Doug Lefever, Director, President and CEO of Advantest America, and Managing Executive Officer, Board of Directors, Advantest Corporation
By GO SEMI & Beyond staff
This article was adapted from an interview that originally appeared in the Silicon Catalyst newsletter.
Q: Where does Advantest fit into the semiconductor ecosystem?
A: As the semiconductor industry has evolved and grown, so has Advantest. We are active throughout the ecosystem, as the figure shows, providing solutions from silicon-level testing up to system-level testing – an area we see having a great deal of potential for growth. Today, our industry-wide involvement reaches beyond our core capabilities in test and measurement to encompass lithography, data logging, consulting and other areas. Oftentimes, folks at startups have done engineering development, but have not been involved in broader business operations, so Advantest can help to bring them along the learning curve. This allows us to form alliances with early-stage companies, which typically don’t need a deep dive into test technology or to get a device onto a tester.
Q: Why does Advantest partner with an incubator like Silicon Catalyst?
A: Because Silicon Catalyst is focused solely on semiconductor solution startups, it provides very early-stage companies with access to goods, services and experience from its network of in-kind partners – all of which are businesses that have been through the startup process. At Advantest, we’re excited to be able to support new startups through our involvement with the incubator. Our commitment comprises 160 hours per month technical education, management guidance, sharing insights and mentoring – the equivalent of one month’s work by a full-time, experienced industry member.
I want to stress that, as these are very, very early-stage ventures, none has yet implemented our actual test resources on its nascent IC designs. We are mentoring and advising them on developing test strategies and manufacturing flows – and, on a broader scale, we are sharing our hard-won experience in running a company. Our business proficiency allows us to perceive where young ventures have weaknesses and help them to address those weaknesses.
These young companies have promising technologies or application ideas, but generally need to gain “ground floor,” startup-level experience. Silicon Catalyst provides opportunities for them to begin building out their teams and to make real connections with equipment and technology providers or financial people, depending upon their stage of development. A key reason that we decided to join the ecosystem is so that we can help figure out ways to reduce the cost of developing and financing new semiconductor startups; funding new technology or anything semiconductor-related has proven challenging to the industry.
We recognize that we’re not going to be selling test systems right away. But a few years down the road, as some portfolio companies that have had access to our technology and our support services become successful, they may gravitate toward our platforms. Advantest does not fund any of these companies or sit on their boards, but we are the only ATE company that gets to help evaluate new companies and new technologies when they ask to join Silicon Catalyst. We can also talk to companies with technologies or IP of interest to us, regardless of whether or not they are added to the portfolio.
Gaining exposure to what’s coming gives us insight into where our industry is headed, what type of equipment customers will need and, perhaps, even the types of performance we might expect from future electronic products. We are gleaning information about emerging technology trends, as well, in such areas as optical, materials, power management, memory cells, MRAM, and low-power memory technology – to name a few.
Q: Where are you seeing momentum in semiconductor startups?
A: As I mentioned, optical is a key trend – many optical-related companies are leading the next wave of high-bandwidth connectivity and low-power computing. While some are building a single chip and others are developing whole modules, the volume of optical products is starting to grow, and high-volume manufacturing (HVM) will be the next step.
In terms of applications, consumer optical-based communications are on the rise. In this area, a new standard is emerging called NGPON-2, which is next-generation Ethernet over passive optical connections. Another area of focus of a number of startups is high-bandwidth computing, while massively parallel computing is enabling advances in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and Big Data with shared databases. Dedicated chips are being built for machine learning.
Wearable technology for medical and health-related applications is increasingly incorporating such capabilities as blood monitoring and analysis. One company is making a device that will be able to perform a diagnostic screening on a blood sample at point-of-care without requiring an extensive blood panel analysis. The AI system will be taught patterns consistent with specific pathogens, bacteria or other components so that, when the blood sample is put into the device, the system can determine, within 10 minutes, what’s in there – a much faster and cheaper solution than what’s available today.
Other interesting areas addressing power requirements include low-power memory and energy harvesting, which is wearable technology that uses the heat of your body to charge a battery. The bigger the temperature difference between your body and ambient air, the more energy it puts out.
These are just a few of the technology areas where we are seeing burgeoning opportunities for startups, as well as the industry at large, in the semiconductor arena.