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Working on India's analog dream

Posted: 02 Jun 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:90nm? 65nm? analog engineers? India analog design? mobile computing?

Valavi: We want to get to the point where people think if they have some state-of-the-art analog work to be done, India is a good place to do it.

A decade ago, Anand Valavi had an idea for starting an analog design group at his company, Wipro Technologies, where he worked as an ASIC engineer.

Analog, he thought, could be strategic for India as well as his company, which was trying to develop a portfolio of silicon blocks for licensing.

"At that time, newspaper articles were saying there weren't 40 analog engineers in all of India, predicting the shortfall would impede the growth of the country's semiconductor business," Valavi said.

Three years ago, Wipro executives finally decided Valavi was right and hired him back from a job at Microsoft Corp. in the United States to found the new group. Today Valavi heads a 150-person analog group at Wipro, arguably one of the largest in the rapidly emerging country.

"It took nearly 10 years for Wipro to be at the leading edge of digital design, but with this analog effort, we couldn't wait that long," he said.

Team building
So Valavi quickly created a core team made up of India engineers he convinced to return from jobs in South Korea and the U.S. at companies such as Intel, Linear and Texas Instruments. Then he rounded out the group with handpicked candidates from India's universities.

To date, the group has designed a range of 90nm and 65nm PLLs, 65nm read channel chips for a hard-disk drive, and even a few blocks at 45nm. The group is particularly proud of a medical mixed-signal chip that had to be able to run for up to three years off a button cell, with some blocks drawing just nano-amps of current. "A lot of the circuits had to operate at sub-threshold levels," said Valavi.

The thirty-something manager still has big ambitions in analog. "Our steps so far have been fledgling moves," he said. "In the next three years or so, we want to get to the point where people think if they have some state-of-the-art analog work to be done, India is a good place to do it."

Indeed, India has made great strides in recent years in the field of analog design, which is often considered more art than science. Companies such as Conexant, Intel, Infineon, Marvell and TI all have analog work done in the country. TI India has more than 100 engineers working on analog projects, and has spun off three local analog startups. Cosmic Circuits is the most prominent of the trio since it may be India's only pure-play analog startup. The other two, Karmic Design and Sankalp Semiconductors, provide design services that include analog work.

The potential for India to grow in analog expertise may depend on its success in attracting more people like Valavi to return home.

Bright future
According to Valavi, starting salaries for recent engineering graduates are significantly better in the U.S. than in India, which could mean the best and brightest will always head overseas. However, unlike their counterparts abroad, India's analog engineers can expect to see salaries increase eight- to ten-fold over their careers as they gain the expertise so deeply valued in the analog field and the maturity to fill India's hunger for good engineering managers. "At the high end, engineers can do well in India," Valavi said.

He should know. Valavi is one of a recent wave of engineers returning to India, attracted by a combination of new management opportunities and a desire to come home.

Valavi started his career in 1994 at the age of 23, when Wipro recruited him from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur. At the time, Wipro, like other big Indian conglomerates, was making computers and other systems under its own label following government decisions that shut IBM and other large OEMs out of the Indian market.

He helped design PC motherboards until the government invited the multinationals back in. Like many of its counterparts, Wipro rolled with the punches, refocusing its engineering teams on outsourced projects in areas such as ASIC design.

ASIC experience
"The whole thinking about what an ASIC was, was new to us, but we figured there was no magic to it," Valavi recalled. "We put a group together, set up a tool flow and did some basic designs. We designed standard interfaces and implemented them in a way so people could put them in their chips and we could license the blocks to others."

Eighteen months later, Wipro had its first USB and FireWire blocks available to license. It currently has nearly 90 Firewire licensees and has acquired Bluetooth and Wi-Fi expertise.

In 1998, Wipro decided to spin off its silicon IP business as a subsidiary called EnThink. Headquartered in Santa Clara, California, its goal was to provide ready-to-use building blocks that would enable OEMs to develop intelligent Internet appliances and gateways for home networking, mobile computing and other consumer and business applications.

But the group failed to attract the business or venture capital needed to stay afloat, and many left, including Sridhar Mitta, the former Wipro chief technology officer who was co-founder and CEO of EnThink. Valavi left, too, to join then-hot startup WebTV Networks. When the startup was acquired by Microsoft, Valavi joined the software giant, spending some time working on its Xbox video game console.

Valavi maintained his contacts at Wipro, and over time, his family began to think about returning to India.

"Every time I met some of the Wipro top management visiting the U.S., I would ask them what had happened to their plans of starting an analog team, and invariably there was no answer," Valavi said. "Then, suddenly one day in 2005, Siby Abraham, who was at that time the VP of Wipro's semiconductor division, asked me if I was interested in returning to India to set up an analog team, and I came back to set it up."

"We had to make the business case for analog design services, and it wasn't very different from what we did 10 years earlier in digital design," he said. "We realized a lot of state-of-the-art devices would have significant analog components such as PLLs, temperature sensors, ADCs and more complex circuits."

As Wipro grew, the group invested some of its cash in acquiring silicon intellectual-property firms and design houses in European markets to reach new customers. Deals in Germany, Finland and elsewhere helped Wipro expand its expertise.

A 2005 acquisition of Austria's New Logic added Wi-Fi and Bluetooth IP blocks in the 180nm technology to the portfolio, which the company has since upgraded to 130nm and 90nm designs. Its silicon IP group now employs about 200 people.

There's little doubt that, globally, analog expertise is as relevantand as hard to findas ever. Whether India becomes a significant force in the sector will depend, to some extent, on how successful managers like Valavi are in convincing others to follow in their footsteps.

- Sufia Tippu
EE Times

-Rick Merritt contributed to this report.

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