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Who can you turn to if you want to make your own chip? • The Register

Interview The likes of Google, Facebook, and Microsoft can design custom chips and have them manufactured using their billions of dollars in the bank.

Smaller outfits wishing to make their own processors or microcontrollers, say, aren’t as fortunate as they lack the funds and resources. Getting even a small volume of physical chips in the hands of engineers and developers to experiment with is a big challenge. FPGAs are an option, though they have their limits, and you might just want the experience or benefits of taping out your own ASIC.

Now a biz called Efabless hopes to close the capability gap by helping people get their semiconductor blueprints into a factory for manufacturing at low cost. Getting access to a fab has become especially challenging with demand for chips outstripping assembly line output globally.

Our goal is to put design in the hands of not only chip designers who just didn’t have the resources, but to make it so simple that anybody could create a chip

“Our goal is to put design in the hands of not only chip designers who just didn’t have the resources, but to make it so simple that anybody could create a chip,” Michael Wishart, CEO of Efabless, told The Register this week.

The company is connecting resource-constrained chip startups and universities on tight budgets to manufacturers, which then supply small volumes of completed components. The proliferation of open architectures like RISC-V, and wider availability and improvement of chip design tools, known as EDA software, have arguably contributed to a boom in custom chip designs, mostly by lowering the barrier to entry.

Planning out the logic in a chip is only a small part of the process. Not only does it need to be simulated, prototyped, and verified, it has to go through various engineering stages to make it manufacturable before it even gets to the fabrication and packaging stages, and then you need to build the PCBs the chips will go onto for testing and product assembly. “It is essential to solve the entire idea of the chip cycle, including the last mile of prototyping and then production,” Wishart explained.

Absolutely fabless

Nvidia and Apple popularized the fabless business model amid a consolidation in the semiconductor world in which plant-owning companies were gobbled up by others, reducing the number of silicon die manufacturers. AMD also turned fabless and sold off its assembly lines due to the overhead costs.

“The upfront costs are too high because that entire model was geared for a different need: mass volume parts,” Wishart said, referring to the fact that not everyone needs components in quantities of a million.

This situation created an opening for outfits like Efabless, which is more of an intermediary between chip designers and manufacturers. The company had 160 tape-outs in 2021, up from none in 2020, Wishart said.

One program, dubbed ChipIgnite, launched recently by Efabless includes options to get a certain number of chips made for around $10,000, or to get 1,000 parts for $20 apiece. The dies are manufactured on Skywater Technology’s 130nm process, which isn’t advanced, but is good for startups to get prototypes to show off or demonstrate systems with.

“For many projects, you can do that on those older nodes. It’s also extremely affordable. The beauty of the older nodes right now is it gives us a chance to advance the open-source EDA environment and that’s moving quickly,” Wishart said. There is a collection of open-source chip design tools that include Chisel, Amaranth, and Yosys to get you started.

“You’ll see an additional foundry with an additional node in the next several months get announced,” he added. “We’re not going to 45nm or 65nm or 28nm yet, but it will come.”

Efabless provides back-end and flow-based tools to automate chip design and optimize it for the manufacturing process. For example, a designer can drop pieces of a design into a blank space on Caravel, a silicon die framework that already has a microcontroller, memory, and management area set aside.

Open architecture

Efabless is also running an initiative called OpenMPW, in which Google funds the design and manufacturing of chosen open-source chips for organizations. We’ve previously reported on the web giant’s earlier offer of free chips for selected projects. One OpenMPW participant is Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, where Harald Pretz, a professor, hopes to get a physical mixed-signal chip into the hands of students.

Pretz submitted the open-source design recently and will be competing with other entries for the 40 seats available as part of the program. The submission deadline for projects is March 21.

Prof Pretz has many reasons to get physical chips, including seeing how well the design tools, which include Icarus Verilog for RTL simulation, actually work. Others areas of interest include seeing how well the design holds up in real-world circumstances and how quickly students go through the learning curve.

I want to see functional silicon, produced by a complete open-source flow, working in our lab before I can commit larger projects to it

“I want to see functional silicon, produced by a complete open-source flow, working in our lab before I can commit larger projects to it, so in a sense, it was a test drive for our research group,” the professor told The Register.

Pretz also used the possibility of an actual tape-out as an additional incentive for students to build integrated circuits. If the university’s design is included in the tape-out, Pretz expects to get back the components in December.

“We will receive 50 packaged parts and five ready-made evaluation boards, which is super convenient. Since I will get so many pieces, I promised every participating student a chip for their usage,” Pretz said.

Efabless operates by combining a bunch of small orders and ships them over to a manufacturer as one high-volume order. This is known as a multi-project wafer approach, or MFW, as it fits a range of customer designs across each wafer. Manufacturers typically prefer these kind of bulk orders due to the overhead cost of adjusting machinery for each job.

MOSIS is another such outfit offering MFW services; there are others around the world.

“It’s like a pallet with 40 separate designs on it,” Wishart said. “But to the foundry, it looks like one design.”

“We manage the prechecks and all of that, verifying the manufacturability of the design is all done before the design even goes to the foundry,” continued Wishart, who previously was a board member at Cypress Semiconductor, and was the chairman of Goldman Sachs’ global technology group.

Efabless, which was founded in 2014, earlier this year received a round of seed funding from New North Ventures, which has a portfolio that includes AI and cybersecurity companies. In addition to Google, the company’s backers include Arm and GlobalFoundries. ®

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European Startup Ecosystems Awash With Gulf Investment – Here Are Some Of The Top Investors

European Startup Ecosystem Getting Flooded With Gulf Investments

The Voice Of EU | In recent years, European entrepreneurs seeking capital infusion have widened their horizons beyond the traditional American investors, increasingly turning their gaze towards the lucrative investment landscape of the Gulf region. With substantial capital reservoirs nestled within sovereign wealth funds and corporate venture capital entities, Gulf nations have emerged as compelling investors for European startups and scaleups.

According to comprehensive data from Dealroom, the influx of investment from Gulf countries into European startups soared to a staggering $3 billion in 2023, marking a remarkable 5x surge from the $627 million recorded in 2018.

This substantial injection of capital, accounting for approximately 5% of the total funding raised in the region, underscores the growing prominence of Gulf investors in European markets.

Particularly noteworthy is the significant support extended to growth-stage companies, with over two-thirds of Gulf investments in 2023 being directed towards funding rounds exceeding $100 million. This influx of capital provides a welcome boost to European companies grappling with the challenge of securing well-capitalized investors locally.

Delving deeper into the landscape, Sifted has identified the most active Gulf investors in European startups over the past two years.

Leading the pack is Aramco Ventures, headquartered in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Bolstered by a substantial commitment, Aramco Ventures boasts a $1.5 billion sustainability fund, alongside an additional $4 billion allocated to its venture capital arm, positioning it as a formidable player with a total investment capacity of $7 billion by 2027. With a notable presence in 17 funding rounds, Aramco Ventures has strategically invested in ventures such as Carbon Clean Solutions and ANYbotics, aligning with its focus on businesses that offer strategic value.

Following closely is Mubadala Capital, headquartered in Abu Dhabi, UAE, with an impressive tally of 13 investments in European startups over the past two years. Backed by the sovereign wealth fund Mubadala Investment Company, Mubadala Capital’s diverse investment portfolio spans private equity, venture capital, and alternative solutions. Notable investments include Klarna, TIER, and Juni, reflecting its global investment strategy across various sectors.

Ventura Capital, based in Dubai, UAE, secured its position as a key player with nine investments in European startups. With a presence in Dubai, London, and Tokyo, Ventura Capital boasts an international network of limited partners and a sector-agnostic investment approach, contributing to its noteworthy investments in companies such as Coursera and Spotify.

Qatar Investment Authority, headquartered in Doha, Qatar, has made significant inroads into the European startup ecosystem with six notable investments. As the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, QIA’s diversified portfolio spans private and public equity, infrastructure, and real estate, with strategic investments in tech startups across healthcare, consumer, and industrial sectors.

MetaVision Dubai, a newcomer to the scene, has swiftly garnered attention with six investments in European startups. Focusing on seed to Series A startups in the metaverse and Web3 space, MetaVision raised an undisclosed fund in 2022, affirming its commitment to emerging technologies and innovative ventures.

Investcorp, headquartered in Manama, Bahrain, has solidified its presence with six investments in European startups. With a focus on mid-sized B2B businesses, Investcorp’s diverse investment strategies encompass private equity, real estate, infrastructure, and credit management, contributing to its notable investments in companies such as Terra Quantum and TruKKer.

Chimera Capital, based in Abu Dhabi, UAE, rounds off the list with four strategic investments in European startups. As part of a prominent business conglomerate, Chimera Capital leverages its global reach and sector-agnostic approach to drive investments in ventures such as CMR Surgical and Neat Burger.

In conclusion, the burgeoning influx of capital from Gulf investors into European startups underscores the region’s growing appeal as a vibrant hub for innovation and entrepreneurship. With key players such as Aramco Ventures, Mubadala Capital, and Ventura Capital leading the charge, European startups are poised to benefit from the strategic investments and partnerships forged with Gulf investors, propelling them towards sustained growth and success in the global market landscape.

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China Reveals Lunar Mission: Sending ‘Taikonauts’ To The Moon From 2030 Onwards

China Reveals Lunar Mission

The Voice Of EU | In a bold stride towards lunar exploration, the Chinese Space Agency has unveiled its ambitious plans for a moon landing set to unfold in the 2030s. While exact timelines remain uncertain, this endeavor signals a potential resurgence of the historic space race reminiscent of the 1960s rivalry between the United States and the USSR.

China’s recent strides in lunar exploration include the deployment of three devices on the moon’s surface, coupled with the successful launch of the Queqiao-2 satellite. This satellite serves as a crucial communication link, bolstering connectivity between Earth and forthcoming missions to the moon’s far side and south pole.

Unlike the secretive approach of the Soviet Union in the past, China’s strategy leans towards transparency, albeit with a hint of mystery surrounding the finer details. Recent revelations showcase the naming and models of lunar spacecraft, steeped in cultural significance. The Mengzhou, translating to “dream ship,” will ferry three astronauts to and from the moon, while the Lanyue, meaning “embrace the moon,” will descend to the lunar surface.

Drawing inspiration from both Russian and American precedents, China’s lunar endeavor presents a novel approach. Unlike its predecessors, China will employ separate launches for the manned module and lunar lander due to the absence of colossal space shuttles. This modular approach bears semblance to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, reflecting a contemporary adaptation of past achievements.

Upon reaching lunar orbit, astronauts, known as “taikonauts” in Chinese, will rendezvous with the lunar lander, reminiscent of the Apollo program’s maneuvers. However, distinct engineering choices mark China’s departure from traditional lunar landing methods.

The Chinese lunar lander, while reminiscent of the Apollo Lunar Module, introduces novel features such as a single set of engines and potential reusability and advance technology. Unlike past missions where lunar modules were discarded, China’s design hints at the possibility of refueling and reuse, opening avenues for sustained lunar exploration.

China Reveals Lunar Mission: Sending 'Taikonauts' To The Moon From 2030 Onwards
A re-creation of the two Chinese spacecraft that will put ‘taikonauts’ on the moon.CSM

Despite these advancements, experts have flagged potential weaknesses, particularly regarding engine protection during landing. Nevertheless, China’s lunar aspirations remain steadfast, with plans for extensive testing and site selection underway.

Beyond planting flags and collecting rocks, China envisions establishing a permanent lunar base, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), ushering in a new era of international collaboration in space exploration.

While the Artemis agreements spearheaded by NASA have garnered global support, China’s lunar ambitions stand as a formidable contender in shaping the future of space exploration. In conclusion, China’s unveiling of its lunar ambitions not only marks a significant milestone in space exploration but also sets the stage for a new chapter in the ongoing saga of humanity’s quest for the cosmos. As nations vie for supremacy in space, collaboration and innovation emerge as the cornerstones of future lunar endeavors.

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Aviation and Telecom Industries Reach Compromise on 5G Deployment

The Voice Of EU | In a significant development, AT&T and Verizon, the two largest mobile network operators in the United States, have agreed to delay the deployment of 5G services following requests from the aviation industry and the Biden administration. This decision marks a crucial compromise in the long-standing dispute between the two industries, which had raised concerns over the potential interference of 5G with flight signals.
The aviation industry, led by United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, had been vocal about the risks of 5G deployment, citing concerns over the safety of flight operations. Kirby had urged AT&T and Verizon to delay their plans, warning that proceeding with the deployment would be a “catastrophic failure of government.” The US Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the issue further highlighted the need for a solution.
In response, US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) head Steve Dickson sent a letter to the mobile networks, requesting a two-week delay to reassess the potential risks. Initially, AT&T and Verizon were hesitant, citing the aviation industry’s two-year preparation window. However, they eventually agreed to the short delay, pushing the deployment to January 19.
The crux of the issue lies in the potential interference between 5G signals and flight equipment, particularly radar altimeters. The C-Band spectrum used by 5G networks is close to the frequencies employed by these critical safety devices. The FAA requires accurate and reliable radar altimeters to ensure safe flight operations.

Airlines in the US have been at loggerheads with mobile networks over the deployment of 5G and its potential impact on flight safety.

Despite the concerns, both the FAA and the telecoms industry agree that 5G mobile networks and airline travel can coexist safely. In fact, they already do in nearly 40 countries where US airlines operate regularly. The key lies in reducing power levels around airports and fostering cross-industry collaboration prior to deployment.
The FAA has been working to find a solution in the United States, and the additional two-week delay will allow for further assessment and preparation. AT&T and Verizon have also agreed to not operate 5G base stations along runways for six months, similar to restrictions imposed in France.
President Joe Biden hailed the decision to delay as “a significant step in the right direction.” The European Union Aviation Safety Agency and South Korea have also reported no unsafe interference with radio waves since the deployment of 5G in their regions.
As the aviation and telecom industries continue to work together, it is clear that safe coexistence is possible. The delay in 5G deployment is a crucial step towards finding a solution that prioritizes both safety and innovation. With ongoing collaboration and technical assessments, the United States can join the growing list of countries where 5G and airlines coexist without issue.

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