One of the region’s first semiconductor startups with venture capital support just launched its first product.
Strip District-based Aspinity formed in 2015 as a bid to commercialize new transformative semiconductor chip research out of West Virginia University led by now-cofounder and CSO David Graham. Since then, the startup has specialized in the design and development of what it calls analog machine learning chips — semiconductor chips that can extend battery life and reduce inefficient data movement for the myriad always-on devices that exist today.
Launching commercially today is the company’s AML100, which promises to boost battery life by up to 20 times through its transformative capabilities between analog and digital computing.
There’s a big need for semiconductor chips to do that today, cofounder and CEO Tom Doyle told Technical.ly. A growing number of devices, like voice activation systems or glass break sensors, are constantly on alert, using energy to be ready to digitally process of all analog sound input, rather than reserving that process only for relevant inputs.
“Maybe you want the [voice-activated] TV remote to turn on,” the CEO explained. “It’s been waiting for you to tell it what to do all day. But now, when you walk in the door, we’re able to say, ‘Hey, someone’s there, somebody’s speaking, go ahead and listen now.'”
That’s what the AML100 does best, he said. In using only a small amount of energy, it can determine the relevancy of any analog data input and initiate the digitization process accordingly, sending that information to the cloud for action. Specifically, it consumes less than 20 microamps when sensing the relevancy of the data, and reduces the quantity of that data by 100 times while it’s still in analog, freeing up storage and energy for the relevant data.
Big industry players have faith it could work. Among a slew of local VC investors like Birchmere Ventures and Mountain State Capital is Amazon’s Alexa Fund, which hopes to use Aspinity’s products to improve battery life in portable Alexa devices. And among the startup’s current ecosystem partners are multinational semiconductor manufacturing firms like STMicroelectronics and Infineon Technologies.
That support is part of what enabled Aspinity to pursue a $5.3 million Series A round in September 2020, which it used to support product development and team expansion as the startup grew from eight to 21 employees. Aspinity has plans to pursue a Series B by the end of the year, Doyle said, which will likely go toward advancing commercialization efforts around the AML100 and additional hiring, much of which he hopes to do out of Pittsburgh. (See open roles here.)
While Silicon Valley is a notorious destination for semiconductor innovation, Doyle and his team shied away from the employee turnover rates they saw there as they thought about where to launch Aspinity. Why Pittsburgh, other than its proximity to WVU?
There’s a number of reasons — the cost, finding the right people,” Doyle said. “You can find them in Silicon Valley, but turnover is a bit of a challenge. That doesn’t mean we won’t have people in Silicon Valley, but the core of our R&D development will remain here in Pittsburgh.”
Though Aspinity might be one of the only semiconductor innovators currently operating in Pittsburgh, the CEO thinks there’s a potential to see that activity grow here. Not only has the local talent pool increased in terms of machine learning experts and circuit designers, but having a semiconductor presence ensures that other tech can grow with hardware that better supports it, creating a more comprehensive innovation ecosystem.
And there’s no reason it can’t happen in Pittsburgh, he said: “When you’re doing semiconductors, in the old days, you had to be in upstate New York or in Silicon Valley, because that’s where all of the silicon development happened. But nowadays, you can actually be remote.”
Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.-30-