Mindgrove’s Customized Chips Propel India’s Semiconductor Ascendancy

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In an exclusive interview with TimesTech, Shashwath T R, Co-founder and CEO of Mindgrove Technologies, sheds light on the company’s tailored approach to chip design, staying ahead in the semiconductor industry, and the significance of the Shakti microprocessor in India’s digital ambitions.

Read the full interview here:

TimesTech: How does Mindgrove ensure that its chip designs are tailored to the unique requirements of each appliance or industry it serves? What is the process involved in customizing chip designs for different use cases?

Mindgrove: Mindgrove specializes in making SoC systems on chips. Our chip design process begins by identifying common challenges within a specific sector or related sector. Following this, we prepare a draft document called “60% solution document,” – which serves as a foundation for engaging potential customers in discussions aimed at refining the product’s features and appeal.

Through extensive feedback and discussions with various companies, we also evaluate the necessity of adding or removing features. Subsequently, we proceed to the design and prototyping phase, ensuring that the SoC aligns closely with the refined feedback and with customer requirements as closely as possible.

Customers use our SoC and a mix of other components on a printed circuit board (PCB) which is customised exactly to their requirements. For those customers who opt for it, we will get involved in designing these custom boards, too.

TimesTech: In the rapidly evolving semiconductor industry, how does Mindgrove stay ahead of technological advancements and market trends to continue delivering cutting-edge chip designs?

Mindgrove: The semiconductor industry is evolving in many different directions. While the “nanometer race” is widely recognized in the smartphone sector, not all segments require the adoption of newer nanometer nodes. Mindgrove’s SoCs cater specifically to IoT and Edge computing applications, where the definition of “cutting edge” takes on a distinct meaning.

In the industry, focus is higher in terms of optimizing for low power consumption, cost efficiency, customizations, etc. For example, if a chip in a smartwatch can consume very low power, then perhaps it can go for weeks without needing a charge. Another example is if a chip in a security camera can provide video encryption support, then the camera can transmit encrypted video that can’t be hacked.

TimesTech: Can you share insights into the significance of the Shakti microprocessor, its features, and how it aligns with the broader objectives of the Digital India RISC-V program.

Mindgrove: The Shakti Microprocessor program was implemented under the leadership of Prof Kamakoti, presently the Director of IITM. The project was funded by the Govt of India. The RISC-V instruction set architecture was chosen because it was open – i.e., license and royalty-free. Further, IITM was able to make the source code of the Shakti microprocessor openly under a permissive license so that anyone in the world can freely take the code, modify it, make products out of it, and sell the products, without having to pay a charge license fees or royalties for using the Shakti microprocessor codebase.

The Shakti design was “taped-out” multiple times, experimentally proving that the design works. This makes it a highly reliable design, which is why companies like Mindgrove are comfortable building SoCs based on Shakti.

The Digital India RISC-V program was started with the aim of promoting companies to make indigenous designs using the RISC-V architecture. The goal is to create a community of RISC-V chip designers, which will give a boost to the Indian chip design ecosystem.

TimesTech: Where India stands in terms of fabless technology.

Mindgrove: India is well known for providing design services to larger chip companies. Even large companies like HCL and TCS are very active in this category. Additionally, there are companies specialising in providing specific services that are useful in the fabless design process, e.g., verification, physical design, etc. Thirdly, a large number of Indian engineers are employed by fabless global chip design companies.

In summary, India supplies a high volume of chip design talent to serve the fabless segment – part of which is employed in global fabless companies, and the rest are employed in companies providing design services.

TimesTech: The talent war in the semiconductor industry – and India’s potential to become semiconductor design Nation

Mindgrove: The semiconductor industry is currently witnessing a surge in demand for talent, highlighting the significance placed on skilled professionals. To address this, the government has already initiated several measures such as identifying over 300 prominent colleges in India, where specialized courses on semiconductors will be made available, signing several MoUs with key universities across the globe for capacity building, research and development, and industry participation. Additionally, by taking proactive measures such as offering accessible training programs like Swayam and NPTEL, the industry can aim to have a stronger talent pool. These initiatives, if effectively executed, undoubtedly could establish India as a significant hub for semiconductor design.

TimesTech: Need for equal emphasis on fab and fabless models in India

Mindgrove: Undoubtedly, focussing on either fab first or fabless is a chicken and egg problem. Different countries have followed different approaches. For example, in East Asia – Mainland China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan became a hotspot for the semiconductor industry owning to its burgeoning economy, the rise of mobile communications and growth in cloud computing, however, each country focussed on different aspects of the supply chain. While Japan laid emphasis on becoming a supplier of semiconductor materials, high-end equipment and special semiconductors; South Korea commanded lead in the global HBM (high bandwidth memory) DRAM (dynamic random-access memory) market.

The Indian government has however taken a balanced approach towards promoting both fabs and fabless initiatives, which deserves praise, as it aims to harness the potential of both avenues effectively. However, in the short term, we believe that giving precedence to building the fabless ecosystem would be strategic since it allows India to spur local demand for fabs while also benefiting from the relatively lower investment required compared to fabs.

The establishment of fabs demand significant capital investment thus making it more suitable for long-term planning.

TimesTech: Details about the company’s journey, how it is breaking through the clutter to emphasize on making a chip that works and solves problems

Mindgrove: At Mindgrove, we are designing the SoCs – system on chips. We are in the process of designing our first 3 chips – the first of which is currently in the prototype stage.  In our design process, we make a sincere effort to involve potential customers as early as possible – therefore, our chips solve customer requirements from day 1.

In terms of Business strategy, we highly focus on exploring new & emerging categories as well as addressing the segments within the industry that have been neglected by global entities. In these areas, we even strive to offer our customers products that are competitive and compelling. Our message to our customers is simple: We ensure that we build products that fit you best – we’re not in competition with the cheapest, low-quality chips nor are we competing against the feature-packed, expensive chips.