Startup Vies for Opto Market with Homegrown IP

Travelling the Silicon RoadXIAMEN, China – Startups and entrepreneurs are popping up all over China and this southern coastal city, which is also a center of the optoelectronics industry in China, is no exception.

Chinese optoelectronics has a bit of a head start over its silicon semiconductor device industry; one of Xiamen’s opto device companies was founded more than two decades ago. But then it also plays host to Xiamen UX High-Speed IC Co. Ltd.

UX was founded less than three years ago by a handful of engineers, including Chinese — one of them local — as well as a couple of natives form the United States and Canada. They put in some time at familiar names: Cypress, ON Semi, Epson and Texas Instruments.

It is somewhat familiar story by now in China: UX’s founders felt they had learned all they could learn abroad in business, so they returned to China to start the company because the time seemed ripe, according to company president and Chinese native Xu Ping, who put in six years in Silicon Valley himself before returning to China.

He espoused the same logic many do here: China’s chip market is booming, in part because of domestic demand and in part because of the government’s encouragement to develop a semiconductor manufacturing base. Even if China’s domestic chip production capacity grows exponentially, it will be decades before that capacity comes anywhere close to fulfilling the domestic consumption.

“It does need a lot of technology and people,” Xu remarked of his native country. “Right now, most Chinese companies can only do simple chip designs,” he continued. “We feel like we have more growing room in China. After two-and-a-half years, we feel we can continue to do well.”

Xu estimates that to start UX, which now has a team of 18 people, most of whom are dedicated to R&D, the start up cost in China was about one-fifth to one-tenth of what it would have been in the United States.

The company right now is looking for second-round funding; like many startups here, it is looking to foreign venture capital (VC), namely that in the United States, to find it. While UX enjoys support from the local Xiamen government, and just closed the terms on a low-rate loan, the domestic Chinese VC scene is still nascent, that’s why so many companies like UX seek out foreign VC firms.

As for products, UX right now concentrates on high-end mixed-signal/RF IC chips, transceiver chips for front-tend fiber optic network communications applications, such as transimpedance amplifier, limiting amplifier and laser diode driver chips. Like many startups in China, the company is concentrating on high-end applications, where it has a chance of capturing some market share, rather than the crowded market for high-volume, low-end applications, such as consumer — a particularly crowded domestic market in China right now.

While the company originally set out to develop 10gigabit per second (Gbps) chips, it decided to focus in the short-term on the mainstream market for fiber communications, meaning 155megabit per second (Mbps) chips. It already is in production with IBM/Chartered Semi as its foundry partner with two 155Mbps chips, which it has begun selling, garnering interest outside of China as well, Xu said. The market for 1.5Gbps and 2Gbps is also developing rapidly, he noted.

Xu suggested that his company has an advantage over its competitors, in that while many of them are moving their fiber module manufacturing to China, most of their chips are still being exported out of China. As a domestic fabless company whose foundry partner is in nearby Singapore, and whose chips are packaged by a backend company here in China, UX is poised to grab market share in China, and in the future go head to head with its competitors beyond the country’s borders.

He noted that one of the chips that it has in production right now, a 155Mbps laser driver, can attain speeds up to 311Mbps, and is manufactured with standard low-cost CMOS, rather than BiCMOS or bi-polar technology, more commonly found in optoelectronic apps.

But the company is nevertheless still pursuing advanced technology and its own intellectual property (IP), according to Xu. It has developed and produced chips with 0.13-micron designs, as well as silicon germanium (SiGe) BiCMOS technology, in addition to standard CMOS.

“We’re one of the first companies to use SiGe in a BiCMOS process,” Xu noted. UX has also garnered two patents concerning indium phosphide technology, and has two other patents in the final stages of examination, while it has applied for three additional ones.

He agreed that developing domestic IP is an important issue for China right now. With so many engineers coming back to China, and so many other positive factors in place to foster startups, there is no real reason why China can’t foster its own IP, Xu suggested.

Electronic News Travels to China“I think in China, at least some of these [new] companies should have their own IP,” he said. “I think it’s important to come up with a good product.” Up until recently, China has relied mostly on modifying designs from foreign companies for the domestic market, meaning much of the profit leaves China; this has been one of the significant barriers to IP development in China, he acknowledged.

“First you have to have the people, and then you have to have the technology. If you don’t have these, you won’t get money,” he continued, either in the form of profit or investment capital. “Right now, the engineers are the most important things.”

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a news story written by me that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. It’s former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge). You can still see a copy of this story at EDN.

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