MILPITAS, Calif. - In 1983, several executives from General Electric’s Intersil unit abruptly left that chip maker the same week and went their separate ways.
One group, led by legendary chip executive Jack Gifford, left Intersil to form analog chip maker Maxim Integrated Products Inc. Nathan Zommer, a power IC executive who reported to Gifford at Intersil, also left the company and was part of a faction that formed Ixys Corp. the same week.
Initially, Maxim focused on the lower power segments of the analog market, and later, it became one of the darlings on Wall Street. Meanwhile, Ixys decided to concentrate on the higher power semiconductor market-where it drives everything from power supplies to trains-but it has generally flown under the radar.
Early last year, Maxim acquired the 32-bit microcontroller lines from Zilog Inc. Ironically, late last year, Ixys (Milpitas, Calif.) entered the unfamiliar spotlight by acquiring struggling microcontroller pioneer Zilog (San Jose, Calif.) for $62.4 million in cash. Ixys acquired Zilog’s 8- and 16-bit lines, including the once-venerable Z8, which is now seen as a relic in the MCU world.
Now, Ixys is quietly reviving Zilog. Taking a page from Maxim, TI and others, Ixys is enabling customers to procure its power semiconductor lines and the digital control portions of the solution-Zilog’s MCUs-under the same roof. Zilog is also developing new Z8 offerings and is hoping to bring a 16-bit MCU line back from the dead. It is also mulling over plans to re-enter the 32-bit space with an ARM-based technology.
In a recent interview at the company’s headquarters here, Zommer, chairman and CEO of Ixys, said that Ixys can not only revive the Zilog brand, but it hopes to boost the unit’s sales to $1 billion- per year.
Most-if not all-are skeptical Ixys can realize its lofty goals. In any event, Ixys itself is also expanding its core power semiconductor lines. It has recently rolled out a new power package type for its bread-and-butter IGBTs and power MOSETs. It has rolled out new products based on silicon carbide and gallium nitride (GaN). And it is expanding its chip sourcing alliance with a surprising foundry partner: Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd.
Ixys remains upbeat despite a current lull in the IC market. ''We have tremendous demand for our products, while our competitors are talking about softness in the market,’’ Zommer said. A hands-on and outspoken chip veteran, Zommer owns some 22.3 percent of Ixys’ outstanding shares.
Prior to Ixys, Zommer was the director of the Power MOS division at Intersil, then owned by General Electric (GE). According to Ixys, at GE, Zommer was teamed with Jayant B. Baliga, who himself is credited with the invention of the insulated gate bipolar transistor (IGBT), a three-terminal power semiconductor device.
In 1983, Zommer left the company to co-found Ixys with $800,000 in funding from venture capitalists, according to a book entitled ''The Green Stocks Investment Book’’ (Creative Classics Inc.). The name Ixys is derived from the concept of ''integrated control systems’’ or ICS. In the 1980s, it was ''chic’’ to add an ''X’’ to a corporate name, thereby formulating Ixys, Zommer said.
Initially, the company focused on the power semiconductor market by developing and selling power MOSFETs and IGBTs. A power MOSFET is a metal oxide semiconductor field-effect transistor (MOSFET) that handles large amounts of power. The IGBT combines the advantages of MOSFETs and bipolar transistors.
The company has carved out a niche in the high-end of the business. A slew of companies devise power MOSETs, IGBTs and related products for the lower power, higher volume segments. Ixys specializes on lower-volume power semiconductors for greater than 200 watt, even kilowatt, applications. Many of these devices are single-sourced, long-life parts with few-if any-competitors. Its devices are used in electric cars, power supplies, solar inverters, trains, wind turbines and other high-power, high-voltage systems.
Ixys is not focusing on high-volume consumer products like PCs and handsets. ''We founded the company on the basis of power,’’ he said at a recent conference.
From its inception, Ixys was also influenced by the management style of former Maxim CEO Gifford. (Gifford died of an apparent heart attack in Jan. 11, 2009). Ixys has a ''low-key attitude. We don't let it go to our heads,’’ Zommer told analysts during a call to explain a previous acquisition. As before, Ixys still prefers to remain under the radar. ''We are low key,’’ he told EE Times. ‘’We just want to get the job done.’’