Category Archives: Semiconductors

Framework For Creating An Hardware Startup For EE Students

If you are reading this post , it means you want to start a hardware company or  interested in HW startups in general.  This is especially written for college or grad student who have novel ideas and feel they dont have the necessary engineering skills and above all no capital. Sp big question for them is where do I start?
You should develop the creative thinking process, analyzing and breaking complex problem into small pieces and then solving them by learning what it takes. This is what engineering in nutshell is irrespective of the domain. 
 
I will try to present a framework for you to get started and you should refine slightly as you go depending on your project/idea.  I assume your parents or  you have access to couple of hundred of dollars capital and be able to spend atleast 20-25hrs of time every week for next 1yr  (besides your regular school work etc…)
 
Prereq: Find 1-2 mentors who are hands on . If I were you I would pick one person with Embedded HW/SW and Hardware/System level design engineer. If you dont know anyone, start attending local meetups (www.meetup.com) , TIE sessions etc  to meet and form some relationships. Many univ EE profs or depts would also be happy to mentor you . Forming relationships with profs will also help you later .
 
1. Buy an Arduino shield and Raspberry-pi . Enroll at local techshop.ws class for the following. These are very cheap.
a. Arduino/Raspberry pi related workshops
b. Autocad for inventor 2013 workshops
  c. Fabrication and Rapid Prototyping class
Also, learn some breadboard basic/basic electronics …there are tons of youtube/online courses on these…
 
If you have access to someone who knows above and can teach you or if you know of any other institution which offers the above, that would also do the trick. 
 
2. Once you learned above, make a prototype of what you are envisioning. You can first start with paper/board prototypes, refine it and then a cardboard prototype to show it around. IF any feedback, re-iterate and then using skills from 1, make a real non-function prototype which should be good enough for end users to visualize .
 
3. Next you know the physical limitations . So all your electronics/PCB/hardware board should fit in it.  Remember this
 
4. With help from mentors, start with simple circuit or core functionality and the Input and output of the product. Then expand on it. When you build the circuit you can use Arduino & Raspberry-pi  . 
 
5. Put this whole barebone circuit into the prototype case you designed. Initially it might be bit larger , but since its a concept, its understood and acceptable. Later you can work with real manf to shrink it. But for now , fit it in. Borrow drill m/c, soldering iron etc either from your friends or pick it up from local stores either for rent or buy it.
 
6. Show this to end users. Ask them various questions like physical appearance (look and feel, touch, weight) and the output of it. Observe if the prototype is getting hot.
If its getting hot, you have to get back to your 3D printer and Autocad workstation and revise again.
 
7. Based on feedback from 6, re-iterate
 
8. Once you think you are there, open an account on upverter.com or use http://schemes.io/ etc, and learn how to draw schematics using various vendors/manf components. Based on the knowledge you picked from 1,& 4 and with your mentors help, you can be confident that you will be able to do this.
 
9.Most of them will let you order a sample (Complete board with all components ) which you can fit in your case and repeat 6.
 
10. By now, you have something that you can show to potential angel investors or apply to some incubators  for seed money. Dont attempt to go beyond unless you have access to capital and a talented technical team to manage the whole thing. Even though you have walked through the whole process, there is lot experienced engrs can do and manage crisis to crisis . 
 
Dont let these overwhelm you. Do it one step a time. The whole thing should not cost you more than 1K-1.5K USD at the max. 
 
Good luck and All the best. Have confidence and thats the first step to start something.
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How do you launch a hardware startup?

This is a repost of my  answer on Quora .

Whether its hardware or software or any product, spend lot of time and energy in customer development . Finding out what users want and think they will pay for is more critical than what we think will be cool for them.

Since HW involves lot of capital, you need to get the above part right.Once you have it, you would need to figure out the device/product environment conditions aka environment limitations, regulatory restrictions/guidelines/requirement whatever you call and very likely you will be changing the product spec or operating conditions to match the new reality.

Then come up with product design (look and feel), in layman terms, the product casing or how users should feel like when they see the product. Very likely because of the product casing/packaging, you will very likely revise your spec again..

Next, from the spec you came up with talking to users etc, figure out what it translated to technical components. Like how many HDMI ports , VGA, optical . USB ports etc, what network interfaces you support, what will be the capacity of hard drive and whether it should be SSD etc..

In case of Apple-TV for example, you might need to video encoding/decoding etc, you need good video decoder…check who sells video decoder chips (probably ARM or imagination tech) , also depending what addln functionality you need, you will also need main CPU processor, so figure out if its going to be ARM or MIPS or Intel Atom ..While you are figuring this, also check the embedded OS you want the device to be running and then check if the compatibility of OS with HW at device driver level…

Check all potential vendors for each component and many times they give you sample pricing (typically in volume of 10K pricing …some times they might give you pricing for 1K pieces as well )

Once you have selected vendors, figure out the power consumption and see if the power budget makes sense.Figure out if you want to your device to be running both in Africa and Siberia ..Accordingly revise your power budget and therefore you will change product spec and/or product casing etc..

Next implement the design spec using platforms from upverter etc and simulate the design.  Next select the PCB vendor who can do the design and manufacturing for you…Board design/packaging might impact lot of factors starting from Design spec all the way to casing etc..So this is important..

Add all the pricing and get the BOM (bills of materials) ..Check if the BOM makes sense for the price range you are planning to sell..If your initial BOM at this stage is for example 25$ , triple that number because you are still missing  pcb design and manf, board packaging , yield, lab bring up , compliance testing , QA and other NRE costs…Now check if you are still making money for the price that your customer is willing to pay …If you initially planned to sell for 50$, but your BOM is around 75$, you are loosing money and unless you have lot of money where you can afford losses initially to gain traction, you might have to change your spec again..Most likely you will remove some components and/or reduce some components..for example you might say I will only add 2 HDMI instead of 4, you might reduce processor speed from 1GhZ to 750MHz etc…

Now go back to your customer and convince him that what you are still delivering is lot of value to him and you are still solving their pain points and only removing the nice to have features…If they agree, proceed further..

While you are doing all this, start your embedded and SW development process in parallel using developer or emulator prototyping boards…Have this ready first so that you can do the demo to potential customers/investors on how the product will perform once HW is done …Show them once manufactured, its plug and play ..get their reactions/feedback..very likely you might change your spec totally or part of it…Once you do this 2-3 times and feeling confident, accelerate your PCB board design and manufacturing and get the prototype out…As a start up ,never go for manf without getting SW/Embedded part ready ..Its more like a lean start up development model for hardware..

If you are building a ASIC like Apple does for their Apple-TV , its different on lot of other aspects and I wont recommend it unless you can raise 10-20M$ easily and can hire 10-20 HW engg team …Of course not every product needs an ASIC or even an FPGA and don’t have to rely on leading manf technologies….

As as others have commented , you need to worry if you are infringing IP or if you are creating IP, make IP protection as part of your design thinking and strategy process..You can start with a provisional patent to buy you time and give you a opp to figure if you still want to go ahead after the feedback from SW demo/product demo..

BTW, try to use opensource technologies and customize it where you can…especially the design tools..Some tools are very expensive…Some vendors give their tools free for folks using their IC platform…Another good advice is try to limit vendors as much as you can, it will save you lot of headaches on lot of areas…

I might have left lot of other pieces, but this should give you a good idea of the process involved..If you need details or clarifications, feel free to ping me..

What are signs that it is time to let go of a customer

(A repost of my answer on Quora )
Which segment is it? B2B or B2C .  Which industry and how far are they in the evaluation process or decision making process. How long they have been   evaluating. Does that customer already use another competitors product? If so what made them consider you in the first place ? Are they currently unhappy with the support, product features or core functionality of the product or did the existing vendor raise prices or is not giving them the expected discount?   …I assume you had done your due diligence in customer discovery process to ensure the customer you approached is really having the pain point and has committed to move into purchasing phase after evaluation…Did the customers requirement change after the evaluation process began? .I have been in account management roles for many yrs in B2B and lot of times what they say when they start evaluating a product  and their actual pain point are completely different. If I know the answers I could give you better answer.. 
But in general, the following are signs I would observe and will rethink before I decide to move on.
 
1. Are they demanding more features before they pay when you feel features vs price you already offer is already very good…
2. What kind of buyer are they..transactional or strategic/relationship ? 
3. Are they demands good enough but you dont have R&D resources to develop them?
4. Are they requesting multiple extensions of license of the product?
5. If they are existing customers, are they really support burden than what they paid for and there is no more room to negotiate either supporting model etc..
6. Customer is creating bad publicity in forums , word of mouth etc?
7. Customer is not commited either in terms of aligning their resources (persons, time,priority) etc..
8. Comparing apples-oranges
9. Is helping your competition by understanding your strengths better
 
The list can go on…I have encountered each of these and many other situations where I had to take a step back, take a hard look , see if this can be resolved by talking to them before moving on. Its very hard and sad that we had to let go a customer whether pre or post sales…So much energy goes into it, I would really urge to talk to them first before letting them go…B2C shares some similarities with each of the above…

Personalization of Silicon and need for Design Flow Automation

I was just looking at some of the latest anouncements and the prototypes at the recent CES show and if you look at the trend and the products that consumers are crazy about, and if you want to sum it up..The market is all about how much personalization can the users do in the product. Every consumer wants to see himself/herself in the product..so what does this translate it to for the Semi-Conductor industry folks.. “ Personalization of Silicon “..

Look at the famous Apple IPOD ..Many see it as the symbol of the youth…So the closer the silicon is to the hearts the consumers, the better are the chances for product success…But this personalization all comes with a price…Everyone knows pricing is one key element which determines the reach and sucess of the product .

So, the big question is , how can the IC industry reduce its IC design and packaging (I mean chip packaging and not feature/product packaging ) costs  and yet be profitable? The answer partly comes from the EDA industry. Automation of the design flow. It is the degree of automation and the accuracy of the results which it can deliver over a short span of time . Multi-million transistors ( 10M+ transistors) and SOC’s are becoming common and the TTM is becoming shorter day by day. For example, with-in few days/weeks of the Apple’s IPHONE announcement, LG released a similar competetive product with almost the same functionality as IPHONE. Imagine how fierece the competetion is. Each single day counts.

How can the design teams manage this pressure ? Marketing teams often wants to add new features in the last minute. People involved in the IC Design knows what this translates to. It is not a matter of simple ECO . Sometimes a small feature addition can lead to couple of weeks delay. I know a customer who has to do go through the entire design cycle twice as marketing asked them to add 2 more new features each time and this effected their tape-out schedules by 6 weeks..Not every Semi-conductor company can afford such a delay ( especially folks operating in Consumer Electronics market  segment ).  So , the solution doesnt come by adding few more engineers or simply delaying the product launch.. You need design tools which are smart enough to detect the incremental changes anywhere in the flow and automatically do the appropriate steps in the design flow with no or minimum intervention from designer.

Not many EDA companies are recognizing the importance of the automation and their perception of automation is awefully wrong. I would say in years to come, the company which manages to bring the true “automation” of the design flow to the industry will emerge as the real winner.

If your customer makes money, you make money. It is as simple as that.

BTW, You need engineers to find smarter ways to design and bring “true” personalization of the silicon :)

Being an Field Application Engineer

It is a long post (you are warned !! :)
I have been recently asked by someone as what it takes to be sucessful application engineer . So, I thought why not blog about ..Though much of it is written from EDA industry perspective, it applies for appln engineers in other industries as well. So, here it goes ….
1. Technical expertise : You have to be atleast good if not proficient in the domain..for example, lets say, if you are application engineer for a formal verification product, you need to have expertise in the FV techniques and good understanding as what logic/physical synthesis tools do in terms of optimization. Just mere tool knowledge will not suffice..

2. You should be a like a double edged sword ..You need to be able to understand the hardware design…be it RTL , Scan insertion , P&R or CTS and at the same time , you should be able to understand how the algorithm (tool) behaves (from software perspective..)..If you dont understand both, you will not be able to understand what the HW designer is trying to accomplish and at the same time, you will not be able to find out if the tool is missing any feature or is it a limitation of the technology and finally if it is a bug …one more important reason is , you might need to translate the designers intention into a feature speficiation and direct your R&D.

3. Business Sense : I think this is very important component for an Appln engineer. You need to be in constant touch with the customer and get feedback on the product. You should be able to sense the impact derived from that feedback. Whenever there is a oppurtunity to promote a new product, you should do so immediately and let your marketing/sales team know about it immediately. Just being technical is not enough.
Application engineer without good business sense can negatively impact the company he represents.

4. Pre-Sales : Ability to benchmark against the competitor and convince him about your products technical merits. Depending upon the competetion and product and domain in which you operate, this can be very intensive and grilling. Failure is not an option . A true winning aptitude and to do whatever it takes is absolute must. No compromises.
I’m not exagaretting , but it might involve some sacrifices like working during xmas or thanksgiving :) . Pre-Sales campaigns can very stressful and can burn a person. So, if you cant work under pressurized environment and have strict rules about your work timings, then you might not like this role. Believe me there are some customers who keep  evaluating for very long time or they evaluate now and then re-evaluate after couple of months and there are reasons why they do like this ( first and foremost reason is to check the quality of the tool :) ) . So it is tiresome and it requires willingness to walk that extra mile to win the benchmark is a must.
5. Post-Sales/Deployment : A succesful tech campaign and business(pre-saleS) win is the starting step. The 20/80 rule applies here ( 80% of the business comes from 20% of your customers). So, sucessful deployment of the product across the depth and breadth of the company is key . It will also gives Sales folks a chance to push other products
into the company. Dedicated and fast support is one of the strategies. Providing support for their first tapeout with your company’s product is another key. A sucessfull deployment also means to work with the design methodology groups,designers ( front end and backend ), understanding their design goals and issues ; resolving their issues . It might be necessary to come up a design methodlogy /flow either on a project basis or company wide . A constant interaction with the design team is a must . This also helps the appln engineer to see what is lacking and fill in the gaps either through scripting or getting R&D implement the missing features and enhance the product.

6. Evangelism : Not many folks know about this. Some people mix this with the marketing. This is virually non-existent in EDA/semiconductor industry. Marketing is more about the product , evangelism is creating a community around the product. Who else can be a better person other than the appln engineer to do this?

7. Customer Facing Skills : Only few people have this skill and like to be infront of customers. You need to have some thick skin and take all the yelling :) ..Imagine when you are presenting or giving a demo to a customer and your tool crashes everytime you invoke it :) , scary is’nt it? okk..lets ease up a bit, it crashes only few times, how can you face the customer now? You should be able to ease and control the situtation …I can list hundreds of scenarios like this . It also takes a great deal of energy to say NO to a customer. Believe me its not an easy situtation. You need to be diplomatic when saying so sothat relationships are’nt hurt . It all comes by experience and ability to dynamically change the situtation on the fly :)

8. Issue Management : Very important skill . Should be in constant touch with the customer , track down the issues and have a proper resolution to all their issues with a fix schedule . It is important that the customer acknowledges and is actually OK with the fix schedule.If the schedule is missed for any issue, customer should be informed immediately.

9. Time management : Ability to multi-task is a must.

10. Debugging Skills: If you are not good in debugging or cant debug fast enough, you dont fit to be an Appln engineer.

11. Attitude : Having a proper attitude and ability to learn things fast is necessary to suceed in the job. You might need to learn different technologies, products/tools to perform your job better.
12. Peer-Peer Commn : Try to maintain peer-peer communication. There is no book which teaches on how to debug faster or perform each of the above skills I mentioned sofar. It is only through peer-peer communication you can learn . You might have an experienced AE in your organization, who can give you pointers ; its not that you cant solve it , Its that the other AE has done it 100 times and so knows the common pitfalls . You can avoid doing the same mistakes and save your valuable time.

13. Product Strategy : This requires knowledge in competitors products and its features , different technologies , business sense. Only then you will be able to place the product strategically infront of the customer.

14. Licensing Model : It is not essential , but very good skill to posses and understand how the licensing works like what features can be licensed ( to understand this, you need to justify why the customer will pay for this in the first place ) . If you know of any other venues through which you can generate a revenue for your software, it surely helps the Sales organization. Remember sales fix everything :)

In short, appln engineer is best evangelist an EDA company can have. He is the face of the company , best knowledgeable (technical) person who can deliver solutions out of the box, best person who has access to people who use the tool and therefore can promote the product to real decision influentiers , best person to give feedback to the marketing and sales organization, drive the product usability in the field, enhance and validate the product ( and its features) ;

So sounds like fun job right!! Atleast I love it and I’m being constantly challenged with newer technologies , products, sales and marketing campaigns:)

I would appreciate any feedback or comments.

Design/IP Reuse ..well understood..how about prototyping??

I have been hearing about the design/IP reuse from time to time. Today there was an article on EE times which can read by clicking this link Design-Reuse

I think many big companies have adopted the reuse methodology and realize the benefits of it. Even small-medium companies re-use the blocks or IP’s in most of their chips. So, I dont think there is any need to keep repeating the importance over and over again. Most of the companies cut down their design cycle time and costs using this reuse methodology. I think now one should look forward and see if they can get good prototyping flow . I recently worked on prototyping efforts and it correlated very well with 90nm , 130nm and 180nm. For 65nm and below, special considerations have to be adopted like taking the account of parasitic effects . With this flow, the time to achieve timing closure is significantly smaller as designer gets early feedback.

I would appreciate if anyone has any experience in developing/using the prototyping flow and  can share their concerns. It will be very informative and good discussion.

Strategies and Positioning of startups in the EDA space

I often see some startup companies especially EDA companies ,which have big aspirations of going for IPO sometime down the lane ( ofcourse every CEO with help from CFO talks about taking the company to IPO)….but if we analyze how some companies are run in terms of their strategies, it wouldnt take much time to realize that their goals are not aligned with their vision….these startup companies forge a relationship with biggies in their field as partners/alliance . They dont (dont want to ) compete with the big companies in terms of their product offerings..they offer complimentary products which go along with the main stream products…essentially they are nice to have and not must have…so how can these companies grow and build a good revenue stream??

For example, take four companies companies , startup company A, a relatively young company B which is still pre-IPO , some tier II company C ( normally categorized based on revenue) and a tier I companies D and E . Company A has many products which all might be integrated and sold as suite of tools or maybe point tools which can be sold seperately depending on how the sales folks want to … all/most of the products they offer work along with the products of C,D and E. The current situtation in the EDA market is, company A is building relationships with B,C,D and E and is positioning itself strategically sothat it has no competitors and it doesnt get biten by the aggressive Tier I or Tier II companies….But what company A is not realizing is..this way of forging relationships doesnt help the company in long run as they wont have much space to grow and they cant increase their revenue stream by just refining their existing products or adding nice to have features…Company shouldnt get lost or spend all of its energy on how to survive…it should rather formulate a strategy which helps the company to survive and generate revenue ( by having a cashcow product) and then it should be able to quickly have products which can differentiate itself from the rest and compete either alone or with the help of alliance it has formed earlier…

In our example earlier, If companies C,D and E cancel their partnerships and they start to offer the features which company A has planned, it doesnt take much time for the company A to look for potential buyers… Companies can forge relationships and alliances, but when creating strategies, it has to do it in such a way that it has space to grow and the alliance helps it in creating even more powerful products and has created uncontested market space…. To create that you need :

1. World class R&D team : From my experience, I see that customers prefer products which which cuts costs ,time or both if you are in EDA…There are many EDA companies whose value proposition lies in simple economic fundaes like reducing time and money spent on other main implementation based tools…there are about 10-12 startup companies operating in EDA space
with this value proposition..

2.Marketing ppl who can brandize the product, a good example is that of XeroX…When they entered India, they marketed it so much..ppl often refer Photocopying as Xerox..you can see Xerox machines everywhere ( not photocopying machines!!) …whatever you do, the customer
should be able to feel it…it should revolutionalize the way your customers think about it…Apple IPOD is one decent example,

3. Sales folks who can sell ice to eskimos and

4. Appln engineers : who can help customers and make them realize the product value ..thereby bringing more business/revenue to the company..remeber the 80/20 rule…80% of the revenue comes from 20% of the customers…so make these exisiting customers happy and bring in more customers by delivering the product value…

and Ofcourse, you need to have good CEO who has vision thats executable and backed by good executives who can strategize the business and take it down the straight path …path which leads to IPO…..