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Academic stimulates IC design in China

Posted: 17 Jul 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:semiconductor? ic? technical design? ic consultant? chip fabrication?

Ping K. Ko is a professor at HKUST, and is vice chairman and chief strategy officer of Authosis Inc.
Ping K. Ko is a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), and is the Vice Chairman and Chief Strategy Officer of Authosis Inc. Twenty years ago, he made a decision that would change the course of his career.

Hong Kong-born Ping was working toward his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) when he was assigned sensor-related tasks. A semester later, however, Ping found that he had absolutely no interest in sensors. He later told his professor that he wanted to go back to semiconductor ICs.

His professor was struck speechless upon hearing thisit was the first time a student, an overseas student at thatdeclined an assigned field of study. Fortunately, the teacher understood his student. Ping still remembers what his professor told him: "I'll let you do whatever you want to do, until I tell you to stop." This became a most important milestone for Ping.

Ping's interest in semiconductors dates back to the days before he entered the university. "I had been fond of tinkering with devices like radios and speakers since my childhood. In the late 70s, electronics had reached the transistor era, and ICs had just emerged. Influenced in part by the great achievements made by Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee, I decided to study physics," recalled Ping. Yang and Lee were Chinese physicists who jointly received the 1957 Nobel Laureate in physics for their investigation of the so-called parity laws, which led to important discoveries regarding elementary particles.

From academe to business

After getting his Ph.D. in 1982, Ping worked at Bell Labs in Holmdel, New Jersey, for two years and then returned to UCB to teach. There, he was appointed director of the Berkeley Microfabrication Facility.

While at UCB, Ping acted as a consultant for some of the Silicon Valley companies in his spare time. In addition, he paid extra attention to the development of the semiconductor industry in China, and even contemplated going back. His dream came true in 1993, when Prof. Chia-Wei Woo, president of the newly established HKUST, invited him to take the post of visiting professor at the university. He was later appointed dean of engineering.

The development of the Chinese semiconductor industry became his main goal when Ping went back to Hong Kong. As he put it, "I am back here not to do research. There are top scientists and cutting-edge technologies in UCB, I would have stayed there if my aim had been to continue with the research work. I came back for China's semiconductor industry and I hope to contribute my expertise in this area."

In September 2000, Ping disengaged himself from the academe and together with Danny Lui, one of the founders of Legend Groupthe largest PC manufacturer in Chinahe formed Authosis Inc.

Authosis is a venture-capital firm focusing on IC design houses. Less than two years after its foundation, it has invested in three domestic IC design start-ups, with a total investment of $3.5 million. A couple more investments are under review.

Creating a business model

As a venture capitalist in China, Ping faced a new challenge. Many start-ups in the mainland lacked the experience of those in the United States. Some cannot even provide a business plan. "The risk for venture capitalists in China is much higher, the ROI could be extremely low if you are not familiar with the fields you invest in. Fortunately, we know a good deal about the IC industry, and I believe we can create a successful business model," said Ping.

Despite the growing market in China, Ping is worried about the domestic IC design industry. "The combined annual revenue of the IC design industry in mainland China is less than half of the annual revenue of a medium-size Taiwan-based company. So there is really no successful IC design company in the mainland." Ping blamed it on the lack of effective incentives offered to employees, such as stock options, and out-of-date technologies.

"To survive, domestic IC design houses must focus on localization & customization, offering products that meet the needs of local customers. With the current technological know-how of local companies, it is not advisable for them to try designing leading-edge products. The best strategy is to do their best for low-to-mid-level customers," he said.

From research to investment, how does Ping skillfully cope with the two entirely different fields with ease? He says it has a lot to do with his personal interest in the two fields. Besides, "you should have an optimistic attitude toward problems," said Ping. "The problem you meet could also be a challenge to other people, so if you can overcome it, you will have an edge over your rivals."

? Yorbe Zhang and Major Lee

Electronics Engineering Times ? China

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