Executive Interview - Christopher Marki
MWJ: Marki Microwave is perhaps best known for its mixers. Why is that?
CM: It’s a combination of legacy and performance. My dad has been designing high performance mixers since he graduated from UC Berkeley in 1970. He founded Marki in 1991 with the explicit goal of being the world’s premier mixer company. We now possess many of the industry’s highest performance mixers, and many of these are unique only to Marki. By building and designing mixers for over 40 years, my dad was able to invent new proprietary methods to achieve performance not previously seen. We have always tried to stay focused on breaking design and manufacturing boundaries in order to give our customers advantages for next generation products. The result is an unrivaled catalog of mixer products. With so much consolidation of smaller mixer vendors by larger conglomerates over the past few years, Marki remains a very stable option because our design and manufacturing has enjoyed a continuity of service for over two decades.
MWJ: What are some of the other important product lines you have and how do you differentiate yourselves from the rest of the field?
CM: Our strong reputation for mixers is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, our brand is synonymous with high quality mixers. On the other hand, we are often type-cast us as being only mixer specialists. As it happens, mixer design and manufacturing lends itself extremely well to many other product lines. When I started in 2007, I realized that our company infrastructure was ripe for growth in products beyond mixers, and that this wouldn’t require significant investments in either manufacturing or engineering. Our fastest growing lines are NOT mixers, they are: baluns, power dividers, couplers, bias tees and amplifiers. People are often surprised to know that by the end of 2015, we project that >50% of our sales will be generated from products that have been released since 2007. I am especially proud of this metric given that we accomplished this in the midst of the economic downturn.
MWJ: There seems to be a lot of engineering infrastructure behind your Microlithic technology. Could you give our readers a brief overview and what are the main benefits to the end-user?
CM: The Microlithic mixer technology is exciting both from a hardware and a software perspective. The blockbuster message for the Microlithic mixers is that we achieve 14x size reduction without compromising performance. In fact, most performance metrics improve in our Microlithic mixers when compared to their legacy counterparts. These mixers are also more amenable to volume assembly and are naturally ROHS compliant since no solder is used in the assembly.
From a software perspective, the Microlithic technology is groundbreaking because we design them fully in the virtual domain, and even offer fully function simulation models for our customers. Historically, hybrid mixers were designed empirically and by hand; this leads to slower development times and sometimes mysterious behavior. With the Microlithic models, our customers can now study both linear and nonlinear simulations of our mixers before they buy them. This modeling is easily performed using our free Marki Microwave PDK installed on AWR’s Harmonic Balance engine. To my knowledge, no other mixer vendor in the world offers fully functional nonlinear mixer models that match the accuracy and speed of our PDK.
MWJ: I always sensed that you place a high value on practical engineering and experience at Marki. Is that the case and how do you attract and maintain top engineering talent?
CM: My dad has surrounded himself with a core team of trusted and talented individuals. Virtually every veteran member of the Marki staff was hired by my dad at previous companies, going back to his days at WJ in the 1970s. These team members form the backbone of our company. My role has been to populate the organization with my own team to serve the next generation of Marki customers, and I have been more lucky than skilled in my choices. I’m an engineer by training, not a “business guy,” I don’t know the first thing about how to conduct a “proper” interview. All I know is that I look for engineers (and people in general) who show passion for their work and want to build something that doesn’t already exist. Education and experience is actually less important for me because they don’t seem to be good predictors of how someone will behave “in the trenches”. The act of taking risks to achieve something new and tangible seems to appeal to my team, and I’m always searching for others who share those same values.
MWJ: What design capabilities or other features are driving the component business these days from your perspective?
CM: Generating ideas for groundbreaking RF components is actually simple. All you have to do is attempt to invent an infinitesimally small, endlessly broadband, lossless black box that ships instantaneously and is free. It sounds like a flippant answer, but I am being serious. To make the next Great Widget, just improve one or several of the incumbent benchmarks and I promise you will sell a few. The hard part is to know which specs are the biggest sticking points for customers, and knowing how to accomplish this without breaking the bank. Designing in software and knowing the approximate cost of all the development steps is absolutely necessary to making a sustainable R&D strategy. This is one of our greatest competencies at Marki. With just a few exceptions, we can also provide all of our simulated design models to our customers so that they can work with our components within their own design environment. The days of iterating in hardware are over and component vendors who understand this will benefit greatly.
MWJ: How are you feeling about today’s business climate?
CM: Our efforts to expand our capabilities during the economic downturn have proven extremely fruitful. Despite the obvious and palpable slow down from our military end customers in recent years, we have actually grown our business every year since 2006. Towards the end of 2013, I started getting many more inquires from military customers regarding “soon to be released” funds and new next generation designs. We are now seeing programs reawaken from the 2010-2013 doldrums and 2014 appears to be an incredibly exciting year. We have recently purchased the adjacent building and will add about 70% more space to our operation. I am very excited for the future, especially because our product pipeline over the next 5 years will take us in directions that we (i.e. ourselves and our customers) used to think were unimaginable.
MWJ: What markets look particularly promising for your immediate future?
CM: I can think of exciting trends in all three of our primary markets of military, commercial and test and measurement. In military, we see many delayed programs finally thawing after funding freezes. Some opportunities disappeared, but many have survived because RF/microwave technology serves an essential role in modern and next generation military capabilities. Also, next generation RF requirements will push my team to technically absurd levels—its fantastic. In commercial markets, we are forming strong technical relationships with virtually every major IC vendor in the world owing to our best in class passive components. Most notable of these trends is the move towards extremely high speed ADC and DAC ICs. Our ultra-broadband baluns cover kHz to beyond 36 GHz and complement the incredible accomplishments of those IC designers and foundries working in CMOS, SiGe and beyond. The successful marriage of our baluns with these ADC/DACs has fostered the fastest growing product line Marki has ever launched. Finally, the test and measurement area has been very strong due to demand from wireless and LTE end markets. Since we build many decade and multi-decade bandwidth products, we can often cover the entire band of a box with a single design. Test equipment designed for the wireless area must usually cover a few hundred MHz to about 6 GHz, and that is ideal for Marki products, mixers and passives alike. It is possible to find less expensive components to cover narrow bands, but it is often cheaper to buy the more expensive broadband component since it saves money on the rest of the BOM. These broadband architectures greatly reduce board complexity and overall area.
MWJ: What advantage do you think American microwave companies have over foreign competitors?
CM: The US DOD budget. The US spends a huge amount of money on RF/microwave technology, and this no doubt fuels much of the innovation. My hardest challenges come from my US military customers and nothing fosters innovation like necessity (or telling a Marki that they “can’t do it”). Related to this is probably the American Cold War legacy of great “Microwave Grey Beards”. These guys, like my father, are national treasures and the RF business was built on their shoulders. The Cold War engineering generation is dwindling in numbers, but certainly their tutelage to the engineers of my generation will be felt for the next generation. Whether that sage knowledge can be maintained and broadened will be a challenge that must be met by my generation.
MWJ: We met at DesignCon this year, where Marki was tested the high-speed digital market with its baluns. How did that experiment work out?
CM: That was a fun show for us because we were able to promote our passive component lines to a class of engineers that don’t already know Marki for mixer technology. To the signal integrity world, Marki is a balun or bias tee company, not a mixer company. I went to grad school at UCSD to study high speed fiber optics (along with our Business Development Manager, Doug Jorgesen), so Marki Microwave possesses a tremendous amount of experience manipulating signals in both time and frequency domain. Classic RF/microwave engineers (like my dad) think almost exclusively in the frequency domain, signal integrity/high speed data engineers think in time—speaking both “languages” fluently is absolutely essential as the analog and digital world melds together, and we enjoy educating our customers on how our products impact systems in both time and frequency.
MWJ: Your father, who we interviewed several years ago, started Marki Microwave and there are a number of companies with a similar family connection. Reactel comes immediately to mind. What do you think about the importance of parents exposing their children to technology? Do you see yourself doing the same with your kids?
CM: My parents NEVER suggested that I do this work. In fact, if anything my mom did NOT want me to go this path and suggested I decide for myself what I want to do. I think that was the optimal parenting method. When it comes to children running a business beyond the founder it is essential that the child actually enjoys the world and takes pride in it. A parent cannot force a child to enjoy soccer or dancing or any other activity, why would career choice be any different? Yes, you can expose someone to many activities and opportunities, but developing a passion for is more of a personal choice.