Akros Silicon Inc.
François Crepin walks along a cubicle-lined path to his office, noting that his company’s work space is bursting at the seams and that plans are afoot to expand into available space next door.
Crepin is president and CEO of Akros Silicon Inc. in Folsom, a well-funded silicon chipset-design startup. The company is aimed at getting a profitable chunk of the rapidly emerging $900 million-plus market called “power over Ethernet,” or, in techspeak, PoE. Akros is a “fabless” semiconductor company, in that it designs silicon chips but does not fabricate them. That task is done by third-party manufacturers.
In a nutshell, the technology boosts the amount of electrical power carried over high-speed data- and voice-network cables, which allows appliances they plug into to draw needed power from the network. Conveniently, there’s no need of a separate cord to get power from an electrical outlet.
That technological upgrade opens up the options for electronic appliances that have historically required a nearby power outlet to work. It eliminates the need for outlets to be wired wherever a gizmo is placed. That saves money and adds convenience, two features of the PoE market that translate to big dollars in the networked-appliance marketplace. That includes VoIP phones, MP3 players, PDAs, gaming consoles, home network servers, security cameras, wireless access points, radio frequency identification tag readers (used for real-time inventory control by Wal-Mart and others), point of sale terminals, robotics and more.
In the home, the technology will introduce a new generation of cable box, says Crepin. “It is going to be a mini-server that will distribute power.”
Those lining up to adopt the technology upgrade for home network systems include Cisco/Linksys, TMM, Netopia, Zwire, Apple, Sony, Panasonic, Netgear, Siemens, Samsung, NEC, AVM and Actiontec. So far, Akros has signed chip-purchase contracts with two unnamed customers who will use three applications of the Akros technology.
In summer of 2005, Crepin and his two co-founders, John Camagna, vice president of engineering, and Sajol Ghoshal, chief technology officer, attracted $9 million in startup funding from two big-time Silicon Valley venture firms: Bay Partners of Cupertino and U.S. Venture Partners of Menlo Park.
After learning what his new company was up to, the venture firms queried Crepin. Impressed, the two funds came up with the $9 million. Since then, Akros has also secured an additional $13 million loan from Silicon Valley Bank.
That combination is expected to provide sufficient operating cash for the company through the second half of 2007, when sales of its chipsets are scheduled to ramp up after early first-half product sampling.
The original 6,000-sq.-foot Akros office on Turn Pike Drive was staffed by 18 engineers. In September it had grown to 24. Today there are 29 engineers, and the office has expanded to 8,500 square feet.
The staff is deep in experience in mixed-signal (analog and digital) chip design, with each engineer averaging 16 years working in the specialty. And Akros’ board of directors has even more telecom-chip savvy, with Silicon Valley tech maven Irwin Federman sitting in as a managing partner. UC Davis’ Paul Hurst, an expert in mixed-signal chip design, is on Akros’ technical board of advisers.
The company’s competitive strategy against five other companies in the fledgling market segment is to get key patents that will make it tough for competitors to get established.
In the rush to claim its intellectual property, the company has been filing an average of two patent applications per month. As of September, Akros had filed for 23 patents and aims to get 38 patents approved. Akros’ chips are being designed to increase the power carried in network data cables from the current 13 watts to 30 watts and up to 60 watts.
There are, however, some analysts preaching caution about the technology. Rick Sawyer, director of data center technology for American Power Conversion, earlier this year told Computerworld he wonders about how support for wireless appliances fits into the PoE equation “where there is no wire to transmit power to.”
And AFCOM, an association for data center professionals, has publicly stated that data centers are concerned they face power failures and limits on power availability. Issues include cooling of switches, back-up power supplies and the actual loads each switch can handle.
Akros has designed its chips to enable easy migration to a power-boosted network cables and has built in surge and temperature protections. Its chip designs allow for smaller circuit boards than those of conventional systems, so they cost less.
Crepin is well-known in the mixed-signal variety of semiconductor-chip design. He was hired in the late 1980s by local tech entrepreneur Bob Pepper to be on the management team of Level One Communications Inc., one of Sacramento’s larger tech startup successes. Level One, which designed telecom chipsets enabling fast data transmission over copper phone lines, became publicly traded and in 1999 was bought by Intel Corp. for $2.2 billion in stock.
Pepper remembers hiring Crepin for marketing chores and enjoying years of successful collaborations. “He was with me from the beginning,” says Pepper, who is still trying to fully retire from the local tech scene. “He has a well-deserved reputation for understanding markets and key customers and what they might be looking for.” Crepin, he says, at one time persuaded competing companies to join a strategic-partnership consortium sharing Level One technology, which was no small task. But he made it work.
Crepin went on to lead the Folsom office of Metalink Ltd., an Israeli-based telecom-chipset designer, which he saw through an initial public offering in 1999 and a secondary offering in 2000.
Scratching a Niche
He points to Austin, Texas, where there’s a well-established network of talented chip-design engineers. That, he says, has fostered the creation and growth of several companies there.
Crepin has done his part to enrich the local tech-talent pool. While at Level One and later at Metalink, he recruited a lot of hotshot chip designers from overseas and other parts of the country. What was his secret? “Sacramento,” he says, “is a nice place to live.”