Executive Interview: Stefan Wolff, CEO, and Jim Cable, Chairman and CTO of pSemi, a Murata Company
Peregrine Semiconductor will continue as a brand, supported by the same sales teams, distributors and applications engineers
You recently announced a new name — pSemi — and an expanded charter. Let’s start with the charter: describe your new charter and product portfolio.
Jim Cable (JC): The new charter is to be a semiconductor supplier to all of the business units within Murata. When Murata acquired Peregrine in 2014, we only supported their RF module business. Over the last few years, that charter has grown and broadened. Our team now provides circuits into Murata’s power management and sensor businesses, and we are working with Murata on optical transceivers. The Peregrine Semiconductor brand is well known in RF, but as our role has expanded into other Murata products, we felt it made sense to signify this shift with a name change. The charter has expanded, and we have diversified our product portfolio.
Peregrine Semiconductor built its product portfolio and reputation on SOI and the UltraCMOS® process. Does pSemi’s process roadmap go beyond UltraCMOS technology — including GaAs and GaN for RF applications, perhaps?
Stefan Wolff (SW): We are now technology agnostic. We choose the semiconductor technology that is best for the application. Certainly the majority of our portfolio is on UltraCMOS technlolgy. In RF, we continue to use our SOI technology advantage for better performance and to improve KPIs. But we are also working on other technologies like bulk CMOS for sensor ASICs, and we cannot rule out GaAs or GaN for future applications, such as 5G and millimeter wave. Our technology portfolio is expanding with our product portfolio, and we now have a technology-agnostic and solution-focused view.
Will you continue to support the existing Peregrine Semiconductor portfolio? Any changes to your sales channel?
SW: The first answer is yes; we will continue to support the existing portfolio. In fact, Peregrine Semiconductor continues as a brand of pSemi, and the legacy products will remain under the Peregrine Semiconductor brand and logo. These products will be supported by the same sales teams, distributors and applications engineers. There is no change to the sales channel.
What does your expanded charter say about Murata’s semiconductor strategy?
JC: Murata recognizes that semiconductors are an important piece of their module businesses. Historically, most of those semiconductors came from third parties, both standard and custom products. Murata recognizes that sourcing that piece internally would be beneficial from a product differentiation standpoint, a surety of a supply chain standpoint and from a no-margin-stacking perspective. Our expanded charter reflects Murata’s view that as Murata moves up the value chain from a component supplier, semiconductors are a very important piece of that move.
How much of your focus will be on providing semiconductor content to Murata, to support their integrated products, compared to your roots as a merchant semiconductor supplier?
JC: Well, it is true that our early roots were as a merchant semiconductor supplier. That being said, we began to focus on the handset mobile markets, and we became very focused on supplying custom products to a small set of customers. Certainly, that focus only accelerated with the Murata acquisition. Going forward, we will continue to manufacture merchant products. As a percentage of the total, we will be much more focused on supplying content internally to Murata than on merchant products.
Before you were acquired by Murata, you were pursuing a mobile front-end, where the transmitter was fabricated with UltraCMOS, and you were claiming equivalent performance to a GaAs PA. Last February, you announced a design center in Austin, focused on developing UltraCMOS products for mobile applications. What is pSemi’s mobile strategy?
SW: Let me start with the SOI RF front-end. After the acquisition, Murata asked pSemi to refocus and deprioritize cellular SOI PA activity — but that PA expertise has proven very competitive for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi front-end module applications. With regards to our Austin design center, the team there has already launched several products in Murata’s RF modules, successfully combining LNA and switch technology on the UltraCMOS platform. We have a great team in Austin, and we will continue to hire to support mobile applications.
Overall, the mobile strategy is to enable success for Murata by providing best-in-class semiconductor solutions for their RF modules. We want to, and we will, leverage synergies in manufacturing and high performance SAW filters, inductors, capacitors and other technologies. There are no big plans for stand-alone components, as this is a module business.
How did you arrive at the name pSemi? Any special significance?
JC: pSemi is a nod to our past but with a fresh look for our future. In rebranding, we wanted to make sure we held onto our 30-year history of semiconductor innovation, while showing there was a change in our scope and portfolio. That being said, pSemi is not a radical change. Many people in the industry already called us pSemi. When we were a public company, our NASDAQ ticker symbol was “PSMI.” Our website was www.psemi.com, and our company email addresses all end in @psemi.com. pSemi embodies where we are going but also where we have been.
pSemi’s new role suggests significant growth. Are you inheriting semiconductor designers and other resources from Murata or will you need to recruit and acquire?
SW: First of all, it is a very competitive environment, and highly skilled semiconductor talent is a rare resource. We continue to actively recruit and hire. I like to say that we are building the “dream team” of engineers to create the semiconductor products of the future. In addition to hiring, we will consider M&A activity, if it is a good fit for our capabilities and portfolio.
JC: Adding to that, Murata has their own IC design teams that have benefited from our design tools and process technology platforms. We will continue that hybrid model in the future, allowing us to have more bandwidth to create more new designs and products.
As the company enters this next phase and grows, what’s the corporate culture you’d like to establish or retain?
SW: I think there is a specific DNA here at pSemi. If there is a problem, our team finds a way to fix it. We are innovation junkies, and we won’t say “no” to technical challenges. Looking to the future, we must retain this innovative culture so that we continue to invent new architectures and technologies. The desire for profitability is also very important as we grow. We want to make sure that every dollar we spend delivers a reasonable ROI.
Peregrine Semiconductor was formed around the notion that CMOS could be used for RF circuits and deliver competitive performance. What were the early days like, proving that proposition?
JC: It was very challenging. RF CMOS was an idea that was ahead of its time. Obviously, it met a lot of skepticism, and a lot of people thought we were crazy. We had to prove ourselves to our suppliers, our customers and the press. But we believed we were right, and history has shown that we were. If you look at the amount of RF CMOS in a current smartphone, you can see that we proved the proposition. Looking back, it is rewarding to see how that “crazy” idea transformed into a mainstream technology. But it is also why we all have gray hair — some more gray than others.
SW: Let me add one comment to that. Obviously, my background is different, but I faced the same challenge. About 15 years ago, when the world was mainly on proprietary semiconductor technologies for RF applications and wafer cost was going up, we decided to go fabless for wireless at Infineon. We had to convert the portfolio from in-house SiGe technology to CMOS technology. There were a lot of challenges with that change but, eventually, it was the right decision to leverage scale and drive architecture innovation and integration. Today, all smartphones use CMOS to a large extent. There are still some proprietary technologies, but the dominating semiconductor technology in wireless devices is CMOS.
Tell us about your backgrounds and how you arrived at pSemi.
JC: I came to pSemi in 1996. My background was as a semiconductor process engineer, and I became interested in the idea of working on RF CMOS. More and more university research papers were getting published on this topic, and I felt that it was only a matter of time before CMOS became the way of the future. When Peregrine Semiconductor offered me the chance to be a part of it, I came on board. That was over 20 years ago.
SW: I have worked with Peregrine and Murata for many years as a partner, partially as a competitor, but always as an admiring business partner. Jim brought me on board last year, and I was excited to get back to my roots in RF, where I started my career 25 years ago. My major roles were with Infineon Wireless and Intel. I’m excited to be at pSemi, and I hope to help Murata and pSemi develop the semiconductors of the future.