Cswitch Corp. made waves and headlines in 2006 when it unveiled a novel configurable array architecture said to be capable of narrowing the performance and density gaps between field-programmable gate arrays and application-specific ICs. But last month, less than three years later, investors pulled the plug, halting operations at Cswitch and moving to seek a buyer for the programmable logic startup's assets and intellectual property.
Even with the demise of Cswitch, today there are at least five active programmable logic startups whose outlooks are considered promising--more than at any time in recent memory. The companies appear to be well funded, with compelling technology and focused management teams.
But to succeed, they will have to overcome not only entrenched competitors and a brutal downturn, but a history that has not smiled on their kind.
The four oldest players still in operation collectively hold all but a sliver of the total market. Last month, Cswitch became the latest in a long line of failed FPGA startups.
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Cswitch is the latest casualty in a programmable logic market that has hosted more than 50 entrants since 1983. The vast majority have failed, whether succumbing to acquisition, retreating into other markets or simply closing up shop. The list of the vanquished includes once well-regarded startups like Gatefield Corp. (acquired by Actel Corp. in 1999) and Velogix Inc., as well as semiconductor industry stalwarts such as Intel Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Texas Instruments.
Just last year, two programmable logic vendors closed their doors: Ambric Inc. shut down after it ran out of funding, and publicly traded MathStar Inc. ceased operations after failing to find a buyer.
Programmable logic veterans cite several reasons for the history of failures, including targeting too narrow a market niche and failing to "get the tools right." Because programmable logic vendors have traditionally provided software design tools to users at very low or no cost, the price of entry in this market includes not just silicon R&D, but software R&D as well.
Another reason the startups have struggled is simply that the entrenched leaders have proved difficult to unseat. Market watcher Gartner Inc. estimates that Xilinx Inc. and Altera Corp. together accounted for nearly 87 percent of the programmable logic market in 2008 (holding 51.2 percent and 35.5 percent, respectively). Two smaller but well-established players, Actel Corp. and Lattice Semiconductor Corp., each held about 6 percent.
Insiders say startups need to demonstrate clear and compelling technology advantages if they hope to take business from the established competitors, which have significant resources and offer stability and familiarity. A slight technology edge is not going to compel OEMs to take a chance on someone new.
"Any startup that enters the market with the intent to compete directly with strong incumbents in their core markets should stop and take a look at the trail of failed attempts," said John Lofton Holt, founder, chairman and CEO of startup Achronix Semiconductor Corp. "This is true in any industry but particularly true in a highly capital-intensive business like semiconductors, where the financial barrier to entry is very high." Holt maintains that Achronix does not compete directly with Xilinx or Altera.
By contrast, Frederic Reblewski, co-founder and CEO of startup Abound Logic Inc., makes no bones about his company's head-to-head competition with Xilinx and Altera in the market for high-end FPGAs. But Reblewski acknowledged that it would be impossible to compete without highly differentiated technology. "Nobody in his right mind would want to be in a price war with those two companies, with all of the money they have," he said.
The startups' prospects for success are further complicated by the industry downturn, as OEMs, wary of getting involved with any company that might not have the financial wherewithal to stick around, vet suppliers with particular care.