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CEO Talk: Bram De Muer of ICsense

This interview was held with Bram De Muer, CEO of ICsense

 

 

 

Tell me a bit about your background? How did you first get started with ICsense?

 

I am a microelectronics engineer by education. Engineering has always been in my blood, whether it was constructing novel Lego creations or dissecting old electronic equipment. The high level of abstraction in microelectronics fascinated me—the fact that incredibly complex signal processing and computation occur within a tiny piece of silicon that appears to be doing nothing at all.

 

This curiosity led me to pursue a PhD at the well-known ESAT-MICAS group at KULeuven, with Prof. M. Steyaert as my promoter in 1996. My research topic focused on CMOS fractional-N frequency synthesizers for cellular RF front ends, which was considered innovative at the time. During my PhD years, I collaborated with fellow founders and together, we conceived the idea of starting a spin-off in microelectronics. Back in 2000, our vision was that the future would be filled with sensors integrated into our daily lives. These sensors would require dedicated, low-power, and high-end silicon, which we aimed to develop. Looking around now, I believe our vision of ubiquitous sensors was quite accurate.

 

 

Tell me about ICsense?

 

So, in 2004, my 3 fellow PhDs (Wim Claes, Yves Geerts and Tim Piessens) and I started ICsense as a university spin-off specializing in sensor and MEMS interfaces and power management. Our target markets were and still are automotive, medical, industrial, so high-reliability markets. Our first target was providing services to the big semicon companies such as Infineon, AMIS (now ON Semiconductor) and the like. This turned out to be a steep learning curve and very different from university research. We are proud to say that today, most of them are still our customers.

 

We also devised a special, highly systematic design methodology with integrated requirements management that we still use today and which has been perfected over the last 20 years.

 

Our ultimate goal was to do full ASIC developments including the supply of chips to our customers. The design services generated income that we could invest in people, knowledge and equipment to reach this goal. In a few years we were with 20 people and growing strong. We added high-voltage design,  battery management and communication to our skill set. Meanwhile, we continued growing without a single hiccup in revenue or number of people. We were profitable since our start in 2004 and have grown with a CAGR of 22% over this period.

 

In 2017, we became part of the Japanese TDK group (www.tdk.com) which allowed us to continue our strategy and work for customers around the world just as before. What many people don’t know is that more than 50% of our business today is outside the TDK group.

 

The integration in TDK made it possible for us to grow faster (we are today with over 100 people) and invest in ATE (mass production testers and wafer prober) to insource test program development. So by now, I would say that we are a true ASIC developer and supplier. We can build some of the most high-performance ASICs and bring them in production for our customers.

 

 

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

 

As previously mentioned, ICsense has undergone significant changes over time. Our original intention was always to be an ASIC supplier, but the journey toward that goal turned out to be longer and more challenging than anticipated. The semiconductor industry is intricate and demanding, requiring experiential learning in developing ASICs capable of functioning flawlessly in harsh environments, even when deployed in the hundreds of millions. Additionally, there are numerous markets and applications where ASICs can be targeted. In our case, we have specifically focused on the automotive, medical (including implants and wearables), and industrial sectors, as they demand the highest-quality ASICs. Furthermore, we are actively involved in producing high-volume consumer ASICs, which presents its own set of challenges due to the fast-paced nature of this market.

 

Over the years, we have expanded both our technical expertise and market reach, allowing us to cater to a wide range of potential applications. As a result, our company has successfully transitioned from being solely a service provider to becoming a full-fledged ASIC developer and supplier. This transformation has led us to evolve from a group of microelectronics engineers to a comprehensive organization encompassing CAD, IT, testing, ATE, product engineering, quality assurance, functional safety, supply management, business development, HR, finance, and more. The recurring revenue generated by our diversified portfolio enables further investments in our people, tools, and equipment.

 

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

 

Indeed, we received numerous offers from different companies over time. However, we declined these offers because they didn’t align with our strategic vision or the proposed prices weren’t suitable. Our intention was never merely to cash in and exit; instead, we aimed to create leverage and make ICsense bigger and better.

 

Our collaboration with TDK began in 2014, specifically in magnetic sensor ASICs. In 2016, we started discussing an acquisition. By that point, TDK had already acquired Micronas in Germany and Invensense in the US, effectively building an industry empire. Given that all these companies were sensor developers, there was a strong strategic fit.

 

In hindsight, our decision was the correct one. The market’s consolidation makes it challenging for small companies to grow or transition into ASIC providers without a robust partner. Now, we can serve much larger customers and engage in more intriguing applications.

 

What is a typical customer for ICsense?

 

There is not one typical customer. Our customers range from startups to large multinationals, from semiconductor companies to OEMs. Therefore, an ASIC design can start with a back of the envelope idea or a 300 page product specification. For instance, in the medical market we work with the market leaders in implants, such as Cochlear, and with brand new startups that want to conquer new markets with their novel ideas. The common ground is typically that they are looking for a partner that can build innovative, state-of-the-art ASICs with low risk and support them to bring them sustainably in production. They also love the fact that we are a flexible, dynamic team that can quickly follow their needs and ideas.

 

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 recent years we see a strong focus on quality and reliability, both technically as in supply. This is right up our alley. Since we are based in Europe, we will never be the cheapest provider due to the high cost of resources, but we can deliver unparalleled quality. Our focus is rather on reducing the number of silicon iterations (and cost / time for that matter) which in the end leads to a solution that can hit the market on time.

 

What has also changed heavily the last few years is the focus on de-risking supply chains with our customers. It is noticeable that discussions are now much more about second sourcing, geopolitical issues, … We have been exploring much more technology and partner options along the supply chain than before. Today we are one of the few companies worldwide that can offer designs in over 50 technology flavors with fabs based in US, Europe and Taiwan. Our specific design methodology allows us to efficiently work across technology nodes and pick the best match for our customers.

 

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

 

Good question. Most importantly, a customer should understand that developing ASICs is very complex with a much higher turnaround time than a PCB development. Therefore we want to have an extremely high confidence in the design before we manufacture the Silicon. Once again, this is enabled by our highly systematic design methodology.

 

It is very important that our customer understands its system and requirements, so we can make the right ASIC. In ASICs, there are no quick fixes or fast changes, but at the other hand, the possibilities are vast since you start with a clean sheet. It is sometimes very hard to limit the use cases or future potential to ensure a successful development in the present.

 

This also means that the customer must have patience and make tough decisions on system level. It is virtually impossible to work with a customer that does not have people with electronics know-how in-house to do the translation of their application to electronic requirements. We can do the translation from there on to ASIC requirements.

A customer engages for a long-term partnership when he starts an ASIC development. We will work together very closely for several years on the core of his application. This means that it is much more than a traditional customer-supplier relationship.

 

Are you currently hiring? What type of jobs?

 

We are hiring. We are always looking for analog, digital and mixed-signal design engineers. Junior and senior people. Currently we are also looking to further expand our product engineering team to keep on supporting a growing number of ASIC in production.

 

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

 

Be prepared to work together with top-notch engineers on top-notch ASICs and enjoy yourself while you’re at it. When you do something you love to do in a great environment and in a great team, you will achieve great results.

 

Where can one find more information?

 

Check out our career page https://www.icsense.com/career-top/ and/or send an email to [email protected].

 

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

 

A typical day at works is usually packed with many different topics from business development, to customer calls, to HR topics and finance and it can change in an instant. You know how the day starts but you don’t know how it ends. And that is what I like about the job, it keeps me alert and engaged all day. It is also great to see how good and well-oiled the team is and how they work together to make state-of-the-art silicon. It makes me proud and motivated to keep the company growing and perfecting.

 

What is your preferred lunch discussion topic?

 

That must be politics. Geopolitically we live in special times and all the elections around the world could change our known way of doing business and living. Also in Belgium we have elections and our political system is incredibly complex with 6 governments for 12Million people, so there is always food for discussion. The populist parties are doing well in the polls, like in many countries, so this will be one of the most interesting elections ever with an uncertain outcome…

 

How do you spend your time outside working hours?

 

I have two kids of 8 and 10, so they and their hobbies take a lot of my time. I’m an “older” father and I feel I enjoy the time with my kids more consciously.

I like playing electric guitar, mostly rock, grunge, metal and the like. We have an ICsense band that plays occasionally. It is amazing to see how many great musicians we have in the company…

On Sundays I go mountain biking with my friends and in winter, I’ll try to ski as much as I can. Belgium is far away from any decent mountain range unfortunately. I’m also taking up padel lately, which is great fun.

Finally, I’m treasurer of a whisky club, Caskaid (www.caskaid.org). We buy and sell whisky for charity. If you are a whisky lover, check us out!

 

ABOUT ICSENSE:

ICsense -an independent subsidiary of the TDK group- is Europe’s premier IC design company. ICsense’s core business is ASIC development and supply and custom IC design services.

 

ICsense has the largest fab-independent European design group with world-class expertise in analog, digital, mixed-signal and high-voltage IC design. The company develops and supplies customer exclusive ASIC solutions for the automotive, medical, industrial and consumer market compliant with ISO9001, ISO13485, IEC61508-ISO26262.

 

More info: www.icsense.com

Contact: [email protected]

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