said Jewell. “For IoT the state enterprises in China are the big, big opportunity,” Jewell said.

NB-IoT chip market (US$ millions). Source: Palma Ceia SemiDesign.

Given the supply chain crunch the semiconductor industry is going through at the moment is there a problem for small fabless chip companies to get their chips manufactured? Given the contingent nature of Palma Ceia’s orders that could be key for the company.

“For small companies it’s always a problem. We’re on a ‘wait-list’ for June,” Jewell responded. “If the crunch continues at TSMC, we may have to look to get attention elsewhere.”

Next: Co-existence

We took the opportunity to ask Jewell about the likely landscape for the variety of emerging IoT RF standards: Lorawan; SigFox, WiFi-HaLow, Wi-Fi6E, LTE Cat-M and NB-IoT.

“They’re going to co-exist. They each have a place. But take something like LoRa; it can’t do video streaming. We’re working on Wi-Fi HaLow helmets for mining. It’s sub-1GHz so the signal can get through concrete and dirt walls.”

Jewell said that one of the reasons the Wi-Fi Halow market had not developed to date was the classic chicken-or-the-egg problem. Without users, service provider will not roll out access points and without access points there is no reason to enable end-use equipment to the standard. That’s why big vertically-integrated customers and big markets are important. They can commit to establishing an IoT standard across their industry. “We’re talking to people like China Rail and China Power,” said Jewell.

Jewell added that dual-standard components, likely made using chiplet assembly, is a promising way forward.

“We’re working with a hospital in Tianjin near Beijing looking at geriatric medicine. They have a monitor based on Wi-Fi Halow that works beautifully in the hospital. But if the patient goes out, at one kilometer it drops the connection. So what you need is Wi-Fi Halow and NB-IoT on the same chip. I think these types of dual-chips will be a differentiator,” said Jewell.

This is one of the directions Jewell wants to take Palma Ceia. But it could also mean adding a lot of local processing and artificial intelligence. In terms of the how the work is shared Cambridge will be the focus for analog and RF, China for digital and for application specific software. For a lot of the digital work Palma Ceia will probably partner with other IP providers as there is no need to reinvent digital or AI processors.

But Jewell intends that Palma Ceia SemiDesign will be taking control of the productization and application-specific design as well as the fundamental RF capabilities. “I don’t want to be the corn farmer; I want to be selling bread,” he said.

Related links and articles:

News articles:

Configurable analog IP wins slots in IoT wireless transceivers

WiFi HaLow pioneer Morse Micro raises more funds

Tri-band chip for Wi-Fi 6E opens up spectrum

Blueprint call for 5G and WiFi6 convergence


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