Electronics and semiconductors are occupying headlines across the globe. What are the learnings for our industry? What are the key opportunities opening for India? To find out answers to such questions we spoke to industry veteran Venkata Sudhakar Simhadri, CEO of MosChip. Here are some extracts of our discussion.
Q. How would you define your journey with respect to the evolution of the semiconductor industry?
A. I have been in the industry for the last 30+ years, starting my career at Silicon Valley. The semiconductor industry had its own ups and downs. There were times when semiconductor companies were laying off people. We had some degrowth or stagnant times in between but, overall, the industry continued to grow.
During my early days in Silicon Valley the growth was fuelled by the PC industry followed by networking and communications. Fabless start-ups like Broadcom and Qualcomm did very well and grew rapidly.
The next wave came through mobile phones and cellular industry. As the mobile industry started getting mature, the emerging fields like IoT, 5G, electric vehicles and ADAS, and artificial intelligence started creating more opportunities for start-ups as well as established players. The VC funding into semiconductor start-ups has been picking up in the last 5-6 years.
When I started my career in 1990, the transistor sizes were 1.0 micron and today the same transistor size is 5nm. So, the industry is never in steady state, it is constantly evolving, and the journey continues to be exciting. India never played a leading role in semiconductor industry, but things are changing. The semiconductor designers in India are as good as the talent in in other parts of the world.
However, we still do not have any large semiconductor product companies out of India, except for a few start-ups trying to break-in. But I strongly believe that it’s going to change. The opportunity is tremendous for the engineers and entrepreneurs who are getting into this field. They just need to pick the right opportunities and stay focused.
Q. While most of the chip design work that happens in India is targeted for global markets, are there any low hanging fruits that are developing into a major market in India?
A. There are many opportunities for addressing local markets. Products like set-top boxes, smart meters, LED lights are all good examples. Automobiles, especially two-wheeler EVs, is another fast growing segment. Another example is security cameras with built-in AI capabilities. These are all large-volume markets in India that can provide chip firms an opportunity to develop India-centric chips and carve out a niche.
Q. How do you see edge computing playing a role in set-top boxes?
A. IESA (Hyderabad chapter) recently hosted a two-day summit on artificial intelligence. Edge computing was an important topic during the summit. The consensus is that every electronic device on the edge is going to have some AI built into it. A set-top at home can create a personalised user experience with built-in AI capabilities.
Q. What is your view on the RISC-V phenomenon that is becoming a rage in the chip-design eco-system? What are your views on it?
A. I think it is gaining a lot of momentum. At MosChip, we are also quite excited about opportunities RISC-V can open for us, especially in India. ARM has been the leading processor for mobile and IoT applications and I think they made good progress into server market as well. ARM is in the process of getting acquired by Nvidia. Countries like India and China are focused on self-reliance and have started investing in RISC-V.
A few weeks ago I had an interesting meeting with Professor Kamkoti of IIT Madras. (The timing is a nice coincidence wrt what we are talking about.) IIT Madras has been doing good work and investing a lot in development of Shakti processor. In parallel, MosChip has been developing an edge-computing platform around RISC-V and we do see opportunities.
A lot of work still needs to be done to make RISC-V a viable alternative to ARM. MosChip will work closely with IIT Madras and support Indian government initiatives towards indigenous processor platform.
Q. For local semicon majors to grow, many claim that we need a fab in India. What’s your take on this issue—should India invest?
A. If you look at the whole supply chain, most of the chip companies are now fabless companies anyway, including companies like AMD, Broadcom, and Qualcomm. None of them have their own fab. Most of them get their chips fabricated at TSMC, GlobalFoundries, and others. And the packaging and testing of the chips is done through other partners.
Packaging and testing of the chip (usually called ATMP or OSAT) addresses 30% to 40% of the chip cost.
ATMP facility, which does not cost as much as a fab, can help create a local eco-system and support local fabless start-ups or multinationals operating out of India.
Q. With a lot of buzz around shortage of semiconductors, what are the opportunities opening up for India, if any?
A. The Indian government has invited ‘Expression of Interest’ to set up fabs in India. I do see opportunities in some specialty fabs, but it will take time for India to make significant contribution. And it needs a focused effort for the next ten years and sustained efforts thereafter.
Q. How do you see the evolution of Moore’s Law? Will it remain relevant?
A. It has remained relevant for longer than the industry anticipated. In my own career, I have seen the transistor shrinking from 1 micron to 3nm. The hunger for more computing will continue to innovate new transistor structures and new technologies like quantum computing.
Q. While semiconductors are powering AI and ML, are AI and ML enabling R&D, development, and manufacturing of chips too? Are they going to play an important role in the future?
A. AI and ML certainly created R&D opportunities to develop new architectures for handling the special computing and data processing needs of AI applications. AI is changing the way the data is stored, processed, and handled (security). I do see AI playing a role in semiconductor manufacturing as well, to improve both efficiency and reliability.