CEO Talk: Bram De Muer, CEO & founder of ICsense

May 16, 2018, anysilicon

This interview was held with Bram De Muer, CEO and founder of ICsense in Belgium.


icsense feature



# Tell me about ICsense ?


We make microchips tailored to our customers’ need. These custom chips are also called Application Specific ICs (ASICs).  We can provide ASIC development and supply (for customers that have no internal IC design experts) and custom IC design services (for IDMs or customers with an internal IC design group). ICsense has the largest fab-independent European design group with world-class expertise in analog, digital, mixed-signal and high-voltage IC design. We develop and supply customer exclusive ASIC solutions for the automotive, medical, industrial and consumer market compliant with ISO9001, ISO13485, IEC61508-ISO26262


# When did you start ICsense ? What were you doing before that?


I founded ICsense with 3 of my classmates right after we finished our PhDs at the University of Leuven, the MICAS group. We all did research in some field of IC development like dataloggers, ADC development, RF, etc. Our combined expertise offered the right base for a IC design company. There was a strong need at that time for outsourcing IC designs. Initially we did block designs, but quickly after ICsense became known for full-chip developments. This is still what we do today, full-chip mixed-signal ASICs developments for industry, automotive, medical and consumer.


# What problem did you see that needed to be fixed? What is your approach to solving that? 


We strongly believed that sensors would become ubiquitous in the future and that they would all need a custom interface ASIC to make the link to computing. We wanted to play an active role in providing intelligent and efficient interfaces (ICs) to sense the signals. This is also where the name ICsense finds its origin. In the first years, ICsense focused on analog front-ends for its customers and as time progressed, we started doing full mixed-signal chip designs with decent digital complexity. One of the first full designs was a GMR (Giant-Magneto Resistance) interface chip for Infineon including all analog and digital signal processing. The design was a strong reference to create more business and year-by-year we became more known in the semicon industry.


# How was the role/offering of ICsense changed during the recent years?


Since its start in 2004, ICsense grew with 30% average yearly. In the early years, the focus was purely on analog and high voltage design. In 2011, we started our in-house digital design team to perform all full mixed-signal ASIC developments in-house. Today, we have the largest fab-independent mixed-signal design team in Europe with over 75 on-site designers. Since 5 years, the focus of ICsense has shifted from pure “design house” to “ASIC supplier”. ICsense offers its customers the complete suite from ASIC definition all the way down to production. For our customers, we manage the assembly, qualification and supply chain.


# Did any of the market consolidation (or acquisition) affected your business and how?


Early 2017, ICsense became part of the TDK family. We had been working already for TDK for many years to build them a family of magnetic sensing products. Within TDK we are an independent centre of excellence for custom IC design and being part of TDK enhances our existing service offering. We are backed by a strong and stable partner so ICsense’s long term stability is guaranteed. Customers are ensured ICsense will not become their competitor by a hostile take-over. TDK allows us to strongly invest in our design team and methodology and to boost our turnkey offering by expertise and hardware.


Our business model has not changed. The TDK management has given us the clear long-term target to have at least 50% of our revenue outside TDK. Currently we are at over 60% external revenue which shows we guarantee the necessary bandwidth for all our customers outside the TDK group. The well recognized and reputed ICsense-brand is unchanged to show ICsense’s commitment to customers outside of TDK.


# Which market segment seems promising to you? And why?


The market segments we focus on are Sensor and MEMS, power and battery management, high-voltage and low-power. We particularly see a growth in Functional Safety developments for automotive (ISO26262) and industrial (IEC61508). Several years ago we therefore invested in our design flow to become 100% compliant to functional safety developments through advanced requirements management, efficient design validation and enhanced reporting and traceability for our high-reliabilty projects.


# What is the best moment in your day?


My first coffee in the morning.


# How do you keep yourself energized and engaged during the day?


Every day brings different challenges, some expected, a lot not. Facing and solving these challenges and getting things to move forward, preferably fast, and motivating people to do the same, is what I love.


# What is your preferred lunch discussion topic?


Politics and cars.


# How do you spend your time outside working hours?


Family time, mountain biking, skiing, having a cask strength, single malt whisky from Caskaid, a non-profit independent bottler, that I started with some whisky-lovers. We look for unique, excellent whiskies, bottle them and sell them. All profit goes to charity. If you are a whisky fan: check out www.caskaid.org.


# Customers are focused on time-to-market, first-time-right, price, etc. Do you see a change in customer behaviour in recent years? Where is the focus today and why?


The customers we typically work with are looking for an innovative, high-quality and reliable product. They value the efforts that go into delivering sub-0.5 ppm mixed-signal designs. All the ASICs we have developed in the last 14 years were functional in the first run, meaning that you can use the first silicon in a demo setup and play around with it, program the device and so on. You should always calculate one extra run to come to the final silicon. We are very open and honest about setting the right expectations.


# What are the 3 top things you wish your customers would do better (or different)?


When a customer engages in an ASIC development for the first time, it is unknown territory for him/her so it’s hard to make the right vendor decision. We encourage our customers to compare different ASIC vendors thoroughly and challenge them technically. We want it to be a 2-way communication. Make a list of items that are important in your decision process and iterate with the vendors. Ask for references and call those references to see how the projects went. You will see that at a certain point, the less serious suppliers have taken shortcuts one way or the other. Better to find this out before you start the project ! ICsense can proudly say that 93% of the customers comes back for new designs within a period of 3 years. This is the result of our strong focus on quality.


# Are you currently hiring? What type of jobs?


Yes, ICsense is hiring actively today ! We have job openings in analog design, digital design and IC layout. ICsense is looking for both junior profiles as well as senior profiles such as project leaders and project managers.  Just have a look at our job section on the website www.icsense.com or send us an email if you are unsure about a certain vacancy.


# What is your #1 advice for people who want want to work for ICsense ?


One of the drivers for ICsense’s growth is our excellent company culture and attention to work-life balance. The company’s staff turnover is as low as 3% ! Although ICsense grew in size, we always focus on creating a workplace that feels like a startup. With the drive to reach common goals, and the celebration of successes along the way. For example; as employee of ICsense you will enjoy our famous “tape-out receptions”. A tradition where the project leader organizes a gathering when his chip is sent-out to the fab. We try to stay in the theme of the country of the customer. Sushi for Japan, or Oktober fest for Germany! We are actively looking to expand our analog and digital teams at this moment. My advice ? Have a look at our website and send us your CV if you see a fit. Don’t hesitate to ask us if you want more info on a job opening.


# Where can one find more information?


Our main channels for communication are the website and our linkedin page. We try to give a glimpse of the company culture on our facebook page as well. There you can spot some photos of recent activities and events within the company and you can see how our soccer and running teams are performing ! Here are the links: