U-M Startup Aims to “Reveal” Design Flaws In Computer Chips

3/4/11Follow @xconomy

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the A. R. Newton Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Worldwide semiconductor revenue grew an estimated 31.5 percent in 2010, as the industry surpassed the $300 billion mark for the first time in its history, according to research firm Gartner.

With Intel and chief rival AMD turning out increasingly advanced chips that can do more and do it faster, bugs and recalls are also becoming more common, Bhalodia says.

“These chips are getting ridiculously complex,” he says. “Engineers are spending less than half their time writing new code and more than 50 percent time debugging.”

Physically testing the chips for flaws takes way too long and will not fully guarantee they will perform as intended. And unlike software, companies can’t issue a patch to fix such a complex problem.

So designers have turned to formal verification in which they use mathematical models to identify flaws. But engineers can only inspect only parts of the chip at a time, which makes it slow and inefficient, Bhalodia says.

In what Andraus calls “Formal Verification 2.0,” Reveal has developed a mathematical “abstraction engine” that allows engineers to focus only on design features that impact the chip as a whole.

Instead of working piecemeal, “we want to go after the entire chip,” Andraus says.

As a result, engineers can make changes on the go instead of waiting until after they create the entire chip to spot flaws, Andraus says.

Reveal has their sights not just on high-end computers but also the fast-growing market for smartphones and tablets. In some ways, the chips that power those smaller mobile devices are even more complex because they must quickly perform a multitude of tasks while consuming less power than PCs.

Overall semiconductor revenue from mobile phones totaled $48.7 billion last year, a 23.2 percent increase from 2009, according to Gartner. In 2011, worldwide semiconductor revenue from mobile phones is projected to reach $55.4 billion, a 13.6 percent increase from last year, Gartner says.

Thanks to the success of Apple’s iPad, Gartner estimates semiconductor revenue from media tablets will grow from $2.4 billion in 2010 to $17.8 billion in 2014.

Reveal is currently raising a seed round. The company says it has already secured an undisclosed commitment from Invest Detroit’s First Step Fund. Cross, the tech investor, also says he wants to invest in the startup.

Reveal’s immediate goal is to license its technology to ARM. That will go a long way in securing industry acceptance of its technology, Andraus says.

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