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FPGA startup survives IC crunch

Posted: 05 May 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:FPGA? startup downturn? IC crunch? venture capital?

Flush with cash after raising more than $86 million in venture capital over the past two years, shipping working products and with revenue and dozens of design wins already under its belt, FPGA startup Achronix Semiconductor Corp. has the technology and financial stability to weather the current downturn, according to founder, chairman and CEO John Lofton Holt.

Holt told Programmable Logic DesignLine that Achronix has never had a layoff and isn't planning one. In fact, he said, the company is continuing to cautiously expand its headcount, which currently numbers about 90, even during the recession, he said. He added that Achronix is also on track to exceed its revenue target for 2009, which he described as "single-digit millions."

Achronix is one of a number of promising FPGA startups to appear in recent times, at least some of which appear to be struggling. Some fear that at least some of these FPGA startups will fold, as did Ambric Inc. and Mathstar Inc. last year, or be acquired.

Achronix offers two principle product lines. The most interesting is a line of commercial FPGAs named Speedster, which the company says operate at peak performance of 1.5GHz, far greater than any other FPGAs. Speedster and Achronix' other product line, a specialized line of products for high-radiation and extreme temperature environments, utilize a patented acceleration technology called picoPIPE, which the company says enables 3x the throughput of traditional FPGAs.

According to Achronix, pipoPIPE speeds the way data moves through the FPGA fabric, using simple handshake protocols to control data flow, without a global clock. While the inner workings of the device are fundamentally different, designs are input using a hardware description language such as RTL, according to the company.

"They do have something unique in the FPGA world," said Rich Wawrzyniak, a senior analyst at Semico Research Corp. "If their [revenue] targets are low, it wouldn't surprise me that they were going to be able to hit those targets."

Getting the tools right
According to Wawrzyniak, the 1.5GHz peak performance of Achronix' Speedster product line means even designers in applications that traditionally shun FPGAs can use the part, or at least give it serious consideration.

"Now that Achronix has parts that will function up in that range, for those people doing designs at that level, it makes a lot of sense for people to use Achronix or give them a real serious look," Wawrzyniak said.

According to Holt, in addition to enabling designers to input designs using RTL, Achronix also has a "familiar tools" strategy. The goal, he said, is to enable FPGA designers to use the Achronix parts using tools they are familiar with from working with traditional FPGAs. Previous FPGA startups have failed by requiring designers to learn exotic new tools and methodologies, he said.

Achronix has multiyear OEM tool deals with Mentor Graphics Corp. and Synopsys Inc. on front-end tools. The company's back-end ACE (Achronix CAD Environment) toolsa complete physical implementation platform including place and route, timing analysis and critical path analysisleverage the familiar tools strategy to look and feel like existing FPGA tools, according to materials provided by the company.

One source who works for an established FPGA vendor said he hadn't seen the Achronix tools but was dubious of the "familiar tools" claim because the pipelining technology of the devices is so much different than the structure of traditional FPGAs.

"Fundamentally we are a software company," Holt said, emphasizing the importance of "getting the tools right."

A spokesperson for Achronix said the company can't disclose the number of design wins it has or name its customers. But the company has had dozens of design wins, the spokesperson said.

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