I always love it when I am the first to talk about a new company, and this is the first time I have been able to speak about one in the analog design space. A short time ago, I spoke to Mohamed Kassem, the founder of efabless Labs. What makes this company special in many ways is that it is not an EDA company or a design company, although there are elements of both with in it.
As its name implies, efabless Labs is a fabless semiconductor company that has opened its doors to allow other people to use their flows, their relationships with the fabs and their collective knowledge to build the bits and pieces necessary for someone just like you, with an idea, to be able to put a complex analog idea into silicon without breaking the bank. During our talk, Kassem walked me through the founding of the company, his love of engineering, and what the future of the industry holds. Here’s our Q&A conversation:
Mohamed Kassem: I have been in the area of analog and mixed-signal design and have worked in both design automation companies and in semiconductor development, with a focus on mobile and wireless devices. At TI, a lot of innovation was required in order to meet complexity challenges with aggressive time to market pressures.
When I started there we were working on 180 nm modems and by 2009 we were down at 28 nm, a process that was not yet mature. To meet the requirements we had to use innovative processes that contained more automation, new analog architectures, and we had to do it with first pass silicon and only one metal change. While doing this I believed there was even more that could be done and that led me to wanting to start my own company.
BB: The new company is to be launched at the IEEE Custom Integrated Circuit Conference -- CICC (September 23-25, San Jose, Calif.). Tell me a little about the company.
MK: Fundamentally we are a semiconductor company that believes in open innovation through community. We build chips collaboratively by allowing someone with an idea who wants to take it down a level or two to actually design and fabricate chips. efabless Labs brings the concept of the garage back to analog designers.
First we allow them to design and verify their designs. Then we have predefined pad frames, test vehicles, and things that make it a complete flow. When the chips come back, we provide them with a small test board that plugs into a computer and they can bring the chip up in a home garage. We make it easy for people to focus on design rather than the logistics that usually surround the creation of a chip. We have our own design teams creating chips, but we also enable other designers to use those same flows.
BB: What tools are you going to provide?
MK: I don't like calling them tools. They are prepackaged solutions. Some are tuned to the design exploration phase, such as schematic entry and simulation tools. In the second phase they use a prequalified pad frame into which one can implement a design. The next level provides access to manufacturing and to the partner foundries we work with. Finally we have a test board that enables you to wake up the chip.
BB: Who is the customer for this?
MK: Anyone who is design passionate and capable. It could be a company wanting to create a prototype or prove a concept, it could be an independent person who has an idea and wants to look at the possibility of using it commercially, or it could be a graduate student who is working on some new ideas or using it for research.
BB: Assume I have a new idea for an op-amp. How long would it take and how much would it cost me?
MK: The cost is going to be dependent on the process technology, but let's assume it can be in 0.35 or 0.18. Most designs are probably going to be done for about $500 plus silicon costs which could be in the hundreds or low thousands of dollars. You will get your chips in about eight to ten weeks.
BB: What can people expect to see at CICC?
MK: We will be with XFab, one of our foundry partners, and people will actually be able to get a feel for the system. We will be demonstrating a Raspberry Pi terminal that costs just $150, and this enables you to access everything online. More information about this can be found here.
For more information about the company in general, take a look at the company's home page.
So, if you like to tinker and have some ideas for analog designs, then maybe efabless Labs will give you the opportunity to turn those ideas into reality and maybe your own new semiconductor company.