While microelectronics is a global industry, a crucial enabling technology--electronic design automation (EDA)--has been largely a U.S. enterprise for several decades. Recent developments in Europe may challenge that dominance in years to come. At the recent Medea+DAC workshop in Prien, Germany, I was impressed with the depth and scope of EDA R&D efforts under way at large European IDMs, research institutes and startups. Cutting-edge work is going on in electronic system-level (ESL) design, analog/ mixed-signal, design-for-manufacturability, integrated nanoelectronics and other subjects. Europeans have a strong determination to be at the forefront of hardware and software design technology for sub-90-nanometer, multiprocessor systems-on-chip.
Europe has its own distinctive approach, however. While some notable startups have emerged, especially in the ESL market, much of the R&D work is undertaken by large consumers of EDA tools, such as Infineon, STMicroelectronics and Philips. These companies actively collaborate on research, development and standards. Large research institutes like Leti in France or IMEC in Belgium also have active EDA programs.
Much of the European research is backed by government-funded consortia. Medea+, sponsor of the Medea+DAC event, is a pan-European consortium that funds microelectronics research projects in many areas, including design automation. One successful Medea+ project was Anastasia, a broad-ranging analog/mixed-signal effort that brought together European IDMs, systems houses, EDA vendors, universities and research institutes. It culminated in a commercial tool offering from German startup MunEDA, offered in the United States by ChipMD. Medea+ also maintains a comprehensive EDA road map that helps guide funding priorities.
European EDA startups are likely to be spin-offs from a large IDM, a research institute or a Medea+ project. In the United States, startups are more likely to arise in somebody's living room and to be on their own until venture capital funding kicks in. There is, of course, a lot of basic R&D work at American universities. But out in the commercial world, there's less government funding, fewer consortia and research institutes, and less obvious collaboration among large consumers of EDA tools than one would find in Europe.
It would appear that Europe puts more emphasis on cooperation, the U.S. on competition. Most Americans would rather have private venture capitalists take risks than taxpayer-supported entities. And there's resistance here to anything that smacks of centralized planning.
The United States does not need to follow the European model. But no matter how it's done, developing next-generation EDA technology will take a lot of money, an open collaboration among multiple stakeholders and some kind of common vision. The Europeans are meeting those requirements through Medea+ and similar initiatives. To retain its edge in EDA, the United States must find its own way to drive the next generation of IC design technology.