Lanza techVentures portfolio company Palma Ceia SemiDesign recently announced that it taped out two chips supporting the Wi-Fi HaLow wireless connectivity protocol. It’s welcome news for the IoT market and a great story, especially since the move to chips is a bit of a departure from Palma Ceia’s original plan to provide only IP solutions for wired connectivity.

Palma Ceia SemiDesignBefore we explore Palma Ceia and its changing business model, it’s best to start at the beginning when Palma Ceia CEO Roy Jewell met Lanza techVentures Managing Partner Lucio Lanza. As much as either of them can remember, Lucio was an emissary for the legendary Joe Costello in 1990, give or take a year or two, helping build Cadence Design Systems into an EDA powerhouse. Joe as Cadence’s CEO sent Lucio to meet Roy, an executive at Technology Modeling Associates (TMA) — the leading provider of Technology CAD software, TCAD for short — to determine whether it fit within Cadence’s burgeoning product portfolio. The Cadence-TMA combination didn’t happen. TMA went public on Nasdaq in 1996 and was acquired by Avanti in 1998. Nevertheless, Lucio and Roy stayed in touch.

After Avanti, Roy went on to become president and COO of Magma Design Automation, a role he held for 11 years. After Synopsys acquired Magma in 2012, Roy turned to Lucio for advice on what to do next. Lucio, thinking broadly and long term about the growing IoT market, told him to start an analog and wireless IP company. While it’s a huge technical challenge, edge devices, Lucio reasoned, need to communicate wirelessly and demand would be strong. Roy took the counsel, accepted the challenge and started Palma Ceia in 2012.

Palma Ceia, as noted, started life as an analog/RF IP company and generated high-performance data converter and transceiver IP, building blocks for the communications sector sold to major semiconductor companies. While IP design is a popular business model, it is resource intensive. As Lucio can confirm from his long association with Artisan Components (which eventually became part of Arm), every block of IP must be customized to meet a specific customer need. Roy didn’t want Palma Ceia to morph into design services. “Design services can be profitable, though not profitable enough to scale the way a product company can,” he claimed.

Moving to Silicon

In 2018, Palma Ceia moved from delivering IP to building chips for the nascent IoT market, a broader, more sustainable business model. Further segmenting the market, noted Roy, Palma Ceia set its sights on a larger application community of designers, less price-sensitive consumer-oriented markets, even though many of them need Wi-Fi solutions for PCs and mobile handsets. “Leave the streaming video market to other companies,” Roy determined.

“Palma Ceia went from focusing on bringing the analog phenomena into the digital world to realizing that the IOT revolution requires an enormous amount of unique processing capabilities in the periphery,” Roy added. “In fact, the future volume of many of these applications may be far higher than in the first implementation.”

The decision to move to silicon came after Palma Ceia identified several new and viable product application markets that could be enabled by semiconductor technology. They fall into several broad machine-to-machine communications categories such as industrial IoT, connected medical devices, safety and surveillance and agricultural applications.

“Palma Ceia went from focusing on bringing the analog phenomena into the digital world to realizing that the IOT revolution requires an enormous amount of unique processing capabilities in the periphery,” Roy added. “In fact, the future volume of many of these applications may be far higher than in the first implementation.”

Unlike Wi-Fi solutions for PCs and mobile handsets, the same level of throughput and speed for streaming video is not necessary. There are gaps in machine-to-machine technology, however, creating opportunities for companies like Palma Ceia. Current connectivity capabilities are not sufficient. Surveillance and safety, for instance, require devices to operate at ranges that traditional technology can’t meet. In other edge applications, new technologies that enable longer-range connectivity will be vital.

This is especially true for medical technology, or Smart MedTech, an area of interest to Lucio and part of the Lanza techVentures investment strategy. Roy uses an easy-to-understand example for a practical Smart MedTech application. With a heart monitor, a grandmother might be in a building with her heart monitor connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi 6. Once she walks out of the building to run an errand, after about 100 feet, she’s too far from the router and the Wi-Fi 6 connection drops. Her heart monitor now needs to find another way to connect to the cloud, and so switches over to another connectivity technology such as Wi-Fi HaLow or NB-IoT that can operate at a longer range. That’s where Palma Ceia chips can offer an assist by enabling long-range, low-power wireless connectivity that demands long range and scalability features.

Palma Ceia Today

Palma Ceia is the only company that supports wireless connectivity solutions for Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi HaLow and NB-IoT with chipsets differentiated by low power, high performance and ease of integration. In recent news, it announced the PCS2100 and PCS2500, chips that support the Wi-Fi HaLow connectivity protocol, which is based on the IEEE 802.11ah wireless standard. The PCS2100 is a highly integrated Wi-Fi HaLow modem chipset for use on the STA/Client side of a Wi-Fi HaLow IoT network. The PCS2500 operates as an access point in a Wi-Fi HaLow IoT network. The two products combine to form a complete Wi-Fi HaLow network supporting multiple IoT devices such as grandmother’s heart monitor.

Some of the chips’ more impressive features and performance characteristics include:

  • Both operate in a sub-Gigahertz (S1G) frequency range, extending their operating range to 1 kilometer and beyond, depending on conditions.
  • They operate using a Wi-Fi protocol with special IoT network management functions, the PCS2100 provides exceptional range, scalable throughput and low power, all key performance metrics for efficient and robust IoT networks.
  • The PCS2500 supports complete AP functionality including device authentication, security, and protocol functions that optimize network operation such that devices contend for the network in an orderly fashion.
  • Both support streaming and telemetric — continuous — communication links.

Sampling of production silicon is expected to begin in Q4.

IoT Changing the Semiconductor Industry Dynamics

Roy Jewell

Roy Jewell, CEO and President

Lucio and Roy agree that changes are coming for antiquated health care systems and other IoT applications. These changes are coming rapidly with the advent of smart, connected sensors at the edge and are accelerated in the post COVID word that looks at remote connection as a more natural way of interacting.

Lucio goes a step further and predicts: “The open-source movement and IoT are changing the semiconductor industry dynamics as hundreds of thousands of different designs will be completed with different sets of goals and requirements. Information will no longer be centralized. Optimized AI/ML processors at the periphery will be more powerful than we ever forecasted. The future is processors connected to the cloud, powered with chips designed by companies like Palma Ceia.”

As a result of this thinking, the Lanza techVentures investment portfolio looks a lot like a blueprint for a successful IoT implementations complete with open-source tools, and IP and chips for edge applications. A Smart MedTech company rounds out the lineup with an AI-driven, computational approach to drug discovery.