Alex Alexanian

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Bad silicon 'yields' a DFM solution by Richard Goering

Electronic Engineering Times April 25, 2005

Santa Cruz, Calif. - A foundry's "bizarre" mistake led Alex Alexanian to start a company to help solve the toughest problem in design-for-manufacturability (DFM): getting information that foundries consider proprietary into designers' hands.

Alexanian was chief executive officer of SRAM startup Mosaic Systems when it received a 0.13-micron chip that was dead-on-arrival from its foundry. Turned out the foundry forgot to put two metal layers on the chip. That got Alexanian to thinking that perhaps there was a "wrong setup" between design and manufacturing.

In 2001 he founded E-Z-CAD, now known as Ponte Solutions Inc., a design-for-yield startup that this week will announce plans to bring statistical yield modeling into the IC design flow. If foundries go along, Ponte's encrypted models could end the reliance on long lists of design rules and provide a much more accurate way of calibrating designs for acceptable yields.

Ponte is backed by $10 million in private investment and venture capital, and employs 60, including 49 R&D engineers in Alexanian's native Armenia. The company promises a "platform" for statistical yield modeling, a high-capacity data model and yield analysis tools, all for release this year.

Alexanian is used to challenges. A graduate of the Faculty of Applied Mathematics in Armenia, he worked on a programmable logic controller project co-sponsored by the former Soviet Union and Great Britain. When the USSR dissolved, so did the project, and Alexanian moved with his family to California in 1994.

He worked at Cadence Design Systems Inc., where he was a member of the consulting staff in the Silicon Ensemble group. In 1999 he left to launch Mosaic Systems, which produced working silicon but is no longer operating. Alexanian started E-Z-CAD with 27 people from Mosaic's R&D center in Armenia.

E-Z-CAD spurned an acquisition offer from HPL Technologies Inc. in 2002, which may have been fortuitous, given that HPL's CEO was charged a few months later with fabricating most of the company's revenue. Declining the offer meant Alexanian had to ask his team to go without pay for four months.

They did. "That was the time we realized we really had a company," he said. Alexanian later succeeded in raising private funds, as well as funding from Telos Venture Partners, U.S. Venture Partners and Incubic.

Alexanian is Ponte's president and CEO. His team includes two former directors of engineering from Monterey Design Systems-Ara Markosian, Ponte's CTO, and Sedrak Sargisian, its vice president of engineering. Arklin Kee, vice president of business development, co-founded Cadence. Nitin Deo, senior vice president of marketing, was with Magma Design Automation.

There are many DFM startups today, but Ponte claims to have a distinctive angle: its rejection of "binary" design rules in favor of statistical yield models. "Today the EDA world interfaces with the fab with design rules," Alexanian said. "We believe that's going to change because of high pain." A 90-nanometer design rule deck might be more than 1,000 pages, he noted, and might include conflicting information.

Ponte is developing a platform for statistical yield modeling that claims much better calibration with actual fab processes. These models will include random defects such as particle contamination, systemic defects such as etching and chemical-metal polishing violations, and parametric effects from process variations.

Most important, they will be encrypted, so that tools can use the information but people outside the foundry can't see it. Ponte hopes this will induce foundries to provide yield data they won't release today. While a generic description of failure mechanisms will be public, foundry-specific parameters will not.

Getting foundry information is the biggest problem for DFM vendors, said Gary Smith, chief EDA analyst at Gartner Dataquest. "The holy grail is a secure process model, one that can be used by the DFM vendors but can't be reverse-engineered," he said.

Ponte expects statistical yield information to be integrated into design tools. For example, placement and routing tools can use the models to do more yield-friendly wire spacing or install redundant vias.

Underlying Ponte's technology is a proprietary data model that can do "smart processing on billions of polygons, hierarchical or flat, in hours for large chips," Alexanian said. It will support standard interface formats so data can be exchanged with commercial EDA systems.

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