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Startups' Chips Invigorate Austin's Silicon Hills

AUSTIN, Texas — Several startups here, survivors of the downturn's withering winds, are sampling early silicon, much of it for mixed-signal applications.

Alereon, Bandspeed, NetEffect and PropheSi Technologies are showing their various wares to customers. Another promising Austin startup, NanoCoolers, says it is nearly ready to offer evaluation samples of its processor-cooling modules, based on a liquid form of gallium and indium.

The five companies enter the market at a critical juncture. Despite major successes like SigmaTel and Silicon Laboratories, venture capital firms here are looking cautiously at chip startups and their long and expensive design cycles. A larger portion of Austin's pool of VC investments has been going into either system companies or software startups, including two stealth-mode EDA companies, Pyxis and Nascentric.

Alereon Inc. is riding the ultrawideband (UWB) wave and expects its early customers to demo systems at January's Consumer Electronics Show. The company supports multiband orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM).

Speaking at the recent Silicon Hills Summit here, CEO Eric Brookman said Alereon is the first member of the Multiband OFDM Alliance's Special Interest Group to offer both the RF transceiver chip, which Alereon crafted in a silicon germanium process from Jazz Semiconductor, as well as a baseband device, based on a 0.13-micron silicon process. The baseband chip supports a 480-Mbit/second transfer speed, he said, asserting that UWB test silicon from other companies is limited to about 100 Mbits/s. The Multiband-OFDM approach competes with a direct-sequence UWB method backed primarily by Freescale Semiconductor Inc.

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