Efabless is “efabulous.” That’s because Efabless brings the cost, creativity and productivity benefits of open innovation to semiconductors. It is a virtual stadium of highly skilled professionals, academics and companies available on demand and enabled with a marketplace, EDA tools, IP, SoC design templates and foundry process design kits (PDKs) at no upfront cost with no licenses required. Efabless delivers new business models of revenue sharing transforming the economics of the industry and its customers. IoT and other product companies with great ideas but without the capital, can now get the custom ICs required to meet their market needs. IC entrepreneurs can now get to prototype and market at a cost that can be covered with their credit card.
Let’s back up as the story’s getting ahead of itself. Meet Mike Wishart, CEO of Efabless, with an impressive resume that includes managing director roles at Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers. While you may not recognize his name, Mike was behind many of the successful IPOs and M&A deals that dominated the technology and IC industry news for many years.
Similarly, Mohamed Kassem, Efabless’ CTO, has an equally impressive resume from the technical side of the business. Early in his career, he worked for Mentor, a Siemens Business, as an analog/mixed-signal development engineer, then an illustrious tenure at TI as head of engineering for the worldwide analog design infrastructure, followed by OMAP Smartphone business manager. Mohamed brought up the analog libraries for the TI cellphone business for every advanced node from 130nm to 28nm.
Neither knew each other, though both saw signs that design was moving more toward a global, more collaborative approach to solving engineering problems, much like crowdsourcing in the software world. They had a vision of applying community business models and open innovation to IC design well before open source ASIC design and technologies like RISC-V became hot industry trends.
Mike began thinking about this some 20 years ago. As an industry insider, he concluded that innovation was not deterministic and creative minds around the world needed a way to bring to market their unique ideas. Furthermore, table stakes were getting higher to design and commercialize chips. Mike came to realize it was hard for semiconductor entrepreneurs to start a company, find venture financing, monetize products, take a company public and recoup the value. More and more, he was convinced with the right platform a new model of a connected global community was a better model to drive innovation in ICs.
Meanwhile, Mohamed was tracking the same challenges and came to the same conclusions. From his experience at TI, he knew the difficulties developing analog IP and SoCs due to resource constraints. He considered building an open source or crowdsourcing platform for analog design where independent design groups could come to create products. He traveled the globe meeting open source EDA leaders and executives in companies pursuing open innovation and community platforms for other industries.
Mohamed quickly formed a view as to what this ideal community platform for ICs ought to look like. He rethought the concept of IC design from the ground up and reconstructed it into a community. His vision was a one-stop comprehensive platform where a designer could access all the resources required to take IP or ICs from idea to GDS at no upfront cost and without a tool license. He was driven to bring back the “two guys in a garage” to the electronics industry, beginning with analog and growing from there.
IC design indeed takes a village and Mohamed was determined to create that village.
Fortuitously, Mike and Mohamed knew two likeminded movers and shakers –– Lucio Lanza, managing director of Lanza techVentures, and Jack Hughes, founder of TopCoder, a crowdsourcing platform for software, and perhaps the leading thought leader on enterprise community-based models. Seeing the commonality in their thinking, Lucio and Jack connected Mike and Mohamed. Their partnership gave birth to Efabless launched in 2014 to pioneer the adoption of open innovation in ICs. Both Lucio and Jack are investors, active, involved board members and close advisors.
Inspired by the software crowdsourcing phenomenon, the Efabless mission enables the design community to develop low-volume chips, reach and connect with customers, and access business process tools and foundries. It started out supporting analog and mixed-signal IP design, and expanded fill a niche on the road to commercialization as an open source design platform focused on custom IC design.
Among its innovations, Efabless created the concept of open source SoC design templates easily customized for system companies or used by IC companies to accelerate time to market and reduce cost. These SoC templates would become the hub to a powerful new open innovation concept. IP providers can create IP to support a template and designers can morph existing templates or create new ones to address new markets. What makes it work is the Efabless marketplace where these templates can be cloned and all IP is accessible as “black boxes” with IP and financial interests fully protected. A company or development group or an individual can have access to everything they need to move forward in an efficient and cost-effective manner.
At a high level, Efabless offers a community approach that is taking hold, much as it has in the software world. Efabless partners with organizations ranging from foundry (X-FAB) to IC companies (Silego, now Dialog Semiconductor) to the U.S. Air Force to execute 12 design challenges to deliver commercial solutions and propel community growth. The first crowdsourcing challenge hosted by X-FAB asked the community to develop a low-power bandgap voltage reference. Eighty-eight designers answered the challenge. Thirteen became finalists. Six finished schematics on spec on time. Four finished the layout. Their designs are now silicon-proven marketplace components.
At the other extreme, in the Advanced Microelectronics Design and Prototyping Challenge for the U.S. Air Force, small design teams are delivering secure, auditable, 14nm ICs for autonomous applications. More than 80 groups responded and 12 are proceeding to design.
Of course, RISC-V is fueling interest and acceptance of an open-source hardware community and open-source silicon. One project developed via Efabless is Raven, a RISC-V SoC and the first open source top-level design created with open source tools and offering a complete complement of “black boxed” proprietary analog peripherals. It was created as a reference design and is being customized by the community for a Japanese multinational electronics leader.
A key aspect of design on Efabless is the use of hybrid proprietary/open source designs. Along these lines, Efabless recently announced an offering in collaboration with Arm to deliver low-cost, fast-turn ASICs based on Arm Cortex M-class CPUs. The platform leverages pre-engineered open source design templates, proprietary Arm, foundry and third-party digital and analog IP, the Efabless open source design environment and its design partner community. To Efabless and Arm, the correct answer is finding the best of the open source and the proprietary ecosystems to democratize ICs and deliver innovative new solutions.
Efabless’ goal to simplify the process of smart product creation and make it available to everyone is succeeding. It is serving system companies looking for ASICs, IoT devices and system-level wearables, making chip design much more accessible to a wide variety of customers. It has a robust and the only complete open-source tool design flow. That may be why its reputation is building and, according to Mohamed, expanding the community by adding open source design assets, design tools, expertise and services to the platform.
Lucio draws parallels to analog designers using the Efabless platform to Uber drivers through a fundamental connection for the design community where geography is irrelevant, but by its technical contribution. Undeniably, efabulous!