Geir Førre, founder and CEO of low-power microcontroller startup Energy Micro was in no hurry to raise venture funding for his company. Having sold his previous startup Chipcon to Texas Instruments, he was able to use his own money to get Energy Micro off the ground for around. And with some money from the Norwegian government and lead customers, the company had $6m to get to its first product launch, the EFM32 Gecko that appeared last year.
It took $3m, according to Førre, to get the Gecko out of the door and employ, as of October, around 30 people. The remainder was seen as enough to get the company to the middle of this year and has since taken on some more people, taking its headcount to 35. To get further, the company has raised $13m in venture funding. Last year, Førre said Energy Micro was looking for around $10m, arguing that it need not take much to get a fabless startup off the ground and into revenue.
Talking about the initial funding needed for the company, Førre noted: “People say: ‘That’s outrageous. You need far more money to bring up a semiconductor company’. I say: ‘yes, we can do that’.”
Førre said the company spent around $3m to get the EFM32 to market and had “just south of” 30 staff working at its launch. That figure has now risen to 35. The device is built using TSMC’s 0.18µm ultralow-leakage (180ULL) process.
“In reality, even though we are working on very aggressive process technology, mask cost is a small fraction of the money you are burning. The cost is primarily the labour,” Førre said, adding that the company went straight to a full mask, without pursuing the cheaper multiproject wafer option first.
“All of the digital functionality was tested out on FPGA and we used extensive mixed-signal simulation. If you tell people you are designing for a test chip, they will work to that,” said Førre, so he was keen to ensure that the first chip produced at fab should be the real product.
According to Førre, Chipcon spent around $9m before it turned in a profit and was ultimately bought by Texas Instruments.