Semiconductor startup Flex Logix Technologies has raised $7.4 million to commercialize its technology for designing flexible semiconductor chips.
Mountain View, California-based Flex Logix has come up with a way to design cores for field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) that allows a chip to change its identity, even after it has been shipped. A chip startup can use Flex Logix cores to set itself apart through intellectual property (IP) designs, a growing part of the $335 billion-plus chip industry and a strategy that has been pursued by successful IP companies such as ARM, Imagination Technologies, and Rambus.
The financing round was led by dedicated hardware fund Eclipse Ventures (formerly the Formation 8 hardware fund) and included participation from founding investors Lux Capital and the Tate Family Trust. Shirish Sathaye of Formation 8 will join the Flex Logix board of directors.
“We are very happy to bring Eclipse Ventures and Shirish on board,” said Geoff Tate, CEO of Flex Logix, in a statement. “They share our vision. We are today recruiting leaders in chip design, sales and networking applications architecture – this financing will hep us hire the best possible people to support our growing customer base.”
Chip makers have a very expensive problem. If they screw up a chip design, they can’t always fix it after the chip ships. So they have to design a new “mask,” or circuit pattern, at a cost of $2 million to $5 million, to fix bugs. That can result in delays that take three months or longer to fix. That, in turn, leads to product delays and millions of dollars in lost revenue. And for the chips that shipped with bugs, manufacturers have to deal with costly returns. This is why stand-alone FPGAs, which consist of identical logic blocks connected through an intricate network, are a $5 billion market already.
Normally, if engineers want to design a system to be upgradeable with software in the field, they put in chips known as FPGAs. But those chips can be large, expensive, slow, and power inefficient. By contrast, Flex Logix enables chip designers to plan ahead for flexibility by using a Flex Logix core. They can design the core to handle as many processing tasks at once as they want. Then they include it in their designs for larger custom chips. They can then program the software for the Flex Logix core, even after the chip ships. So they can use that part of the chip to handle bug fixes or updated standards specifications.
And it runs faster because it is located inside the custom chip, rather than on a separate chip. That gives it access to much faster bandwidth.
The company announced earlier this year that cofounders Cheng C. Wang and Fang-Li Yuan, with University of California at Los Angeles professor of electrical engineering Dejan Markovic, received a prestigious engineering award for a paper that described the EFLX technology. The founders received the Lewis Award for Outstanding Paper at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC), a big chip design conference in San Francisco.
Tate said previously that the underlying network for EFLX is much faster and more efficient than the networks for stand-alone FPGA chips. That network is the subject of Wang’s award-winning engineering paper, as the network results in a reduction of interconnection circuitry by 50 percent. That leads to much lower costs, Wang said.
Flex Logix is fusing two different kinds of chips that are hard to mix. Custom chips are designed to be extremely efficient, with logic designs and other components that are set in stone. Microprocessors and FPGAs are programmable, but they aren’t as efficient as pure custom designs. By adding Flex Logix’s integrated EFLX cores, chip manufacturers can get low cost, low power, faster processing, and flexibility — all at the same time. That reduces the risk and design time for chips, Tate said.
EFLX is a fully functional FPGA that can be integrated into communications chips, microcontrollers, and a lot of other devices. It can be used to update input-output protocols, change encryption algorithms to improve security, enable elements of software-defined radio, or accelerate data center algorithms such as search, Tate said. Makers of products in aerospace, medical, automotive, and other hardware industries could benefit from having more flexibility, Tate said.
One of the core functions on an FPGA is a look-up table, or LUT. Flex Logix has designed or will design three basic types of EFLX cores, one with about 100 LUTs, another with 2,500 LUTs, and still another with 10,000. The customer simply chooses the precise number of LUTs they need and then creates the core. So the EFLX FPGA cores can fit into chips for Internet of Things, or microcontroller applications that cost less than a dollar, or high-end custom chips that sell for hundreds of dollars. Flex Logix believes that its cores, including licensing fees, will add less than 15 cents to the manufacturing cost of a chip.
Tate had a lot of experience with controversial IP at Rambus, which he ran for 15 years and finally left in 2006. Memory chip makers tried to avoid Rambus’ patents on memory chip interfaces, which were critical parts of their main memory chips. That led to a ton of legal troubles and years of angst in the chip market.
Rivals for Flex Logic include Xilinx and Intel, which acquired Altera.
“Eclipse Ventures is excited to invest in Flex Logix,” said Sathaye in a statement. “We are impressed with the power of the technology, the rapid development, the proven software tools and the strong customer traction. We see embedded FPGA as a technology that will become pervasive, and look forward to working with Flex Logix to build a great company.”
Flex Logix will use the money to expand its engineering and sales team, marketing efforts, and other strategic initiatives.