Monday, July 31, 2006
Interview with Brett Butler, CEO of Axiom Microdevices
Axiom Microdevices (www.axiom-micro.com) is an Irvine-based semiconductor firm that is developing power amplifier technology for the cell phone industry, based on inexpensive CMOS process technology. The company's technology promises to enable single chip cell phones, something which could dramatically reduce the costs of cell phone circuitry. Axiom recently won a patent infringement lawsuit that had been filed against it by Silicon Labs, which had bogged down the company for several years, and recently introduced a CMOS power amplifier that replaces the need for multi-chip, GaAs in GSM/GPRS phones. I spoke to Brett Butler, CEO of the company, about its technology, getting past the lawsuit, future funding plans, and its future.
Ben Kuo: Tell me a little about the company and your technology?
Brett Butler: The company is all about doing things differently than have been done in before in the cellular space. Our claim to fame is that we've cracked the code to create a single chip cellphone. If you look at a phone, there are 3 elements--a baseband unit, processor, and transceiver/power amplifier. The power amplifier is that part that hasn't been able to be integrated. Today, baseband transceivers are able to be integrated into a single chip, leaving the PA as the last major function that hasn't been integrated. Axiom has managed to do what the industry thought impossible, which is to integrate a GSM/GPRS power amplifier in a mainstream CMOS process.
Ben Kuo: What's the story behind the lawsuit you just cleared?
Brett Butler: In February of 2004, Silicon Labs brought a lawsuit against Axiom. The claim evolved over time, but essentially was over trade secrets and patent infringement. After two years, it took just 3 hours to confirm the verdict--that there was no merit to the case.
Ben Kuo: It seems like the lawsuit had a big effect on the company and getting to market?
Brett Butler: You can't be a thirty person company and startup, and have a 500 pound gorilla sue you and not challenge your focus. However, we were able to keep the company focused during the lawsuit, and also were able to recruit people. It's a testament to the technology, quality, and talent. It's no secret how you keep your focus during a lawsuit or other disruptive event. You over communicate, and build and maintain trust between the staff and executive team. It also helps that we had solid investor backing. Our investors are top shelf, the best of the best, and understand how to build a semiconductor company. Being right also helps--absolutely right. As I said, a sign of the effectiveness of our focus is that we were able to recruit talent very successfully, developed our initial product, and also are well into our pipeline and roadmap.
Ben Kuo: Speaking of your investors, who is backing the company?
Brett Butler: US Venture Partners, Tallwood, and Anthem Ventures. Bill Woodward at Anthem, David Ladell at USVP, and Ron Yara at Tallwood are on our board. We also have a couple of investors with observer seats. One we will be talking about in the coming weeks is a strategic investor, and good partner to take our product to market in a quick, effective way. TSMC's venture capital arm, VentureTech alliance, has also been an investor since early.
Ben Kuo: Is TSMC your foundry?
Brett Butler: Yes, they are. They've been a great partner from day one.
Ben Kuo: I understand you're a spinout of Caltech. What's the story there?
Brett Butler: The founders were all at Caltech. Ali Hajimiri is still a Professor at Caltech, and all 3 founders were at Caltech when the technology was developed. Two founders came out of Dave Rutledge's group, working on power amplifiers since the mid-80's. They wanted to do something different, something really novel that people said couldn't be done. They wanted to do something that brought a whole lot of value to a specific industry. Working with Dr. Rutledge and Hajimiri, they decided that applying CMOS to power amplifiers for cell phones would be truly disruptive. That's the project that began there and spun out into Axiom Microdevices.
Ben Kuo: I often hear about how it's very difficult to successfully transfer technology at this level to market. How difficult has it been for Axiom?
Brett Butler: If it wasn't for the lawsuit, we would hav elaunched well before now. It's always challenging developing truly disruptive technology. I cam from TI in July of last year, and developed and ran several businesses at TI, including its broadband business. All of them were in large consumer markets, and very fast moving--similar to the cell phone market. I ran lots of the startups we acquired at TI. Although there is a high concentration of talent at those startups, the thing that stood out at Axiom was that with those startups, while the technology is good, there wasn't something that other people couldn't fundamentally do. It was a make versus buy decision. With Axiom, they had something which no one else on the planet could do. It takes time to develop, but it has been seamless coming out of Caltech. And now, we have on the market something that adds such tremendous value to the cellular industry. It's very important.
Ben Kuo: Was there anything in particular that helped you get this from technology to market successfully?
Brett Butler: It hasn't been that easy. We were founded in April of 2002, and it's been a long road. We are developing and partnering with industry leaders that can work with us on the product, to understand everything it needs to be on cell phones. It has been a complex development process, and I don't want to understate that. But has gone smoothly, with the talent we were able to recruit from the cell industry. Axiom has the highest concentration of truly talented individuals, plus intellectual property that I've seen in twenty years of experience. I haven't seen something this truly unique--which is why I moved to from a very good career at TI to Axiom.
Ben Kuo: What would have you done differently had you known you'd get pulled into that lawsuit?
Brett Butler: Any time you're focused on the biggest market in the world you're going to attract attention if you're disruptive. Just look at all of the legal activity in the cellular space between companies. It's part of doing business in the industry. The lesson any startup or company should learn in a situation like this is to take everything seriously from day one. All lawsuits are serious, and you need to trust them as such. Make sure you take the appropriate steps to defend yourself. That's everything from the amount of resource and attention you pay to it, internally as well as externally, and have the right folks in place externally to work with you. Don't just hire a big law firm with a good reputation, find the best person with the specific knowledge of your situation and go after that person. Do not depend on the legal team to drive things for you, drive things, and educate them, and manage the whole process. Drive the litigation direction yourself using your legal team for the best advice to react to certain events.
Ben Kuo: I understand from talking earlier that you're looking to raise another round of funding?
Brett Butler: Yes, we have just started to talk to investors about a round. We have top shelf investors who backed us through our litigation. They're committed through the next round. Our unique intellectual property warrants their and other investor's interest. We're already getting comments from potential investors.
Ben Kuo: Thanks for the time, this has been great.
Brett Butler: One last thing. I was at TI for about 10 years. At TI, I was known for three things--delivering on commitments, turning around difficult situations, and effectively running in a startup environment. Most of the businesses I ran were acquired by TI, and were in difficult and challenging consumer markets. The common thing was there was always a high concentration of talent with the desire of winning in a large market. The attitude there and here is I'll sweep the floor, and take dinner orders to win. The types of folks here are the folks who are willing to do whatever it takes--from the top down. They'll do whatever it takes to win in the marketplace. If you do that, and have the right passion, a unique set of IP, then you will win. That's where we're taking the company. We've got a bright future, and our PA is just the start. We intend to build around that technology, and sweep every bit of value in a cell phone into our company.
Ben Kuo: Thanks!