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Stealth chip startup SuVolta unveils way to dramatically reduce power consumption

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SuVolta is coming out of stealth today to announce that it has created a chip technology that will reduce the amount of power consumed by semiconductor chips by more than 50 percent without sacrificing performance.

Reducing power consumption is the biggest challenge in electronics today, since it means mobile devices can last longer on a battery charge. The Los Gatos, Calif.-based company says its PowerShrink technology addresses a fundamental problem in the physics behind transistors, the basic building blocks of all electronic chips. If it works, the technology could help improve battery life in portable products — smartphones, tablets, and notebooks — and offer an alternative to a revolutionary Intel technology known as Tri-Gate.

The alternative is an important one because other chip makers want to keep up with Intel. To do so, they would ordinarily have to invest billions of dollars in chip manufacturing technology and build a new factory. This kind of company is pretty rare, as we can’t remember when we wrote about a financing for a company with fundamental technology behind it.

Intel announced Tri-Gate a few weeks ago and said it will use 3D structures to pack more transistors into a given space and allow it to cut power consumption by 50 percent and improve performance by 37 percent. SuVolta attacks a problem called transistor variation. It minimizes the electrical variation in each of the millions of transistors on a chip. On the manufacturing level, SuVolta merely tweaks the “recipe” for making a chip. The result is that it reduces the variation in voltage for a chip, allowing for efficiency improvements.

“The semiconductor industry is pursuing power efficiency as doggedly as some early explorers searched for the fountain of youth,” said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. “But today’s goal — longer battery life — isn’t an unattainable fable. Any technology that promises to greatly improve the power efficiency of microprocessors without sacrificing performance is worth a close look.”

SuVolta’s team of scientists and engineers is led by Scott Thompson (right), an internationally recognized expert on transistor technology and a former Intel fellow. The team redefined the ordinary transistor, lowering the power consumption without requiring the chips to be built with new, untested fabrication equipment. That fact is key to ensuring that the PowerShrink transistors can be built at a low cost. The effect is like putting a new engine in a car that doubles its miles-per-gallon and easily fits in the same car chassis.

SuVolta licenses its technology to chip makers and already has a major customer with Fujitsu Semiconductor. The PowerShrink platform will be in production in 2012. Bruce McWilliams (left), chief executive of SuVolta and former CEO of tech licensing firm Tessera, said that the PowerShrink technology will scale to smaller feature sizes as manufacturing technology advances.

SuVolta’s got some premium investors backing it, including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, August Capital and New Enterprise Associates. The company raised $22 million in funding in May 2010. Bill Joy, a partner at Kleiner Perkins, said that SuVolta’s platform will enable power reductions in existing chips and in those where the designs are still in the works.

Handel Jones, president at market analyst firm International Business Strategies, said that SuVolta has broken a power impasse with technology that has been demonstrated. It is proven at 65-nanometer manufacturing and could be used at 28-nanometers and beyond.

SuVolta could turn out to be a strategic company in a lot of ways. Intel is losing out to the ARM microprocessor architecture in terms of the numbers of units sold each year. The primary reason is that ARM’s licensees build the lowest-power microprocessors that can be used in smartphones and tablets. Intel is chasing ARM, but the power problem has been holding Intel back. With Tri-Gate, Intel can make some gains. But SuVolta can pretty much arm all of the chip makers with low-power technology.

SuVolta was founded in 2006 under the name DSM Solutions and has 45 employees. To date, the company has raised $58.6 million. SuVolta originally pursued a technology called JFETs to reduce power in digital products. But the company concluded that wouldn’t work because it required customers to invest in new infrastructure. The company brought in McWilliams and then Thompson, who then crafted a product strategy that was more realistic. That led to the May 2010 funding.

ARM, Broadcom, Cypress Semiconductor, and Fujitsu have all expressed support for the company.

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