Tool startups bet on autonomy
Two analog/mixed-signal design automation startups recently stepped into public view, chasing a goal that has eluded most of their predecessors: building a viable, independent company that doesn't fold or end up being acquired.
Lynguent Inc. will roll out ModLyng, a graphical model-creation environment for analog/mixed-signal models. Solido Design Automation will not make a product announcement, but will declare its intent to bring new technology to transistor-level design, including analog and some custom digital work.
Founders of both companies were involved with previous analog EDA startups. Martin Vlach, CEO of Lynguent, was a founder of Analogy Inc., acquired by Avanti Corp. in 1999. Solido CEO Amit Gupta was a founder of Analog Design Automation (ADA), acquired by Synopsys Inc. in 2004.
By going beyond point tools and building a foundation for broad sets of offerings, both Vlach and Gupta believe they can forge thriving, independent companies. If they do, they will be bucking history¡ªmost analog EDA startups have either "folded or been acquired poorly," said Jim Solomon, the founder of Cadence Design Systems Inc.
Analogy, for example, went public in the mid-1990s, but struggled with slow growth and declining revenue, and was ultimately sold to Avanti. Cadence acquired NeoLinear Inc., a provider of analog layout and optimization tools, in 2004 and bought the assets of Antrim Design Systems Inc., a provider of optimization and characterization tools, in 2002. Barcelona Design Inc., a provider of configurable analog intellectual property and tools, shut its doors last year after burning through $44 million in venture funding.
The irony, said Solomon, is that "there is a desperate need for a next-generation analog design system. If you look at all of EDA, the analog design flow is probably the oldest and most in need of updating." Solomon is not affiliated with either Lynguent or Solido, but he currently sits on the boards of four other analog/mixed-signal tool providers.
Gary Smith, chief EDA analyst at Gartner Dataquest, said that traditional analog designers comprise a very small market¡ªabout 12,000 engineers. A successful startup, he said, "will need to address a different design engineer." What's really needed, Smith said, is to bring analog design up to the register-transfer level.
Lynguent pegs the analog/mixed-signal EDA market at about $600 million, or about 15 percent of the overall EDA market. But a look at Dataquest's "2005 EDA Market Trends" report shows how thoroughly the big EDA vendors¡ªCadence, Synopsys and Mentor Graphics¡ªdominate. For example, those three collectively hold 97 percent of the mixed-signal simulation market. Cadence still owns the analog design tool market, said the report, while Agilent EEsof dominates in RF design tools.
But there's hope for others, said Smith. "The leading tools are vulnerable, and we have seen AWR make some good headway," he said. Applied Wave Research supplies high-frequency EDA products for the design of wireless telecom equipment, semiconductors, high-speed computers, networking systems and other electronics-based products.
New approach to modeling
Lynguent has been a long time coming. Vlach left Avanti a year after the Analogy acquisition and set up Lynguent in 2001. He later hooked up with Alan Mantooth, Lynguent's chief scientist, who is a professor of mixed-signal IC design at the University of Arkansas.
Lynguent currently employs the "equivalent" of 35 full-time people, Vlach said, including development teams in Arkansas and in Prague, Czech Republic, Vlach's original home. The company is thinking big. "We are not actually an EDA startup, we are a startup company for modeling," Vlach said. "We're introducing our first product into EDA, but we plan to go beyond analog simulation and modeling."
ModLyng will be available in September, and is aimed at IC device modelers, analog/mixed-signal engineers, signal-integrity engineers and digital designers who need to create libraries. It lets users build models from scratch by defining ports and parameters, drawing a model topology and writing equations using an equation editor. It outputs models in Verilog-AMS, VHDL-AMS or the Analogy Mast language, now owned by Synopsys. To facilitate model reuse, ModLyng also accepts input in those three languages and lets users view, edit and debug models.
ModLyng can produce both behavioral and detailed device models. "A graphical tool can introduce modeling to a new set of people who would not think of doing coding or programming," Vlach said. "It's similar in concept to when MS-DOS went from a command line interface to Windows."
Lynguent, Vlach said, will develop turnkey solutions that will bring its modeling technology into new markets, such as automotive, medical and power distribution.
Gupta founded Solido last year with fellow ADA veteran Trent McConaghy, Solido's CTO, who is currently a researcher at the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium. The startup has raised $2.5 million from the Canadian firm BDC Venture Capital and employs 10 people. It hopes to announce a product later this year.
A fresh path
Before starting Solido, Gupta said, he and McConaghy took a detailed look at the transistor-level design marketplace, including schematic entry, performance optimization, analog and RF simulation, parasitic extraction and layout. "Rather than developing a tool that competes against any of these spaces, we decided to follow a new market that's really emerging," Gupta said. "We'll have a tool that complements those from other vendors."
Gupta won't say what this tool is, other than that it will address the challenges of transistor-level design. That could potentially reach almost everyone doing analog/mixed-signal IC design, as well as custom digital and memory design. "There are so many different parts of the transistor-level flow that are crying out for automation," he said.
Some of the earlier analog EDA startups stumbled because they didn't have enough people with true design experience, said Cadence founder Solomon. Great ideas from the academic community have floundered, he observed, because "there are just some very pragmatic things that analog designers do that these folks didn't understand."
"To remain independent, a necessary condition would be that the analog EDA startup not be venture-funded," said Anthony Gradient, product-marketing group director at Cadence. "In addition, something entirely unique and of high value would be needed."
Moreover, "Many new analog design automation offerings are point tools that aren't part of a larger design environment," noted Ravi Tembhekar, VP of analog/mixed-signal marketing and applications at Synopsys.
Vlach said that many previous analog EDA startups have had too narrow a focus, and couldn't extend their technology beyond a small problem set. "Analogy didn't fully succeed because we did not focus on turnkey solutions," he said. "We're going to do that differently with ModLyng. We will bring out targeted products on top of it. That's the lesson I learned."
Getting acquired is not a bad option for startups, Gupta said, and doesn't mean failure. But he'd like to do things differently this time. "Our goal is to have Solido remain independent," he said. "I've gone through the acquisition side of things with ADA."
"Right now we're developing a focused product addressing a specific need, but with the road map we have, we're able to broaden far beyond a single offering," Gupta said.
- Richard Goering