There are hundreds of fabless semiconductor design companies in the world, and probably a hundred in India alone. But like Neil Armstrong was the first human to set foot on the moon, do you know the name of the first fabless semiconductor product company to originate from India? This story is about a man and his dream to make India a global brand in the field of semiconductors.
This individual is known for his problem-solving skills in the semiconductor industry, one who quit his PhD in mid to pursue his dream in Silicon Valley and is now making Moschip, the first fabless company from India, a global brand. He is the man behind designing a curriculum that has helped thousands of students get into chip design in India and abroad. This is Venkata Simhadri’s story as told to Electronics For You’s Business Editor Mukul Yudhveer Singh!
Born in Machilipatnam (Andhra Pradesh), Venkata got interested in physics and mathematics at an early age. The motivation to pursue these subjects, as he explains, came from his father, who happened to be a physics professor. Venkata’s father, understanding the importance of education, got him shifted to a town called Kandukur in Andhra Pradesh, and this is where Venkata did most of his schooling. Though Venkata is a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur today, it is hard to believe that he has done most of his schooling from Telugu-medium government schools.
“I was privileged to be taught by very sincere and committed teachers right from my school to college days. The foundation that we got in terms of math and physics was very good,” explains Venkata. Fun fact, his father also taught at the same school, and Venkata continued to draw inspiration from him.
However, it was not just physics and math that Venkata was interested in. He was an active participant in all the sporting events taking place in his school and college. The small town experience, mixed with exposure to various sports and English learning, as Venkata explains, has helped make him what he is today.
“The schools in the town used to have really big playgrounds, and we used to go play every evening. I feel blessed to have had a well-rounded balanced childhood life. I really enjoyed the experience in that small town,” he says.
One of the things that pulled him back towards home from those playgrounds, and something that he still relishes, are mutton and seafood curries prepared by his mother. One of the things that Venkata cherishes about his childhood is the absence of rat-race to always secure first rank in exams. He is thankful to his parents about not putting too much pressure on him for securing top ranks in any of the standards.
“My parents always told me about the importance of studies but never punished me for not standing on the top in any of the exams. They always wanted me to be an all-rounder when it came to studies, sports or life,” he says proudly.
While his parents never put pressure around studies, Venkata, most of the time, secured first rank in most of the academic years of life. As interesting as it gets, Venkata was part of a group of around ten students who always finished in top ten and competed among themselves to secure the top ranks.
“I used to be in the top five, and there were instances when I was first. The competition among the friends was the best. We motivated and also competed against each other,” he recalls.
Venkata moved to the city of Vizag in Andhra Pradesh to pursue higher studies. He got admission in an engineering course in Andhra University college of Engineering.
“We, me and my father, still have conversations around concepts of physics. He is 82 years young and continues to excite me with his knowledge of the latest research in physics,” he says.
Life ping-pong way
In a nation filled with cricket enthusiasts all over, Venkata loved holding a ping-pong (table tennis) racket. So much so that he won most of the tournaments at school level in his academic days. He continues playing table-tennis in the USA at a club which has given three international players to the country. And ping-pong, as he refers to it, is not just a game, it is a way one can live his life!
“Ping-pong taught me that you do not always win in life. There are some sets where you lose, and somewhere you win, but the best part is felt when you learn to enjoy yourself. Ping-pong is one of those games where you are involved every second in the game, just the way you should be in what to pursue to do in life. It should be about winning, but it should be more about having fun,” he explains.
He is not just a leader who finds inspiration from a game, but also from players and others who make great games possible. For example, he admires a table tennis player named Rajul Sheth, who has not only played well on many levels but also created a table tennis club from scratch in USA that produced Olympic players. This club is the same place where Venkata still goes to play. This club has given international players to the country; these players have also represented the USA at the Olympics!
“The best of players know when to make way for others. They not only facilitate conditions for others to grow but they also make sure their fellow players do not make the same mistakes they have made in yesteryears. If something has given you, be it a sport or a person, it is your duty to give back to others,” he shares his views.
“I admire executives like Satya Nadella and others because I think they have learnt the importance of being a team player from the sports they have played in life. Nadella used to be a good cricketer, and I am sure that sport has helped him in understanding how a team functions. Sports definitely teach you things that cannot be taught in a classroom,” he explains.
“In sports there is only winning or losing, there is nothing in between,” he adds. Talking about winning, losing and sports, where is this table tennis centre exactly located? In Silicon Valley! There’s a lot that Venkata has accomplished being in Silicon Valley, apart from being able to play table tennis regularly.
Semiconductors was an accident
Credited for starting India’s first chip physical design training facility, and a lot of other things in the chip industry, not many would believe that Venkata’s venture into the industry was accidental!
“It was purely by accident. Those days there was very little private industry, and most of the recruitment was done either by the public sectors, or by the government. I was on a break after completing my graduation when my friend told me that his dad had something going in Delhi,” he recalls.
At this point, the slow recruitment process of the public sector proved to be the biggest turning point of Venkata’s life. Something that Venkata mentioned in the comment above was a venture that was promoted by the first Electronics Minister of India, Dr Sanjeevi Rao. This venture was focused on supplying quartzware for the semiconductor industry.
“That was the main turning point of my life,” he recalls. “I never knew those conversations around physics with my father would help me become what I am today. When my friend’s father gave me an opportunity to join the venture, I just grabbed it and moved to Delhi. Few months later, I was getting trained at India’s first semiconductor fab, Semiconductor Complex Limited (SCL) in Chandigarh. I was so fortunate, and it changed my life forever.”
Just for info, Venkata topped physics exams throughout his academic innings. “I am thankful to my father, and thankful that he still talks to me about quantum physics, and other latest developments in the world of physics,” he says.
Coming back to what Venkata has achieved in life, and the kind of academic innings he has had, he does not shy away from admitting that he was not at all a studious person. Instead, his focus was always on learning more about communications, English, playing with friends, and playing pranks on everyone he knew.
When asked if he would like to share a prank from his early days, he answered, “Those are the things that should not be discussed or shared,” and he laughs with a child-like excitement in his eyes.
“I was branded as a trouble-maker in college, and I did get into trouble a lot of times for bunking classes. The level of the trouble amplified whenever my parents and teachers came to know that I had bunked classes to watch a movie,” he shares laughingly. “I think my academic prowess mixed with sportsmanship and writing skills has helped me in my life more than anything else,” he says.
Venkata’s first job, as mentioned earlier, was with a startup that was supplying tools to SCL, Though, as Venkata recalls, the project didn’t go well, he is thankful for being trained in fab and getting exposed to the semiconductor industry. But that is not all, as a part of the startup, Venkata had a chance to visit the USA. “They sent me to LA to be a technical collaborator on the project. This was where I learned the process of making parts that we were supplying back in India. That was a breakthrough exposure for me,” says Venkata.
PhD or Silicon Valley
As the project in Delhi didn’t take-off as planned, Venkata went back to the USA for his Masters at New Jersey Institute of Technology. This was the point where Venkata switched his professional innings course more towards the design side. “I started working with Integrated Device Technology as a CAD Engineer. IDT was one of the top semiconductor companies in Silicon Valley back then. This is where my journey of designing semiconductors began,” he shares.
IDT, recently, was acquired by The Renesas Group. Back in time, it was a semiconductor company that had its own fab, and packaging unit. It was a norm back then for semiconductor companies to have their own fab. It was only around the 1990s that the concept of being a fabless semiconductor company started and the model created semiconductor companies like Qualcomm and Broadcom.
“That time I used to work very closely with the fab. The reason I keep repeating about working in a fab is because when you work in a fab, you get exposure that isn’t otherwise available for semiconductor professionals designing chips on a computer,” he shares his experience.
As a matter of fact, most of the Indians working in a fabless design house today have never seen a fab, and there are strong chances that they might never see one in the future as well. Venkata explains that working in a fab opens a lot of dynamics around designing semiconductors and gives a different perspective and exposure. “I have been fortunate to work in a fab. For a semiconductor professional it is lucky to get a chance to work in a fab, and understand the process of ideation to production,” he says.
Though Venkata has worked with almost all the domains of semiconductor manufacturing including design, production, sales, and marketing, he does not call himself a product definition guy. His expertise, as he points out, lies in designing chips in accordance with specifications available. “How do you design a chip, how do you move the fab, and how do you package is my expertise. As far as the sales and marketing go, I have run two startup companies in the past and running a listed company now, so I have got fairly good skills and knowledge of how sales and marketing works,” he says.
Venkata went to pursue PhD and then quit in between, packed bags and moved to Silicon Valley. The decision was partially influenced by his peers who had completed their masters and were working in Silicon valley for some of the top semiconductor companies. “I was highly inspired by the quality of work these people were doing in Silicon Valley. A lot of my seniors were working for Intel and other big names. The work and life in Silicon Valley excited me more than the PhD I was pursuing. I took the decision to move to Silicon Valley and be part of the action,” he says.
“I never felt that I made the wrong decision. What I am today is because of that one decision I bravely took. My wife backed me up and the journey from there has been an excellent one,” says Venkata. Today, Venkata works with engineers with PhD degree and has tremendous respect for the expertise and knowledge they bring to the table.
The chip-design couple
This might come as a surprise to many, but Venkata’s better half is a chip-design engineer as well. While a lot of us might think, keeping the couple’s profession in consideration, that it was a love marriage, it actually was an arranged one. “After her bachelors in Electronics, she enrolled in masters in the same school where I was doing my PhD. She graduated in computer science but after moving to Silicon valley, she saw opportunities in chip design and slowly transitioned towards the chip design side,” says a happy Venkata.
Another striking similarity between the two is the love and respect they share for sports. While Venkata, as mentioned earlier, is someone who loves playing table tennis, Mrs Simhadri played volleyball and badminton during her school days.
And what’s the most romantic thing that Venkata has done for Mrs. Simhadri? The couple went to a Half Dome hike in Yosemite, California together! The hike, for the record, takes ten to twelve hours for experienced hikers. The couple, regulars to activities like hiking, completed the journey in company of each other, and that, as Venkata’s eyes fill with romance, is the most romantic thing.
“It is a pretty challenging hike. We motivated each other before and during the hike. I helped her climb the most difficult part of the hike, and we both reached the top together. Anything you do and achieve together is the best feeling in the world,” he says with a wide smile. He adds, “It made my day when she told me I could not have done it without you.”
The couple has two sons—Vishwajit and Satyajit, both of whom have completed computer engineering. Like parents, they are regular in sports too and enjoy the game of tennis. The younger one, as a matter of fact, was ranked in the top hundred juniors in tennis in the United States. “He still wants to play competitive tennis, and at the same time do his masters. My older one is working in a software AI firm in the Bay Area,” says Venkata.
Venkata, however, is not in favour of any of his kids joining MosChip for full-time work. He is of the view that while he is open to guide them, and help accomplish greater things in life, he would want his kids to earn their own position in the industry.
The big dream
“The biggest dream and aim I have is to see India become self-reliant in terms of semiconductor manufacturing. Even though we had a fab very early in the history, we completely lost the race. The need now is to get back in there even if it’s not in cutting edge technology like 5nm or 3nm, there are other areas where India can still become self-reliant,” he says.
He adds, “If you look at areas like compound semiconductor fabs, solar fabs, or LED fabs, we can be self-reliant there. I mean we are producing so much solar power, but all the solar cells are imported. We have more than enough market to sustain a solar fab here in India. LEDs are another great example. We can easily make those things. I feel India can get there and make these here.”
This is one of the dreams that made Venkata shift to India from Silicon Valley three years ago. He wants to bring the technology to India, and is of the view that the semiconductor ecosystem, aided by good central and state level government policies, will get bigger and better in this decade. “I would like to contribute as much as possible from my side. Being in Silicon Valley, I have got good friends and connections who are eager to help. I can bridge the gap between India and semiconductor technology,” says Venkata.
He concludes the conversation by saying that helping enable a great semiconductor ecosystem in India would be the biggest accomplishment of his life!