How Silicon Valley's Best-Kept Secret, Crossbar, Beat HP to the Market w/RRAM
August 7, 2013 10:41 AM
Startup claims gaudy performance numbers -- but can it deliver
Even with the small size, high speeds, and power efficiency of NAND flash; modern mobile devices -- from wearable electronics to smartphones -- are
demanding even better performance
. In the race to
find a successor to flash
many are looking at resistive random access memory (ReRAM/RRAM), a new form non-volatile memory (NVM) as a potential "front runner" in the race.
I. Crossbar Emerges From the Shadows, Passes Hynix in RRAM Race
Hewlett-Packard Comp. (
) seemed to
get the jump in the ReRAM race
when it became
the first to implement what electronics experts dub a "memristor"
in mid-2008. As of 2010 HP was
still tweaking the technology
, looking to push down latency to commercially competitive levels. Independent researchers in the mean time were
. In Oct. 2011, HP vowed to release
a memristor-powered SSD "within 18 months"
-- but 22 months later it has no commercial product.
Stan Williams, an HP Labs senior fellow,
revealed late last year
that no memristor product was in store for 2013, and that HP was offloading the technology to its partner SK Hynix Inc. (
). He explains, "In terms of commercialization, we will have something technologically viable by the end of next year. Our partner, Hynix, is a major producer of flash memory, and memristors will cannibalize its existing business by replacing some flash memory with a different technology. So the way we time the introduction of memristors turns out to be important."
Perhaps the company's
crippling, historic layoffs
had something to do with that pullout. But whatever the reason, tech observers that had waited and hoped for a commercial RRAM product were left staring a launch slipping to sometime in 2015 or beyond (via Hynix).
Crossbar is the first to show off full, taped out RRAM test chips. And its early product is significantly superior to flash.
But in a surprise the world now has its first commercial-ready ReRAM product -- and it’s not from HP/Hynix. The new device is dubbed the "Crossbar Array" and comes from a virtually unknown startup named "Crossbar, Inc.".
II. Silicon's Best Kept Secret Was Born Out of the Fall of Spansion
Crossbar was co-founded by George Minassian. With a Ph.D in electrical engineering and computer science from the
Univ. of Texas at Austin
, Mr. Minassian has been a quiet, but important player in the personal computing industry over the last two decades.
A fellow at Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (
) for 19 years, he served as director of wireless during
the golden "Athlon" era
, assuming that post in 1999. He led a team to produce AMD's first 802.11b/a chipset designs, as well as the designing a major RF fabrication process.
George Minassian, CEO of Crossbar, is no stranger to high technology.
In 2003, Mr. Minassian was shuffled by AMD from his post as wireless director to be VP of System and Software Engineering at memory maker Spansion Inc. (
). When Spansion completed its 2008 spinoff via IPO, Mr. Minassian stayed onboard, serving largely in a public relations role at the chipmaker.
In 2009, Spansion was the world's third largest chipmaker, but was plagued by the global recession, falling NAND commodity prices, and a weak Q4 2008. The company
entered into Chapter 11 bankruptcy
in March 2009. In Dec. 2010, more bad news arrived as Spansion lost a
U.S. International Trade Commission
complaint against Samsung Electronics
Comp., Ltd. (
), which Spansion was hoping to squeeze for licensing fees. But by then Mr. Minassian had already departed, off to return to his roots -- big engineering.
The fall of Spansion fueled the rise of Crossbar. [Image Source: Cap. Arch. Signs, Austin]
2010 seemed an unlikely year to give birth to what would become an aggressive startup -- but it was also a good year to leave Spansion. Today Spansion has
fallen to fifth
in the memory market, even as it recovered.
But for Mr. Minassian, the decision to leave Spansion was not merely about the company's struggles. He also had grown tired of being confined to what was increasingly a public relations desk job. He was an engineer.
So later that year he launched Crossbar, based out of Santa Clara, Calif. (Crossbar was incorporated, but inactive from 2008-2009). Over the next three years Mr. Minassian privately pitched his vision of the next big thing in the storage space -- resistive RAM (ReRAM). Some investors bit.
III. Crossbar Peeks up Its Periscope With SEC Filing, Draws Short-Lived Buzz
In Nov. 2012, eyebrows were raised when the unknown company quietly announced in a mandatory
U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
that it had raised $20.5M USD in seed funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Artiman Ventures, and Northern Light Venture Capital.
The University of Michigan
was also a minority investor in the seed round.
The filing revealed that Crossbar was also being led by VP Hagop Nazarian -- a fellow refugee from Spansion who had served there as VP of Design Engineering. Before that he had worked at Micron Technology, Inc. (
), Information Storage Devices, Cypress Semiconductor Corp. (
), and Xicor.
The filing also listed Anne Dorman as chief financial officer (CFO) for the firm. She was a specialist in startups, and it 2012 was also listed as the CFO of
(a gay social network with 1m users),
(a car sharing service),
(a cloud storage firm),
(A SoundCloude-esque music discovery service),
(a CMOS power optimization firm), and Vii.
Silicon Valley: Business Journal
Much less is known about Crossbar, which said in a Form D filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it has raised $20.5 million of a $21 million round.
The company didn't return phone calls asking about the new funding, but says on its website that it is "focused on delivering solutions that will dramatically enhance the global memory storage industry."
It isn't known if the company is named after cutting edge mobile storage architecture called crossbar, but it would seem logical. This technology breaks down the barrier between memory circuitry and logic circuitry, possibly providing more capacity in a smaller space.
Indeed, that was precisely what Crossbar -- which in total raised $25M USD in seed money -- was formulating. But news of the mysterious startup quickly died down from Dec. 2012 until this month when -- to quote the company's press release -- "Crossbar emerge[d] from stealth mode."
IV. Dropping the Hammer
This week Crossbar flipped the switch on a new site and a press release that bore surprising news -- the company had a commercially read ReRAM device. The company describes its prototype, which was successfully manufactured on an unnamed commercial third party fab, writing:
The Crossbar memory cell is based on three simple layers: A non-metallic bottom electrode, an amorphous silicon switching medium and a metallic top electrode.
Crossbar's design is simple, with three layers.
The chip was manufactured on the 25 nm node. Here's how the 64 Gigabit (8 GB) chip stacks up to its main rival, NAND flash chips of the same capacity at that node:
Mr. Minassian is bullish on his company's product, stating, "What is unique about this is that we have been able to get to manufacturing in just three years. It is a technology that is easy to manufacture."
"Today’s non-volatile memory technologies are running out of steam, hitting significant barriers as they scale to smaller manufacturing processes. With our working Crossbar array, we have achieved all the major technical milestones that prove our RRAM technology is easy to manufacture and ready for commercialization. It’s a watershed moment for the non-volatile memory industry."
Crossbar's cells are fully stackable, just like NAND offering an early route to dension expansion.
The technology is capable of supporting multiple levels of stacked cell/crossbar layers, plus it is fully compatible with CMOS integration.
The Crossbar chip can be integrated on-die with CMOS GPU or CPU circuitry for faster performance.
Cost is of course -- for now -- higher than NAND. But the greatly improved performance means that it should command a premium when produced. And Crossbar's ability to produce it on a budget that's a shoestring compared to the giants of the storage industry shows that its technology might not be as much more expensive than NAND as one would think.
V. Intellectual Property, Competitive Concerns Loom
Those are bold words, so is the Crossbar chip -- and RRAM in general -- ready for prime time? And if so, when?
The when is a bit easier question to answer. Typically, there's a 1 to 2 year wind up from first wafer-scale prototype tape-outs to mass production, so we may see samples by next year. And we will likely see a commercial launch in the 2014-2015 window.
Hynix and HP have also promised product sometime around then, but given rocky road that development has taken and the lack of publicly revealed working full chip prototypes, the assumption would certainly be that Crossbar has the lead in time to market.
The real question is what will happen when Hynix -- and others like Samsung --
arrive. The floating gate flash memory industry was largely developed by Toshiba Corp. (
) engineers in the 1970s and early 1980s, but it was Intel Corp. (
) that first struck commercial gold in 1988.
That brings up a second key question, which also represents a potential problem. Crossbar must carefully select a fabrication partner. Samsung seems a natural and wise choice. However, Crossbar has to be wary that history doesn't repeat itself. After losing its lead to Intel, Toshiba recruited Samsung to help it mass produce NAND flash. Samsung would go on to develop its own flash product and leave Toshiba far behind.
Toshiba recruited Samsung for early NAND production, only to be later scooped by its larger fab partner. Could history repeat itself with Crossbar?
If Crossbar does sign with Samsung -- or Intel, whixh recently expressed openness to serving as a third-party fab -- it must be very worry that its "partner" doesn't turn around and scoop it, leveraging scale and fab expertise to outprice and outcompete its product.
There’s also the question of intellectual property. HP's Stan Williams says that all resistive RAM devices should be considered "memristors", regardless of the finer technical details of the implementation. Such a statement could prove a prelude to intellectual property warfare.
Crossbar has over 100 patents pending, but HP has at least five times that number.
Crossbar has filed for over 100 patents on its technology, and has been granted 30 patents. But that pile is still dwarfed by HP's. HP reportedly had 500+ patents by 2011 alone, and has surely amassed sure since. HP and Hynix may have well over an order of magnitude lead in patents over their respective rival. That could spell trouble for Crossbar should the veterans look to bully it in federal court.
HP has a lead on Crossbar in intellectual property. [Image Source: GUIM UK]
Despite these potential pitfalls, analysts are relatively bullish on Crossbar, given that it's shocked the market with the first mature-looking RRAM product.
, Founding Partner,
surmises, "RRAM is widely considered the obvious leader in the battle for a next generation memory and Crossbar is the company most advanced, showing a working demo that proves the manufacturability of RRAM. This is a significant development in the industry, as it provides a clear path to commercialization of a new storage technology, capable of changing the future landscape of electronics innovation."
Crossbar has an early lead on the competition.
Crossbar still has a long fight ahead of it, in a ring of grizzled veteran firms like HP, Samsung, and Intel. But it's emerged from the first round an unheralded winner. Not too bad a show for one of Silicon Valley's best-kept secrets, I say.
"There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance." -- Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer
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