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This week we had one of the Indian semiconductor industry’s biggest and most well-attended conferences, the Indian Electronics and Semiconductor Association (IESA) Vision Summit, in Bangalore. This event is now in its 13th year and attracts the “who’s who” in the industry as speakers, panelists and attendees. This year’s theme was “Resurgent India: Electronics, Entrepreneurship and Economy”.
This year the inaugural address was given by Shri Priyank Kharge, Honorable Minister for IT, Biotechnology, and Science and Technology (he also has the state portfolio for Tourism). Minister Kharge has been a great supporter of the ESDM industry and also of startups in general. Indeed, last week the Government of Karnataka announced in the State Budget that it would establish a Semiconductor Fabless Accelerator Lab (SFAL) along with IESA to promote fabless design start-ups in the State. This is in addition to ESDM incubation centers in North Karnataka that are on the way to being established. With Karnataka leading the way, we may see other State Governments follow suit; as the Minister pointed out, State Governments are competing with each other for business!
An incubator which was soft-launched at the Vision Summit is being promoted by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Hyderabad. Called FabCI, it is an incubator (not an accelerator like SFAL) for fabless chip design startups. Cadence is the technology partner for FabCI.
Speaking about the launch of FabCI, Prof U.B. Desai, Director, IIT Hyderabad, said, "This new incubator program demonstrates our commitment to generating IPR in chip design. It will be another testament to the entrepreneurial culture of the Institute.
I am confident that FabCI will make great contributions to the growth of chip design in the country. This incubator program will also be a shot in the arm to the 'Make in India' campaign and help India become a global hub for chip design."
FabCI is open for business to startups all over India. While the physical location is in the IIT Hyderabad campus, the tools and training can be accessed remotely from anywhere in India.
Jaswinder Ahuja, Cadence India Managing Director, moderated a lively panel discussion on “Growth Opportunity in Fabless Semiconductor Industry”. The panelists were: Samir Patel, CEO, Sankalp Semiconductor; Carl Anderson, IBM Fellow, STG Processor Design, IBM Global Markets, Industrial Sector Global Staff, IBM; Hemant Kanakia, CEO, Kanakia Ventures: Prem Kumar Arora, Director of Product Marketing and Business Analytics at Microsemi; and Hemant Mallapur, Co-founder & VP Engineering, Saankhya Labs.
While the panelists made many interesting points, here are the ones that I thought were most noteworthy:
Q1. Within the fabless model, what are the real opportunities?
Prem: Disruptive technologies, for example in automotive and cyber security.
Hemant Kanakia: New areas/platforms like smart camera, drones, smart speakers. See where the market is moving and go after those opportunities. Need an innovation that is addressing low power, edge computing, AI.
Carl: Think beyond being a fabless chip company. How do you go up in the stack? Add software. Make it easily consumable by your customer. Keep the value by adding the firmware and applications.
Q2. Opportunities for India market - is there a unique characteristic in the India market that a fabless semiconductor from India can address? What are the specific opportunities?
Hemant Mallapur: Fabless is not an end in itself. Build a solution that addresses a problem, either a problem in developed economies or a problem from our environment. For ex, rural broadband connectivity, telecom infrastructure, SatCom. Chip is part of the solution, not the center of the solution.
Samir: Look at vertical and horizontal opportunities. Vertical opportunities will be in education, medical, transportation – basically, vertical markets. By horizontal opportunities I mean that chips are not going to be made in the same way as in the past. The time for ASSPs is gone. So horizontal opportunities means looking at the way the chip is designed, tested and manufactured. There are opportunities in both vertical markets and horizontal chip design and manufacturing.
Hemant Kanakia: Aim your startup at a global market opportunity. Don’t restrict to India-specific product. The market is not big enough and it doesn’t make business sense. Most startups succeed because of the huge amount of innovation, so focus on an innovative product for a global market.
Q3. We often hear that India is at par on talent with North America and Europe.. Earlier we were discussing that if we are building a fabless chip company, we need different kinds of talent. What are your thoughts?
Samir: From a fabless companies point of view, we get so caught up in what we know that we have compartmentalized skills – someone is good at layout, someone has digital expertise, etc. But putting these all together in a partnership – that is the challenge to make it a commercially viable success. The five skills you need to be a successful fabless company are: Digital expertise (India has this), Analog expertise (questionable), logical system awareness, physical system awareness (lacking), and economic access to IP (not at par).
Hemant Mallapur: Startups tend to underestimate the power of marketing. Also, since the problem definition not owned in India we find it difficult to understand what problem to solve, what product to create? No easy way to do that for an ecosystem or company. We resort to trial and error and figure out what to build.
Carl: For fabless, if you have a good idea, you need to get to market quickly. Move to a cloud model. Get IP, tools on the cloud. The real value is in the innovation.
Hemant Kanakia: We don’t understand how much money it takes to build a product and semicon company. A decent product startup will have to raise $10+ million, minimum. The country lacks access to venture capital to do a real semicon product startup. Rope in co-founder in Silicon Valley to help promote your startup to investors and also to understand the latest innovations that are happening.
Prem: We need an ecosystem to enable us to interact with customers at every stage of development. If you have an IP that is extraordinary then customers are willing to engage. In Israel or SV there is that opportunity; not yet in India.
Q4. If there’s one thing we need to do, what is it?
Hemant Mallapur: The Government creates market discontinuities. For ex, when the set top box requirement was announced, India was not ready for it so China grabbed it.
Jaswinder: To Hemant’s point - IESA should go beyond MEITY to reach out to all Ministries. It needs to be a synchronized effort because there are opportunities across Ministries.
Hemant Kanakia: I am a big believer in India’s potential in being the next big hub for fabless semiconductor innovation. At this stage the government has done enough; we need to stop depending on government to do things for the industry. Our system of governance is not like China’s. We need a number of incubators such as FabCi and SFAL. And a message to incubators - please cooperate with each other and don’t waste limited resources!
Carl: Develop an ecosystem from design to test.
Samir: Build up the city infrastructure at the basic level – roads, connectivity. This will ease doing business and make everyone more productive.