Powering a revolution in chip design?
ChipFlow's platform breaks down barriers for electronics companies
The rapid pace at which the world changes these days is unlikely to slow down any time soon. It feels like we’re witnessing a wholesale shift in the way everything works, and tech is far from immune from the turmoil.
Today’s startup is a tackling a market particularly impacted by global uncertainty, while simultaneously experiencing opportunities to do things in whole new ways. Scroll down to read all about ChipFlow. PreSeed Now members get the full story, so upgrade your subscription to read it all:
I’m lining up a bunch of interesting and diverse startups for the rest of this year and into 2023 but the roster isn’t full yet.
I always want to hear about high-potential startups addressing interesting markets in new ways. Drop me a line to let me know who I should be talking to.
ChipFlow wants to power a revolution in chip design
Chip production is a critical issue in geopolitics right now. The continued independence of leading producer Taiwan is under threat from potential Chinese aggression, and China’s own relationship with the West is increasingly shaky.
This has caused major shifts in the electronics world. Just look at how Apple has adapted its approach to chips. It has successfully brought chip design in house and begun to diversify its fabrication to plants outside China and Taiwan. Just this week Bloomberg reported that the company has plans to produce chips in the USA from 2024 and potentially Europe in the future.
And with technological advances in chip design and manufacturing, smart, forward-thinking electronics companies are figuring out how to secure chip supply chains that give them a competitive edge and secure them against the turbulence of a rapidly shifting world.
ChipFlow is a new startup that wants to make it easier for electronics manufacturers to embrace this shift in approach by simplifying the chip design process.
Let the chips flow
The startup is targeting the rapid growth in smartwatches, IoT kit, smart speakers, and other categories of device that have emerged in recent years and continue to emerge today. And it’s not just hardware startups looking to break through that ChipFlow wants to serve, it has its eyes on larger companies with limited capacity to develop their own chips.
Noting how the explosive growth of the open source software world has accelerated software development in the past decade, ChipFlow co-founder and CEO Rob Taylor says the same thing is now happening in hardware.
He explains that chip development is currently either outsourced to specialists–which can be slow and expensive–or done in-house, which is tough to recruit for and involves lots of commercial negotiation around the layers of software and hardware required to make a chip work.
Taylor says chip design is a competitive, specialised function and even big companies have limited capacity to design new chips that can help them build better, more innovative products.
“What we've found is even with companies where they have well-known chip design capabilities, teams are still coming and talking to us.”
How it works
ChipFlow’s product takes the form of a platform-as-a-service offering. Users connect a GitHub repository to the platform, and work on the code for the chip in Python. ChipFlow includes a library of open source components that can be used in chips without paying a royalty fee.
Users can design the chip, test its functionality, and then order a batch of test chips with the click of a button, all within the interface.
ChipFlow has partnerships with third-party suppliers to handle chip manufacturing and quality assurance, again taking a pain point away from customers.
Still, this isn’t something that can be used with no expertise at all. Companies using ChipFlow will need Python developers and someone with an understanding of electronics and printed circuit board design - but let’s face it, if you’re a hardware company, this shouldn’t be much of a hurdle.
Once customers have designed a chip, ChipFlow hopes to become the home of their chip designs, letting them easily iterate on existing designs via the platform over time. Indeed, Taylor says ChipFlow will allow those incremental improvements to occur at a greater pace than is currently possible via other working methods.
Taylor has been working around the intersection of electronics and open-source software since the turn of the century (by which I of course mean ‘around the year 2000’, but it does rather paint a picture of a Victorian gentleman in a top hat and a lab coat). This eventually led to him launching a startup called Reconfigure.io that looked to capitalise on the growth in demand for FPGA acceleration in software a few years ago.
It was back then that I first came across Taylor. We had a coffee and he enthused me with his vision, but ultimately the startup didn’t succeed.
“There was just too much which didn't really quite work. Too much engineering needed for the money we’d raised. So that unfortunately folded, but I learned a lot through that.”
One thing Reconfigure.io gave Taylor was exposure to the open-source chip world, and the opportunities it presented. This led him to the idea behind ChipFlow.
“What open source software did is it disintermediated compute. You weren't building on top of proprietary Microsoft or proprietary Oracle technologies. You had full control. And I think that's going to be a big change in electronics.”
ChipFlow has a co-founding team of five who have been working on the product since summer 2021. Taylor is based in the Peak District and the startup is remote-first, but plans to open an office in Sheffield soon. As keen readers of PreSeed Now will know, Sheffield is building up quite a flurry of deep tech expertise and startup activity at present.
The startup has been busy establishing partnerships to bring its business to life and is lining up its first customers.