Editor’s Note: Altum RF is one of several MMIC start-ups seeking to fill a void from the MMIC industry consolidation while gaining a foothold in emerging markets, particularly at mmWave. In April, we spoke with Greg Baker, CEO of Altum RF. This is an edited transcript of our interview. Listen to the full audio conversation here.
You left MACOM over a year ago, spent some time working as a partner with a technology investment company and now you have launched Altum RF. What motivated you to start a new RFIC company?
We saw the opportunity with a lot of the consolidation and new business, especially on the higher frequency side of the RF spectrum. With the mobile satellite, 5G and numerous other high data type applications, there's an opportunity in the high frequency microwave to millimeter wave spectrum and just a lack of people going after that, with all the consolidation and shifting of the market.
How did you happen to name the company?
Well, we brainstormed and thought about a lot of names. Tony Fattorini, one of the cofounders, came up with that. I've heard of Altum, like altimeter. My daughter's taking Latin in high school, and I asked her, "Hey, is this a legitimate name?" And she said, "Yeah, it means from above or higher from above."
We thought that was a good name, and we wanted to tie it into the RF market, as well. So that's where we came up with Altum RF.
The company is based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. Why there?
I actually lived in the Netherlands for a couple of years, worked for NXP, and that's where I met Niels and some other colleagues. We see it as a good base for the company. There's a lot of good technology and innovation there.
There's also opportunity in Europe: there's not a lot of domestic, local semiconductor companies there. So we thought it was a good base for us, and teaming it with the design center that we have in Sydney, we thought it would be good to focus more as an international company — obviously also serving the U.S. That's why I plan to stay in the U.S. for more of a strategy and sales perspective.
We thought that's a good location for an international company.
Tell us about your team.
It's myself and Niels Kramer in Europe; he's well established from Phillips and NXP. We have Tony Fattorini heading up the design team in Sydney. It's about 10 people, mainly MMIC design engineers with a long background.
I actually started working with Tony back at Mimix Broadband over 10 years ago. We have some other people that we're bringing in that I've worked with as far back as 20 years ago. So a lot of good chemistry in the team with very different degrees of competence. Niels is very semiconductor technology and market focused. Tony's focused on design and modeling and I’m more on marketing and sales. I think we're a very complementary team.
What's the elevator speech you tell people about the new company?
It's a focused company targeting all the volume opportunities, also higher-end performance. We're obviously not a big scale company. We're fabless. We want to pick the interesting opportunities where there's innovation and unique performance.
As a smaller company, you have to pick your targets carefully not to get run over by the larger volume semiconductor companies. But definitely on the performance innovation, focusing a lot on compound semiconductors: GaAs and GaN — GaN is a very hot, interesting area with the capabilities there — as well as with our NXP ties to some silicon RF CMOS and SiGe capabilities working with third party design houses.
So we want offer the full line from baseband all the way up to millimeter wave. That's our approach, more of the compound semiconductor design internally and then working with third-party partners for the silicon side.
You commented earlier that you're focusing on higher frequencies. Talk more about the markets you find interesting.
There's traditional infrastructure markets for ISM, test and measurement, off-the-shelf A&D, and we see a lot of opportunities with mobile SatCom: Ku-/Ka-Band with the active antennas and the low earth orbit systems coming online.
Originally, we thought 5G is such a large-scale market, we shouldn't go after that. But then we've been approached by several companies asking us for especially the front-end components. So we're looking at high performance front-end PAs, LNAs and switch applications going up to 40 GHz. That would cover the 28 and 39 GHz bands for 5G.
You've talked about a pretty broad process portfolio, which would allow you to play in most market applications. How are you approaching assembly and test?
We actually are working with some people I've worked with for a long time, and we set up an office here in Dallas where we do a lot of the test system setup, writing the software — automated software for testing. Our plan is to heavily base our back-end operation in Asia, both in Taiwan, where a lot of the wafer fabs are, as well as the Philippines, where there's packaging and test.
That's our plan: to partner with a couple of key contract manufacturing partners there and having a lot of the capabilities offshore.
Your website has some 26 products, representing a variety of functions. That suggests standard products will be part of your go-to-market strategy. Talk about the portfolio you envision and how you see it growing.
Going back to the days of Sirenza Microdevices, that's kind of the model that we're focusing on, where we have a nice variety of catalog components. We would also entertain custom or semi-custom opportunities. But the real goal is to be a standard products company with some ability to integrate them for custom or semi-custom applications.
That's how we got off the ground and the first products that we're targeting. Obviously, we want to work with customers that want those products at the beginning, but then offer them in a catalog to the broad market.
That makes sense. So you would have relationships with distributors?
Yes, longer term we would. Obviously, until we get a bigger portfolio, we're not as focused on that. But that's on our list. We would like to serve the market through the bigger customers direct and then the broader market through distribution and sales partners.
You touched on this earlier, when you talked about consolidation in the market. How do you see Altum RF being differentiated, given there's still a pretty crowded field of RFIC suppliers with, as you noted, some pretty big and long-established players?
It's working with innovation on the leading processes, the next-generation, both on the GaAs and GaN side, so higher frequency — the 0.25 µm, 0.15 µm GaN, for example. There are some nice optical mmWave GaAs processes that have integrated more functionality. Those are the types of capabilities we're looking at in trying to be more of a first mover and innovative company offering higher performance and more features.
We want to be a first mover in the market, pushing the limits and also being able to drive the cost down by working with tier 1 volume contract manufacturers and other manufacturing partners.
You personally have been in the RF semiconductor industry since the mid-90s, around the time the cellular market was really taking off, so that gives you a 25-year perspective. What's your view of the evolution of the industry and the markets?
Yeah, it's been interesting because, originally, in the early stages of the markets, even on the handset side, there were a lot of discrete components — which is fun for engineers, because you get to develop a lot of the pieces and, on the board side, you do a lot of integration and optimization.
Now, it's become more of an ASIC, integrated with the baseband moving up in frequency and direct conversion to the digital domain. That's been the challenge as an RF engineer: the digital and silicon keep moving up in frequency, and so to do interesting and challenging projects, you end up moving up in frequency.
The good thing is there's plenty of activity there with the bandwidth requirements and the other systems that are coming online, like SatCom and 5G. So there's plenty of activity, plenty of opportunities and integration will continue even on the high frequency side. With scale, you're going to see that on 5G, as well. There's also a need for certain high performance components to complement the chipsets, the SiGe and CMOS capabilities, either for power, linearity, low noise or higher performance.
You also need the broadband components for test and measurement applications or for defense applications. We didn't really talk a lot about aerospace and defense, but that's another area where we're focusing on just off-the-shelf components. We are going to do a variety of high performance components that could also be used in aerospace and defense.
That's a tricky market because of the customization required, but certainly the trend has been to use more commercial off-the-shelf products.
Yeah, on the defense side, time-to-market and cost are becoming factors there, as well.
This is a pretty interesting time in the industry: a new wave given the move to millimeter wave, a resurgence in the cellular market with 5G and some of the spin-offs like IoT and autonomous driving. It seems like there's a lot of opportunity for RF, microwave and millimeter wave designers.
There is, and I think for us, it's just trying to pick the right applications, the right markets to go after, where there's a need, and then to partner with the right customers that will work with us on them.
What are your objectives for exhibiting at the 2019 International Microwave Symposium?
We have been quiet, we've been laying the infrastructure for about a year for the new company, and now we're just launching it. We've been issuing some press releases, and we'll have more coming out about myself joining as well as Niels and Tony and the offices that we've set up in Eindhoven and Sydney.
So it's pretty much just launching the company and talking about some of our early products that we have and some of the technologies and our strategy in the market.
Are there any points that we haven't discussed that you'd like to cover?
No, I think that's pretty much it. I appreciate the coverage that Microwave Journal has given us to start, and we hope to work more with you guys in the future.
We are really excited and ready to get started. We want to have a strong foundation and be able to move quickly and become a player in the market.