“If you’re not in Silicon Valley, you’d better be in Cambridge” (*)

The Baron of Beef, featured in the BBC docudrama following the bitter rivalry between Chris Curry and Sir Clive Sinclair of Acorn and Sinclair Computers; read this excellent article in The Guardian describing that rivalry, and the dilemma still faced today by every Cambridge start-up. Maybe Sir Clive was also the inventor of crowd-funding..?! ©User Rept0n1x at Wikimedia Commons
A journey of relationships starting with Acorn Computers, then Arm, the power industry and now a “Covidian” start-up!

(*) So said John Hodgson, CEO of Cambridge Silicon Radio

John’s a trans-Atlantic Brit raised and educated in the UK, with an early career in Texas Instruments and Fairchild before crossing the pond for companies such as VTC, Lucent Microelectronics, and VLSI Technology where I first knew him, running worldwide sales. His counsel was always worth hearing, and he made the Cambridge remark about the time I joined him during CSR’s IPO roadshow in 2004.

This story underlines the Cambridge dynamic, and how I’ve maintained a single thread of relationships through several decades of connections, recently helping a “Covidian” start-up with a 5G radio breakthrough. Along the way, I’ve “been there” at the start of new markets and technologies: home computers, ASIC, embedded (Arm) processors, the very start of GSM, DECT and Bluetooth, and then progressing into power electronics and energy.

Acorn Archimedes, Advanced RISC Machines, Arm Ltd

I first dealt with Acorn Computers at Texas Instruments, selling DRAMS in the Home Computer boom and bust of the 80’s, but it was at VLSI Technology that those enduring relationships began. At the time, we were sole supplier of chipsets for Acorn’s Archimedes, for Apple computers, and of PC chipsets for Intel’s x86 architecture.

Three companies found Arm

The Archimedes was powered by the 32-bit Acorn RISC Machine, providing the core technology on which “Advanced RISC Machines” was established in 1990. Apple had licensed the processor for its Newton project, VLSI Technology provided EDA design tools and together with Acorn, they established a joint venture to exploit the technology.

As a sales team at VLSI, we would visit ASIC prospects, suggesting they integrate an “embedded Arm processor” from this chap with a beard (sorry Jamie!), and we did well at evangelising the concept, even if it seemed that each time a new design was close, Robin’s latest licensee would pop up and whisk it away….

Symbionics, Orbitel IP: Wireless Products at VLSI Technology

Vendors of ASIC silicon, EDA tools and IP are always at the forefront of innovation: by definition, an innovative electronics solution will often dictate the need for a custom ASIC, and they’ll come to these guys first. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, the digital wireless communications market was one of the most exciting, and it seemed everyone wanted to get into DECT and GSM.

At VLSI, we partnered with Symbionics and Orbitel to develop chipsets – for DECT cordless phones and for GSM with the other. Symbionics was founded by execs from PA Technology in Cambridge, whilst Racal and Plessey set up Orbitel, the first company to achieve GSM “interim type approval“.

Arm 7 powers the first GSM standard chipset

I moved to Munich, and later Sophia Antipolis, as a founder of the Wireless Products Division where we developed a two-chip solution for GSM phones, integrating an Arm7 core in the “TwoC” (were we the first to use an Arm in a standard chipset – anyone know?). Samsung adopted the chipset in a Wavecom reference design to manufacture their first volume GSM phone.

In the late 90’s, Advanced RISC Machines became ARM Holdings, whilst VLSI Technology and its wireless business was acquired in 1999 for over $1bn by Philips Semiconductors. We made this press announcement when we were trying to fend off the Philips takeover, but that Samsung design-win ultimately reaped $bn’s for VLSI and it’s subsequent owners: Philips Semi’s, NXP and ST-Ericsson.

Selling Vulcan Machines to Arm upstairs, whilst the bailiffs pop in downstairs

Back in the UK, I ran Vulcan Machines promoting a Java processor up against Arm’s Jazelle. Vulcan failed: our “acquirer” invested £¼m but turned out to be a VAT scam before completion: so much for 3i’s due diligence.

When cash was tight, we tried to sell our “exciting proposition” to Arm, decide for yourself here how exciting it really was! I’d just told the landlord we’d be a day late with the rent whilst HMRC’s R&D Tax Credit cheque cleared: “Fine”, he said. But as Mike Muller and his team listened intently in the Board Room upstairs the next day, the bailiff called in downstairs! It was a shock to learn he could have taken all our PCs, there and then, at 10% of their value to settle the debt! 

Arm didn’t buy us, the “investors” were arrested, and Mike never knew why I stepped out of the meeting!

Arm execs as non-execs and investors

I always kept in touch with the senior team – I’d known Mike Inglis and Warren East from their early days at TI. Warren’s first boss as a fresh graduate was the late Pete Sherratt, with whom I’d shared a house and a life, but I met another Arm Director – Pete McGowan, a venture partner at Alta Berkeley: one of the premier high-tech investors of the noughties. Turned out his first boss at Inmos was Mark Jones, another TI housemate (and there was a fourth housemate, by the way…..she’s now my wife!).

Arm in power electronics

Pete and two other Arm execs founded Amantys Ltd leveraging research from Cambridge University, applying Arm-based digital monitoring to high voltage, high current IGBT Modules. He asked me to help “for a couple of days a week for a couple of months” to bring some start-up cuts and bruises.

Arm, Fidelity and Avago all invested, my consulting engagement became 5 or 6 days a week for four years, setting up and running the marketing programme, and establishing the “Power Drive Partnership Programme”. These relationships brought Tier 1 industry endorsement, privileged access to qualified markets, and direct funding for our development roadmap.

Amantys 3300V PowerDrive

Amantys 3300V PowerDrive

From power electronics to the power industry

Maschinenfabrik Reinhausen acquired the business to establish Amantys Power Electronics Ltd, and several projects followed in the power industry. That exposure then led directly to another interim assignment for the Energy Systems Catapult lasting a year and a half.

The latest link to a “Covidian” start-up from my earliest Arm connection

At the height of the first Covid lockdown, I’d seen the aforementioned Jsmie (sic!) Urquhart referenced in David Manners’ Electronics Weekly “Mannerisms” and pinged him a note. He mentioned a fresh new start-up with an interesting approach to 5G radio architectures.

Breaking paradigms: “This 5G radio architecture…..has true disruptive potential”

I introduced their concept to a number of leading mobile vendors, one of whom commented that the solution looked “truly disruptive”, and it’s not often you hear that.

Back in its day, CSR broke a paradigm by integrating the radio onto the same CMOS Bluetooth chip as the baseband – something no-one else had dared to try: “It won’t work”, said Eric Janson from Lucent Microelectronics, but within a matter of weeks he’d joined them to head up the commercial team!

IMHO, this new Cambridge start-up has that same potential – we’ll see, and maybe Phil O’Donovan agrees…..?

Update: Forefront RF attracts £1.5m funding to develop multi-band frequency agile RF chip from Cambridge Angels, Science Creates Ventures, Foresight Williams Technology, BGF. Former CSR co-founder and managing director Phil O’Donovan becomes non-executive chairman.

What lessons do I take from this?

  • Networks – keep in touch with old friends and associates, and never let the passage of time hold you back from renewing a trusted relationship
  • Cambridge – it’s full of extraordinary people creating extraordinary products; if it can be done, it’s probably been done here, and if it can’t be done, well maybe they can do it anyway!
  • And when the technologists want to take their product, that’s where I get involved – get in touch if I can help with yours.

Footnotes: 

  • Sir Clive – Sadly this great inventor passed away recently, and this article from Nick Flaherty at EE News gives some insight on the impact he and his inventions had on many people. And make time to listen to the Chris Curry interview at the end!
  • Another Arm link? Keep an eye out for another exciting start-up – this one powering high
    performance cloud processing where another Arm connection is an investor…..to be continued.
  • And why “Covidian”? Well at the time, Forefront had no physical office, nor any plan to have one, but now they’re installed in that renowned home of Cambridge start-ups – St. John’s Innovation Centre.

Share Post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Colombia: it wasn’t on my bucket list, but if your ambition is Latin American growth, it should be on yours!

One chance to make a first impression, and Colombia: what an impression!

Me: “Hi Apple – I’ll put you on line-stop next Thursday.” Apple: “Thanks – keep us posted!”

So went the conversation with Apple in May 2005 when CSR’s chip production in Taiwan went up in smoke

The cobbler’s children have no shoes: Building channels to market

I was in a webinar for high tech entrepreneurs Making the Most of Cambridge Network when the cobbler’s children came to mind…