It is difficult to determine exactly when Reapan Tikoo decided to try and change the way people test microchips. By his own admission, he wasn't exactly setting the Powai Lake on fire while studying at IIT Mumbai.” In 2001, I met Professor Desai. That changed my life,” says Tikoo, CEO, Powai Labs.
Madhav Desai is a reticent man. He has been thinking about a way to speed up the testing of microchips. If successful, it will be answer to a fundamental problem chip manufactures face: the chips cheaply and quickly. Most chips take around a year to design, and speeding up the process will help companies introduce better features more quickly.
Powai Labs, after two years of existence, is ready to launch its first product, a hardware accelerator, in March.
“There are companies that play in this segment. So in this sense, it is not a field without competition. However, my understanding oh the Powai Labs simulator is that it provides superior performance at a lower price point, “says Samir Kumar, formerly of Acer Technology Ventures and now with Jumpstart up, a venture capital fund.” The launch will be a major milestone in the company's life and, by our calculations, should reduce the cost of verifying chip design by a factor of four," says Tikoo.
All this is predicated on the work that Desai had already done. “About six to seven years of research had gone into the product when Reapan met me and said he wanted to commercialize the technology. We are now concentrating all our efforts to get the technology right and succeed in India before we hit overseas market," says Desai, associate professor (electrical engineering), IIT Mumbai.
This will good news for chip manufactures like Intel, TI or Infineon who are facing pressure to reduce costs. The prices of the gadgets which use their chip have been falling at 10-12 per cent per year. Also, the semi-conductor industry is cyclical in nature. while the industry has grown at 12 per cent compounded annual growth rate over the last 25 years, it has also had periods of severe recession when it shrunk by as much as 30 per cent, as in 2001. The average cycle is just five year long. The chip makers don't want to spend million of dollars to develop a chip and then launch it in a recession.
Chips are becoming incredibly complex. A Pentium IV has 55 million transistors in it. After the design is done, the chip has to be verified for flaws before releasing it commercially. Now, here is the part which interests Powai Labs.
Chip verification tools are horribly expensive. They cost about a $1.2 million a piece annually because they are sold on a subscription basis. Even the biggest semi-conductor firms don't have more than one at each development centre. “As a result, design engineers wait for their turn to check their part of the over all design and remain unproductive till that step is done and over with," says Tikoo. In India , most of test is done in simulators – software programs that mimic the actual chip design. Simulators are cheap but are very slow.
Powai Labs uses a combination of software and hardware to speed up the simulation. Powai Labs' algorithm directs the program to a bunch of field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), which are cheap and reusable chips, the FPGAs execute the logic much more quickly. The algorithm is smart enough to take very large designs, spilt them, apportion it over just four FPGAs and then put it all back together. “We hope to launch a 64-FPGA accelerator over the next 18 months," says Tikoo.
Some large semi-conductor companies in India are testing the beta version of the product. Powai Labs could soon become the first chip verification tool company from India .