Tech Insights

Finding Solutions in Silicon: An Interview with Richard Curtin of Silicon Catalyst

January 21, 2020 by Hailey Stewart

In this interview, EE Power editor Hailey Stewart spoke with Silicon Catalyst Managing Partner Richard Curtin about how silicon-based startup companies are finding a place in the vast semiconductor industry with the help of an acceleration incubator.  

When the co-founders of Silicon Catalyst started their company in 2015, they imagined a more streamlined and cooperative way for startup companies to bring solutions to the market. That's how Silicon Catalyst came to be one of the only incubators focused exclusively on accelerating solutions in silicon.  

In this interview, EE Power editor Hailey Stewart spoke with Silicon Catalyst Managing Partner Richard Curtin about how silicon-based startup companies are finding a place in the vast semiconductor industry with the help of an acceleration incubator.  

Curtin said more than 300 young companies have connected with Silicon Catalyst over the last five years. As of 2020, 26 companies have participated in the incubator program. 

While the semiconductor space is a very mature industry, Curtin said there is still a strong drive for innovators to create something unique and bring their solution to potential investors. 


EE Power: What was the driving force behind starting Silicon Catalyst? 

Curtin: In 2015, we launched Silicon Catalyst with a simple mission — to create an incubator solely focused on early-stage entrepreneurial teams looking to create and deliver innovative solutions in silicon. Our vision, model, and thought leadership earned Silicon Catalyst the prestigious UBM/Canon Startup Company of the Year.

Rick Lazansky, our Chairman and co-founder, along with our two other co-founders, studied the startup landscape over the course of a year in an effort to understand why so few hardware startups were able to get off the ground. One of the key observations was that when an entrepreneur landed seed funding, on average $1M - $2M, they ended back up in the poor house because those funds would immediately be dispensed to purchase needed goods and services such as EDA tools and the like, putting them nearly back to square one in search of funding. To change this paradigm, we realized what was missing was a robust ecosystem comprised of semiconductor companies willing to offer their services for free or at a substantial discount to promising startups in exchange for, or at least in the hope of, finding a new customer for themselves. 

Because of our founders’ deep-seated relationships with the leadership of the major design services companies and foundries, we were not only able to have these companies see our vision, but we were able to convince them to do the unheard of, to offer their services for free or nearly so. The entire industry realizes the importance of startups in the innovation cycle. After years of consolidation and reduction of R&D budgets, innovation at many companies had taken a backseat, in an era when AI, IoT, AuT, robotics, and machine learning are reshaping the entire landscape. 

Over the past five years, we’ve had discussions with over 300 semiconductor startup teams and now have 26 companies in our Incubator.


Image 1: Richard Curtin is a managing partner with Silicon Catalyst. Image courtesy of Silicon Catalyst


EE Power: What is Silicon Catalyst’s role in the semiconductor industry?

Curtin: Simply put, our role and our goal are to take startups from an idea to a product to a market, and ultimately to an exit via acquisition, a licensing deal, or an IPO. This starts with removing some of those first hurdles in their company’s evolution. The companies we chose for our 24-month incubator program have access to pre-silicon & post-silicon products (EDA, MPW shuttles, design testing, packaging, etc.), as well as business and legal services, that are either free or nearly free. 

During the time in the incubator, the companies also have interaction and support from our extensive network of Advisors. These Advisors have immeasurable and invaluable semiconductor industry experience, spanning technology, marketing and sales, operations and legal / IP aspects.

This model is really flipping the equation upside down. We help the companies in many cases get from PowerPoint to prototype with a technology-proven solution. This leads to the engagement of early market validation and discovery. And then when they’re ready within the incubation period, we’ll help them raise money with the network of investors that we have in our ecosystem. 


Image 2: Silicon Catalyst's application deadline is January 27, 2020. Image courtesy of Silicon Catalyst.


EE Power: What is the selection process for companies looking to join Silicon Catalyst?

Curtin: Application to our Incubator is easy, starting with the simple form on our website. This kicks off our rigorous pre-screening process, where we have the startup upload their business plans to ProSeeder®, an enterprise software database, leading to discussions with our team and a few of our Advisors. Typically, the companies that apply are led by semiconductor technologists, with varying degrees of business or operational experience. They believe that they know what the market could use, but we also encourage them to think about what it would take to create a viable business. So, part of this screening process allows us to get into the thought processes of these entrepreneurs — how they plan to build, grow and scale a semiconductor business. 

Our Ecosystem Partners actively participate in the vetting of our applicants. Our screening process is a key factor in Silicon Catalyst’s ability to de-risk the startup landscape within our incubator. Because we take an equity stake in each startup Portfolio Company, we are vested financially as well as fiduciarily to maximize their chances for success. In addition, during our screening process, our In-Kind Partners (who are providing services to our startups) along with our Strategic Partners, Texas Instruments, Bosch, On Semiconductors, Soitech, and Cirrus Logic, along with our network of advisors assess the likelihood of startups success based on what we collectively can provide them with in terms of tools, time, wisdom, and treasure. Because of this, a company admitted to our incubator has a significantly greater chance of succeeding and therefore becomes a significantly de-risked investment.

Twice a year, in the Spring and in the Fall, we hold final screening sessions. In addition to the Silicon Catalyst management team, we invite some of our Advisors and Strategic Partners to these meetings. Those applicant companies that get a “thumbs up” are then invited to join our Incubator. As a result of the Fall 2019 Final Screening, we admitted five companies.

Our upcoming Spring 2020 screening process begins after the application deadline of January 27, with final screening taking place in March. 


Image 3: During the 24-month incubation program, startup companies work with Silicon Catalyst advisers and partners. Image courtesy of Silicon Catalyst.


EE Power: What is the basis of the incubation process? 

Curtin: When the startup begins working with us, we walk them through everything from potential technology evolution to early market traction with their target customers. First, we start the on-boarding process, identifying the In-Kind Partner (IKP) products and services they will require during their 24-month journey with our team. Additionally, one of the Silicon Catalyst Partners is assigned as the Advocate, acting as the startups’ key contact to assist them on all aspects of growing their business – including product family planning, technology requirements, corporate branding and messaging, go-to-market strategies and funding plans.


EE Power: At what point do most startups come to you for help through beginning a business?

Curtin: It’s all over the map really. On one end of the spectrum, we find some people who just left a large, multinational company and they want to launch their new company with some notion of an early business plan. And on the other end of the spectrum are post-Series A companies that want to join our network for the connections to an extensive ecosystem of advisers and investors.


EE Power: What kind of partnerships does Silicon Catalyst offer to startups working in the incubation process?

Curtin: From the outset, we focus on providing strong mentorship, creating a solid foundation for our Portfolio Companies. That mentorship varies from pre-silicon to post-silicon to business advice. Our IKPs span all aspects of company needs, e.g. design software, foundry access, intellectual property attorneys, banking relationships, legal firms, CFOs.  We provide everything you would need to build and scale an early-stage company in the semiconductor business. 

Additionally, each of the companies in our Incubator have an opportunity to directly interact with our Strategic Partners (TI, OnSemi, SOITEC, Bosch and Cirrus Logic), to explore how the innovative semiconductor products might be of value to create or expand their product offerings.


EE Power: What makes this list of advisers and partners want to work with these startups?

Curtin: Silicon Catalyst is unique, in that we are solely focused on chip startups. Even though there might be a couple of hundred accelerators/incubators in the U.S. and probably thousands worldwide, we are the only one in the world solely focused on chip companies. 

We have roughly 160 advisers now, all with many years of experience in the semiconductor industry, which is unique in the accelerator/incubator segment.

Our Advisors are truly invaluable to the companies in our Incubator and are committed to “pitching in”. Part of it is that these senior executives want to give back, but the other aspect of it is that it enables them to stay in touch and participate in the next wave of innovation in the semiconductor industry. 


Image 4: Partners, advisers, and investors with Silicon Catalyst are given the first look at the incubator companies' products. Image courtesy of Silicon Catalyst.


EE Power: How did the Silicon Angels program intersect with Silicon Catalyst’s incubation program?

Curtin: During our twice per year Portfolio Company Update meetings, we invite our whole ecosystem for presentations by each of the CEOs of the startups in our Incubator. It was during one of the 2018 Update sessions that we saw that there was strong interest from the audience to invest in the presenting companies – this was the impetus to start the planning to launch an investment group. The Silicon Catalyst Angels group was operational as of July 2019 and as of December 2019, the members have invested in two companies in our Incubator.

The deal flow for the Angel group stems from the companies in the Silicon Catalyst Incubator. After six months in the Incubator, the companies are invited to submit a request to present to the Angel group. The assigned Advocate and the contributing Advisors assist in putting together an investor presentation, which is then pitched during one of the quarterly Angel group meetings. As appropriate, the members then decide to conduct due diligence towards an investment decision.


EE Power: What sets Silicon Catalyst apart from other incubators in the power industry? 

Curtin: As far as we’ve seen, Silicon Catalyst is unique in the overall semiconductor industry, never mind the power segment of semis. Our team is comprised of senior executives that have built many successful companies, especially in the power space. With the enormous growth in the IoT and edge computing sectors, we’ve seen many applicants focused on creating more power-efficient devices. Just a couple examples of companies in the Incubator delivering innovative energy management solutions include EcoCircuits and Trameto.

Also, in January 2019, we established a joint venture with Silicon Power Technology specifically targeted at power semiconductors. 

What we’ve done is taken our own model of incubation and In-Kind and Strategic Partnerships and used it as a template to collaborate in the creation of an incubator for the semiconductor power segment in China. It focuses on everything power devices for transportation to the consumer level.


EE Power: What are some of the most prevalent challenges you’ve found working with startup companies in the semiconductor space? 

Curtin: It really runs the gamut, as we see so much passion in the startups in our Incubator. But when we look for these great entrepreneurs, the real question to address is how to funnel the passion and energy into developing a successful company, whether they start from “friends and family” funding or from a post-Series A status. 

First, we look at how to nurture the growth of a CEO, building out their management team, developing the persona to showcase the company to investors and potential clients. 

On the other side of that is how we help them grow their business. How do you scale up the operational side? How do you maintain quality? How do you maintain the cohesiveness of the team? How do you add to that team?

In summary, the challenges are as multidimensional as you could imagine, with great rewards for the entrepreneurs, for our Strategic Partners, investors and ultimately for the semiconductor industry.  


Read more about Silicon Catalyst's work with Trameto

Read more about Silicon Catalyst's work with EcoCircuits