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Shenzhen home to kindred entrepreneurial spirits

Posted: 01 Apr 2001 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:chinese entrepreneurs? shenzhen startups? ic design in china? cdma in china?

Although they took radically different approaches to their startup chip design businesses, Ling Shi and Dong Tao are kindred examples of a new spirit of freewheeling entrepreneurialism taking root in Shenzhen, the Chinese boomtown just across the border from Hong Kong.

Whether the businesses these two have created succeed may be irrelevant in some respects. The fact that talented engineers have the freedom and desire to set up their own chip design houses in Shenzhen is testament to the climate of business openness taking hold here. Their efforts also reflect the rise of China's electronics industry, where an expanding OEM class is generating opportunities for an evolving chip industry.

Ling Shi, managing director of Ark Pioneer Microelectronics Co. Ltd, is a pragmatist and this city's equivalent of a serial entrepreneur. With two startup companies and four new designs in the works, he still keeps a hungry eye out for opportunities to fill bread-and-butter sockets in the mainstream products of China's growing system makers.

Currently, Ark is rounding out a family of multiport SRAMs comparable to those from Cypress Semiconductor. At the same time it is designing an 8-bit microcontroller that could be used as a pin-compatible replacement of the popular Microchip PIC and a MIPS 4300-compatible microprocessor.

About 20 designers are working on the MIPS chip, which Shi hopes to have in silicon this year. He worked on RISC microprocessor development himself for Europe's Esprit program, where he spent seven years.

A separate company Shi formed has 40 people developing a baseband controller for today's GSM handsets. He expects to grab design wins from Chinese handset makers such as Kejian, which he said is making 250,000 handsets per month. "My idea is not to invent anything new, but just to be a second source," he said. "The market is already there."

Dong Tao founded Shenzhen Wireless Digital Center Communications Technology Co. Ltd (WDC) in 1996 and received $6 million in venture funding for the design company from Hong Kong investors three years later. That fueled development of an 800Kbps wireless transceiver that integrates IF, modulator/demodulator and direct-sequence spread spectrum components. Great Dragon, a communications OEM in China, wants to use the chip in its central office switch so it can offer WLL services.

That ASIC, which uses technology similar to that of CDMA standard, led to cooperation with China's National Mobile Communications Lab in Nanjing. The chief researcher of that lab, Xiao-Hu You, later became chief technology officer of another company Dong Tao formed, called Dong Da.

Growing pains

Although both opportunity and business freedom are clearly on the upswing in China's electronics industry, the expansion is not without its own sometimes severe growing pains.

"The IC industry in China has been upgrading very quickly in the last two years in design, foundry and packaging," said Ling Shi. "But the whole design flow is still not here. Packaging remains the weak link, and the problem is getting new equipment in."

Lack of trained engineers in this bustling city that still has no local university continues to be a problem. "It is very hard to find IC designers," Ling Shi said. "The top engineers always go overseas."

Wages are still low here for chip designers. New grads earn about $604 per month, although experienced chip designers can get $2,416 per month. But the major communications systems makers here like Hua Wei and ZTE Corp. typically pay the top salary and snap up the best people. "We can't compete with Hua Wei and ZTE for engineers," he said.

? Rick Merritt and George Leopold

EE Times

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