Breaking Down Barriers
Local Firm Is on the Cusp of a Microchip BreakthroughSteven Frank, Jef Sharp, Jeff Hausthor, and Stephan Rogers are heading up a team whose work is so revolutionary that customers who hear about it say it is almost too good to be true.
“The feedback we are getting shows that what we are doing is the Holy Grail,” said Frank, CEO of Panève LLC, a Hadley-based management and engineering firm.
The mission of the company, founded two years ago by the four seasoned entrepreneurs, is to develop a new software-programmable, general-purpose microchip processor built from the ground up for video and graphics-intensive applications. Its use will cover a wide range of products that make life better for people and run the gamut from TVs to gaming devices to green-energy applications and medical apparatus.
The product, called the RhinoCore, is in final stages of development, said the partners, and will solve an industry problem by reducing costs as well as the time it takes to get new products to the market, while allowing programmers to write innovative applications.
“When most people think about computers, they think about PCs,” Frank said. “But a revolution is happening; computers and processors are embedded in all sorts of devices such as smartphones, tablets, and TVs.”
The number of computer chips used by manufacturers today is staggering. Sharp, founder of the Northampton-based IT solutions company TechCavalry, says the Toyota Prius he drives contains more than 50 computer chips. “A lot of people don’t know how many chips there are in everyday products today. The trend is exploding.”
What makes Panève’s work so groundbreaking is that its processor allows conventional software to take advantage of multiple chip cores as if they were one, Frank said.
He explained that, over the past four or five decades, semiconductor technology has advanced very rapidly and enabled a swift progression in the capability of products at a lower cost. “But that capability hit a technical wall. Over the past five years it has become apparent that we can’t make processors go any faster,” he said.
An example the average consumer can easily understand is that computers often contain multiple processors. “But each one is not faster, so the real problem that no one has figured out is how to make a software platform that will coordinate all these processors and make them work as one,” Frank said.
But the partners are happy to say they think they have solved that problem.
When the Chips Are Down
The mission began about seven years ago when one of the largest TV manufacturers in the world approached Frank with a problem — and an opportunity.
“They wanted to build a TV where all of the work inside was done with software. Instead of building a TV with special-purpose hardware chips, they needed a software-programmable chip that would be applicable to a large market, enable them to get their products to the market faster, and allow them to continually upgrade the device,” he said, adding that the cost of building a new computer chip is tens of millions of dollars. “What they wanted required a supercomputer in a TV, and there was no company that made a product like that.”
Frank was the chief technical officer (CTO) at Kendall Square Research, a leading supercomputer company that he had co-founded. “At the time that I was approached to put supercomputer thinking into a chip for consumer electronics, I was doing consulting work. The solution to the problem they presented me with was not obvious, but I had the framework to solve the problem because of my years at Kendall Square Research.”
Frank spent several months thinking about the problem and worked with the TV company’s consultants to redefine what was needed.
His work was essentially put aside as his wife waged an unsuccessful fight against breast cancer, but the television firm encouraged him to continue and to start a new business that would focus on a solution.
Two years ago, Frank joined together with his trio of partners who are engaged in making history. He said they have been able to operate on a budget due to their business model.
Three models exist in the semiconductor business world, they explained. One is made up of companies that design their own chips and own factories that produce them. Another simply does the design work and gets the chips ‘fabbed’ which means fabricated in tech-speak, while the third develops the design and licenses it to semiconductor and consumer-electronics companies that manufacture and sell the chips.
Panève fits into the third category, which allows it to develop technology without a tremendous amount of capital. “Our customers are semiconductor companies who sell to large consumer-electronic manufacturers like Sony, Sharp, or Samsung, who will use our technology to make the next-generation devices,” Sharp said.
Panève has met success in its quest to design a platform for a new type of chip that is software-programmable. “It will open up innovation for tens of thousands of programmers to come up with new ideas and new functionality,” Sharp said.
Frank offered two examples of how it can be used. High-end cars that are able to detect when other vehicles are nearby or when the driver is falling asleep need advanced image processing in real time, which is very expensive. “But our chip will make it easy to write software so the technology can be put into mid-priced vehicles,” he explained. The other example is that animated movies seen on televisions and smartphones look almost real on those media, but look ‘cartoonish’ on gaming devices because of the way the algorithms work with the processor. “Our chip will allow them to take a big jump in visual quality,” Frank said.
A Competitive Edge
A study conducted by the White House Science and Technology Advisory Council concluded that, over the past 15 years, hardware improvements have made computers 1,000 times faster. “The study also found that, in the same amount of time, software was responsible for making computer performance increase 43,000 times.
“Software is really a driver for new devices and the quality of life we are experiencing today,” Sharp said.
And it goes far beyond games, TV, and automobiles.
“New advances in medical-science imaging, renewable energy, and devices that use processors to help wounded veterans walk again are all examples of embedded processors at work, and we are proud to be developing a breakthrough platform that will help these kinds of technologies to improve further,” Sharp said. “What we are doing breaks through a wall that will enable continued increases in computer performance. When people think of technology, they think of gadgets, but in hospitals the amount of equipment driven by computers is incredible and enables us to live fuller, richer, and happier lives. It is an increasing part of the fabric of daily life.”
The company is finalizing a prototype that is very sophisticated and nearly ready to be brought to the market.
“Our belief that it is revolutionary is based on conversations we have had with dozens of companies who dream big and have given us feedback that this is almost too good to be true,” Frank said. “Computing is so pervasive in everything we do and everything that is important to us.”
The work has not been easy, however. “We have a team of 16 people who are making this happen through sweat and tears,” Sharp said. “But we are enjoying building something of substance and contributing to society. It’s a lot of work and involves a lot of challenges, but it is very satisfying to make progress.”
He added they would not be able to proceed without support from investors. “They are a very important part of this, and hopefully our work will inspire additional investment in other small companies,” Sharp said.
Summing it up, Frank said that “our work offers a triple play. It will make technology less expensive, more capable, and faster, and allow products to function in ways we can only dream about today.”