Stealthy chip startup’s technology is a big power play

Stealthy startup SuVolta has invented a way to improve the chip-manufacturing process that will help cut the power usage of semiconductors by half while maintaining their performance. The company plans to license the chip-making process, according to the company’s CEO and president, Bruce McWilliams.
Lowering the power consumption of chips has become a rallying call for the chip industry. SuVolta is also doing its bit so that battery-powered mobile devices will last longer and server makers can deliver computing without requiring data centers to have their own power plants — a theoretical future that could grind the current wave of web services and cloud computing innovations to a halt. The startup has the backing of several A-listers in the chip world, such as Andy Bechtolsheim, Wilfred Corrigan (the founder of LSI Logic) and Bill Joy (Sun Microsystems co-founder, now with Kleiner Perkins, Caufield & Byers).
SuVolta was founded in  2006, and it raised $36.5 million in three rounds through 2009 from investors, including angels such as Bechtolsheim and Corrigan and venture firms including Kleiner Perkins and others. But it ran into stormy weather  — a situation not uncommon in the chip industry. So it was recapitalized in 2010 with $22 million from NEA, August Capital and Kleiner Perkins after getting new management.
The new executive team is headed by McWilliams, who has worked at Tessera (s tsra) and Flextronics, and Scott Thompson as the CTO. Thompson was an Intel (s intc) fellow who worked on many types of process technologies, both to lower the power consumption in chips but also to continue shrinking them and cramming more transistors on them. We recently covered Intel’s new type of 3-D transistor it announced with much fanfare in May.
SuVolta’s tech, however, is less revolutionary than changing the design of the transistor. At an early point in the manufacturing process (it won’t disclose the point), the SuVolta technology calls for a slightly different combination of ingredients to be layered on the chip. Semiconductors are manufactured in a manner similar to layer cakes, with each layer of circuitry deposited on the chip and the unnecessary bits etched away according to whatever pattern the manufacturer is supposed to follow. Thompson says that SuVolta’s process, which will be available next year, doesn’t change the overall chip-making process. It doesn’t change the silicon used to make the chip, and it can be easily implemented in fabrication plants that will license SuVolta’s technology.
That’s not all. The company says that in addition to the modifications to the manufacturing process, it has developed new circuit design elements that will boost the efficiency even more. McWilliams plans on selling licenses much like ARM (s armh) does to chip makers, although this tweak doesn’t change the instruction set (so an x86-based chip from Intel or AMD will still operate as an x86 chip, while a chip based on the ARM architecture is still able to run software for those chips).
Unlike building a new chip and finding buyers for it, SuVolta has to convince chip foundries such as Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (s TSM); chip makers such as Qualcomm (s qcom) and Broadcom (s brcm); and even chip equipment makers such as Applied Materials (s amat) to embrace its new technology. Fujitsu Semiconductor has signed on as the first licensee. Let’s hope there will be others — for the sake of our power-hungry smartphones.