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  • CTO Interview with Dr. Wim Schoenmaker of Magwel

    I visited the Magwel booth at DAC in June and chatted with Dundar Dumlugol the CEO about their EDA tools that enable 3D co-simulation and extraction. Since then I've made contact with their CTO, Dr. Wim Schoenmaker to better understand what it's like to start up and run an EDA company. Magwel's history goes back to 2003 when Wim Schoenmaker and Peter Meuris founded the company based on their research work at IMEC to analyze and simulate the entire layer stack of a semiconductor structure.

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    Wim Schoenmaker, Ph.D.

    Related: EDA for Power Management ICs at DAC


    Q: Why did you start Magwel and what challenges were you trying to solve?

    Around 2000 at IMEC I was involved in characterization of on-chip passive structures and it was not clear (in those days) what the impact of semiconductor junctions might have on the quality factors of integrated passives. Partial solutions existed in which the semiconducting regions were replaced by metals with high permittivity and moderate conductance or insulating regions. During the last three decades (1970-2000) technology CAD or TCAD being the discipline to model semiconductor processes and devices became a mature field. The situation at that time was that there existed two worlds of modeling: the TCAD world for devices (and processes) and the Maxwell field solvers world that originally was an out spin of accelerator and wave guide design. My ambition was to set up a merge between both views. I decided to rethink the TCAD device modeling approach from scratch but this time to include the full electromagnetic picture and not merely the electric-only view. Being the TCAD team leader at IMEC and having a background in lattice gauge theories I was well equipped to take on such a job.

    Moreover, resolving the problem of on-chip passives was strongly supported by several leading persons at IMEC such that seed funding could be accessed to start MAGWEL.

    Q: What do you like best about being a CTO?

    Being a CTO at an SME (Small or Medium Enterprise) of the scale of MAGWEL, the meaning of this title is more a formality than a manual for filling daily activities. In practice I am still very much involved in the actual development of our products and this is the kind of work I enjoy the most. A serious part of my activity goes into setting up collaborative research and development projects. These projects serve as stepping stones towards mature products. For example, we have currently running EU funded FP7 project to explore novel routes to extract SPICE and Spectre compatible models for electron charge and heat transport. This project also addresses uncertainty quantification (variability).

    The common denominator of such projects is that advanced research results in the mathematical and computer science community are applied in microelectronic engineering. More recently, together with ON Semiconductor we are cooperating in a research project on ESD network verification, funded by the national institute of science and technology (IWT). In general, my job is to perform feasibility studies of novel approaches to deal with yet unsolved design challenges. In general, such exploratory activities consume budget that is not recovered in a short term by product sales and therefore these funding channels must be tapped. This requires writing convincing
    and well structured research proposals, for which I am the key responsible.

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    Q: What trends in semiconductor design and EDA are you most concerned about these days?

    Over the last years I have witnessed a decline of generic in-house scientific expertise within the large-scale IDMs. I mean, nowadays there is less room for research by looking over the fence. The clear cut between core business and the scientific developments that take place in neighboring fields has become sharper. There is an outsourcing of tool development and the consequence is that SMEs will take over the job to enter into unknown territory of adapting novel developments as illustrated above. It is not really a concern since it opens possibilities. Needless to say that a substantial risk is involved since not all ideas turn out to work as nice as one could forecast at start. Nevertheless, over the years one develops a six sense for what may have a good change to succeed and what is doomed to fail.

    Q: What kind of advise would you give to someone starting up a technology company today?

    This is a hard one.

    First of all, convince yourself that you have a product that is really different from what is already out there and that the product deserves to be put in the market. If you are not really enthusiastic about it, nobody else will be. It may turn out that you are the only one that is enthusiastic, so be it. The next advice is to be prepared for good times as well as bad times.

    The worst motivation to start a technology company is the ambition to become rich overnight. Next, of course, it is crucial to listen to the customers. They should tell you what is important and needed. Do not take the attitude to tell customers what they should need.

    Q: What is your best accomplishment at Magwel so far?

    One of my qualities is probably 'persistence'. I keep on hammering on a problem until it crumbles and a solution is found. With STmicroelectronics we have developed a version of our electromagnetic TCAD solver in the transient regime. (The results were published in IEEE Transaction on CAD and IEEE Transactions on Electron Devices in June 2014). It was applied to deal with fast transient and high current surges in ESD protection devices. I completed the inclusion of Lorentz force effects in the solver at ST's request. The results were the cherry on the pie of many years of research. The permanent confrontation with measurement results were deterministic for the quality of the tool. This is the guideline of all our products. We are not satisfied if our products match outcomes of other simulation tools. The true comparison is by matching Silicon data.

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    Q: Why is it that start-ups tend to have more innovation than the big three in EDA?

    I think it intrinsic to the EDA business: start-ups are like evolutionary experiments in nature: some species survive and others perish. When they do survive and turn out to be valuable, there comes a big load of marketing costs and sales costs with it. Such costs have not much to do with the intrinsic technology and it is a better business model to share these costs. Here come the big three into the picture. It is a matter of efficiency to distribute the marketing, sales and other costs over a large product folio.

    Related: Ensuring ESD Integrity

    Q: How do the advances in foundry processes create new challenges for Magwel?

    Processes get more complex and down-scaling makes devices more vulnerable. Therefore, physical mechanisms that were harmless on coarse devices and layouts can be deteriorating at down-scaled devices. As a consequence, rule-based designs must be replaced by physical designs taking into account more subtle aspects of the underlying physics. Building simulation tools that are capable of doing so is a challenge, especially if you want to apply it to the big layouts. New foundry processes are a blessing for MAGWEL since they trigger the need for our products. MAGWEL is rooted in the physical approach of design problems.

    Looking back we can say that sometimes it was an overkill by incorporating too much physics but we learned important lessons. There is a healthy friction between accuracy (the physics approach to understand what is going on) and efficiency (the engineering approach to make things work). Our product development team is a mixture of engineers, physicists and computer scientists complemented with collaboration with mathematicians leading to the best results.

    Q: What will success look like at Magwel in twelve months?

    This year (2014) turns out to be very successful in terms of growth of revenue thanks to product sales. We have new products coming up that are now in development with core partners such as SPX, our product for extracting substrate parasitic Bipolar transistors. SPX is a unique tool that can simulate and extract substrate parasitic Bipolars at the chip level, which is a quantum leap over what TCAD tools can do. Our ESDi tool which includes the modeling of the highly non-linear response of protection devices clearly fills a need. Our product PTM-ET, the power transistor modeler with electro-thermal transient simulations will be upgraded in the next release to deal with much larger (full) chip heat capabilities. Our electromagnetic TCAD solver, which was originally developed in the frequency regime is now also available in the transient regime to simulate ultra-fast large signals.

    My expectations are high for next year in terms of increase of revenue and additional hiring to realize the developments that are requested by our customers.
    We expect a growth of over 50% in 2014, following a 55% growth in 2013. Magwel has entered an accelerating growth phase thanks to the success of its products in the marketplace.

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    SPX: Substrate Parasitic Bipolar Extraction, chip-level 3D substrate noise integrity analysis

    Related: Electro-Thermal Simulation of Power Transistors