CEO interview: The importance of being agile
On the telephone call Ramsdale was accompanied by Andrew Farrugia, vice president of marketing, and they revealed a Cambridge startup that has many software engineers seeking to model and accelerate the analog design process.
The company also has numerous senior executives with experience gained at the such employers as ARM, Broadcoam, Alphamosaic, CSR, STMicroelectronics, TSMC and Cadence. The company includes Sir Hossein Yassaie, former CEO of Imagination Technologies, as a non-executive director. Ramsdale is himself a former vice president of engineering and general manager of the imaging and vision business at ARM.
Agile Analog has not given out much information about its internal processes preferring to let its analog IP available for license do the talking. The company has now started to bring out analog IP at a rapid rate and is also making it configurable (see Configurable analog IP wins slots in IoT wireless transceivers).
One thing that Agile Analog is not doing is analog synthesis, said Ramsdale. There have been previous attempts to try and recreate the original success of Synopsys with design compilation, but in the analog rather than the digital world. However, the digital domain has a circuit isolation that allows blocks to be joined together easily and a generality in terms of circuit equivalence that is just not present in the analog world.
And even within classes of similar analog circuit, such as families of amplifiers, there can problems. “Previous attempts to automate analog design have used a brute force exploration of the design space using genetic algorithms and similar approaches. But the space is complex and this approach can produce local minimum solutions that are not optimal,” observed Farrugia.
Next: In-house tool
“Agile Analog looks at the whole way the analog designer works; a proper top down approach in analog; a good hierarchical systematic approach. We have an in-house tool that can take a recipe for a class of circuits from a designer, not just the essential physics but also the rules of thumb they have developed with experience. We have a very big software team working on the tool.” Farrugia noted.
The fact that analog circuits cannot be treated in isolation the way digital circuits can, has always made their integration complex and the labour-intensive domain of skilled engineers. If Agile Analog has an advantage here it is still something that the company is not revealing. The furthest that Ramsdale would go was: “Let’s say, we don’t solve that challenge but we have a way round that makes it become less important.”
It is worth noting that company founder and CTO Mike Hulse spent a large part of his career at leading semiconductor companies as a design manager for analogue, digital and mixed-signal IC engineering. In these roles he introduced technical innovations and commercial strategies to improve design productivity, design quality and schedule predictability.
Ramsdale points out that Agile Analog is looking to fit in with the engineering world as it already is rather than asking engineers to overturn what they do. “We sit on standard EDA tools and capture the recipe design intent and make use of the PDK [physical design kit] from the foundry.” The fact that Agile Analog works with a PDK as one of its inputs helps with its ability to target different manufacturing process technologies, a point the company makes in its sales pitch.
So what are the limitations? “The classes of circuits we can address and frequencies attainable do depend on the processes,” said Farrugia. “The tool is still driven by an analog designer. It is not pushbutton – otherwise mistakes happen – but what it does do, is it addresses productivity.”
Next: The 90:10 rule
Ramsdale added: “Analog design is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration. We value the analog engineer and look to speed up the 90 percent so we can get more done. We look at it from the point of view of an engineer starting a new project and look to optimize all the way through the process.”
Pushing again on the limitations of the technology we asked how generally applicable it is in circuit design. Ramsdale said: “There is a high general capability. Can it do RF? Yes. MEMS is probably a bit of a stretch. But, in any case we are focused on the analog circuit classes and foundry processes for which there is high demand.” Ramsdale added that its IP is also in demand at a number of smaller foundries with unique process variants who otherwise find it hard to get IP core support.
So how far and widely has Agile Analog’s IP been licensed so far?
“We’ve engaged with the big-four foundries and a few smaller ones,” said Farrugia. The big four are TSMC, Samsung, Globalfoundries and SMIC. All of the circuits to date have been developed for planar processes, and Furrugia includes fully-depleted silicon-on-insulator (FDSOI) in that category. “In 2019 we started working with FinFET PDKs. Our design approach is FinFET ready,”
Next: Pandemic changes
When asked how the Covid-19 pandemic would affect the semiconductor industry and startups, Ramsdale answered that Agile Analog is fortunate to be at a stage in its development where it still has venture capital runway. This means that the company is not yet compelled to turn a profit – although it already has an income stream. It also means that development activity can continue and allows Agile Analog to prepare itself to rise with the tide when business activity picks up.
Ramsdale added: “While Covid-19 is a personal tragedy for the millions who have contracted it and those that have died from it, we have to look for the good that can come out of it.”
He continued: “Our industry is used to boom and bust and a lot of chip companies can plan their way through recessions like this. The companies that will be most affected will be those with a lot of human activity in the supply chains.”
In terms of market changes Ramsdale expects a new emphasis on industrial and health applications. “I think there will be a large increase in industrial automation and industrial IoT, which will be fantastic for robotics and chip companies. Also healthcare; I expect every wrist watch and smartphone company is wishing they could do SpO2 (saturated peripheral capillary oxygen) measurements – an estimate of the amount of oxygen in the blood.”
Ramsdale acknowledged that a major global event such as the Covid-19 pandemic will change the world’s business landscape radically. Some companies that were previously technology and market leaders will not adapt well, while others will – and some companies will spring up to exploit the changed environment.
“You have to look for the opportunity. You have to look outward and make some prediction about what the world will look like in 12 or 24 months’ time and then make sure you are serving the market.”
It is what a famous ice hockey player once described as “skating to where the puck is going be.”
Related links and articles:
Configurable analog IP wins slots in IoT wireless transceivers
Artificial intelligence speeds analog/mixed-signal design
Analog, MEMS and sensor startups to follow in 2020
Former ARM executives at helm of analog IP startup
Agile Analog, UltraSoC team on cybersecurity