The SEMI Europe Industry Strategy Symposium (ISS Europe) returns in Milan, Italy, this year from 31st March to 2nd April, 2019 to explore new opportunities and challenges in the digital economy. Serena Brischetto of SEMI spoke with GreenWaves Technologies CEO and co-founder Loïc Lietar about the semiconductor start-up and its Internet of Things (IoT) ultra-low-power processing technology ahead of the summit.
SEMI: What are the mission and vision of GreenWaves Technologies?
Lietar: GreenWaves Technologies is a fabless semiconductor start-up that is designing disruptive ultra-low power embedded solutions for image, sound and vibration artificial intelligence (AI) processing in sensing devices. It was founded in late 2014 with the mission to enable the market for intelligent in-device sensors using ultra-low energy and cost-efficient computing solutions. As a result, the GreenWaves GAP8 is the industry’s first ultra-low-power processor to enable battery-operated AI in Internet of Things (IoT) applications.
SEMI: How did you move from the semiconductor industry to the start-up ecosystem?
Lietar: I worked 25 years for STMicroelectronics then four years ago left because a project didn’t materialize. At the same time, I became involved a bit by chance in the founding of GreenWaves, which turned out to be an amazing journey that I rapidly got entirely – and deadly – committed to.
SEMI: Semiconductors are usually not associated with the idea of start-up. What is the key to the success of GreenWaves and its positioning?
Lietar: Start-ups have played a significant role in the formation of our industry and in bringing innovations and disruptions to the market. But as it became more complicated to finance start-ups because of exploding development costs, the number of semiconductor start-ups shrank significantly in the past 10 years.
At GreenWaves we develop and sell IoT application processors – processors tuned for a given class of applications. In our case, we focused on machine learning inference processors and more generally signal processing and IoT for ultra-low power. We typically process and analyze images, sounds and vibrations and our technology is more than one order of magnitude more energy efficient than existing processors. For example, our processor, coupled with an infra-red sensor, can count the number of people present in a room once a minute for more than five years on a single charge.
Our architecture uses RISC-V cores. This free and open Instruction Set Architecture is seeing huge momentum and a rapidly growing community. Second, we leverage an open source project called PULP developed by the Italian Università di Bologna and the Federal Polytechnical School ETH in Zurich. While open source is a well-established model for software, this is pretty unchartered territory in the semiconductor industry. It is working very well for us, as we benefit from robust technology we can incrementally innovate on. This is why we have been able to develop our first product with 4 million Euro.
Competition is now emerging, and this is a good sign: We are not alone in believing in this market but we remain very differentiated!
SEMI: One of the reasons why semiconductor start-ups were no longer attractive to VCs is the amount of capital that start-ups need to invest. Did public funding help you too?
Lietar: Yes, public funding played a crucial role at the beginning. We received rather classically 300K Euro of French grants and then we were lucky enough to win a very selective H2020 grant, the SME instrument, for 1.2M€. In France there is a very powerful scheme of research tax credit that covers more than 30 percent of our R&D costs and French banks know how to lend money to start-ups, with a state warranty.
SEMI: What is particularly exciting about GreenWaves?
Lietar: When we defined the target market more than three years ago, frankly, we were alone in the market. Now, it sounds obvious, but we have a three-year time advantage over our competitors. The technology is really impressive and great in serving this market, and it goes beyond what we had thought about it at the beginning. And finally, the open source model that we are validating is yet another rather unique attribute of ours. The combination of those three aspects is thrill!
SEMI: Can you name some applications?
In the consumer space we can name, autonomous nano-drones, smart toys, home surveillance and wearables. We also enable important applications in smart buildings and smart cities related to counting people and things, and within the industry 4.0 with applications in advanced fault detection.
SEMI: What are your expectations regarding the summit in Milan, and for the future ahead? What is the status of the semiconductor funding ecosystem?
Lietar: I look forward to comparing my recent entrepreneurial experience with other colleagues and peers in the industry. It is true: Financing a semiconductor start-up is a challenge, but things are improving. Ironically, in the U.S. and China, we are in the middle of an over-heated hype around AI, which will ultimately burst and make it even more difficult to fund semiconductor start-ups than it was before. But we are used to it in this industry.
Loïc Lietar is a co-founder and CEO of GreenWaves Technologies, a fabless semiconductor start-up that develops GAP8, the industry's first loT application processor featuring ultra-low power for images, sounds and motion.
Prior to co-founding GreenWaves Technologies, Loïc worked 25 years for STMicroelectronics, where he led several product divisions. He also served as Chief Strategy Officer and co-founded and managed the corporate venture fund at STMicroelectronics.
Serena Brischetto is a marketing and communications manager at SEMI Europe.