U-M’s Zell Lurie Fund Invests in Reveal Design Automation

The University of Michigan’s Zell Lurie Commercialization Fund announced Friday that it has invested $50,000 in Ann Arbor, MI’s Reveal Design Automation, a university spin-out working in the area of semiconductor chip verification. Zaher Andraus, Reveal Design Automation’s CEO, said the company plans to use the money to hire more employees and pursue its first tier 1 customer.

The issue the company is trying to address is the complex challenge of verifying the design of semiconductor chips. To fully understand the problem, it helps to have an engineering background; semiconductor chips—and anything computerized depends on semiconductor chips—are difficult to design and even harder to test and debug.

Verification has been an open problem since the dawn of chip development, Andraus said, and unlike software, which can be patched, hardware with bugs can lead to recalls. Andraus also said that the verification process can be too complicated for many engineers to grasp on their own.

“Chip designers are taking a lot of risks” by rushing the test process, Andraus said. “It requires a lot of resources, which many companies don’t have. The market demands better chips faster, and if errors are spotted too late, you have to recall the product whether the chip is in a computer or a car.”

Reveal Design Automation said it is developing software tools that cut the chip verification process down from days to hours. “We verify that the chip model is correct with no bugs,” Andraus explained. “The analogy I like to use is a map of a building. We’re checking for problems in the map, not the building itself. We model chips using proprietary mathematical expressions to prove there are no bugs, or find the bugs that are there.”

Because semiconductor chips are found in such a wide array of products, Andraus said his company will potentially interact with a lot of different industries: automotive, consumer electronic, and medical devices, to name a few. He estimated the total value of the chip verification market is as much as $2 billion.

“The market is growing because verification is a growing problem,” he said. “Engineers feel paralyzed and they don’t know what to do about it.”

When asked why no clear solution to the chip verification problem has emerged before now, he points to an incident in 1994, when Intel released a buggy Pentium microprocessor that caused computers to malfunction. Andraus said it took half a billion dollars to recall the product and years to come up with a solution. The incident accelerated the adoption of systematic verification in the industry, but not to a satisfactory rate.

Andraus said that even today, multi-billion-dollar recalls continue to happen alongside delays in development schedules that are almost always attributed to verification. “Different companies approach the problem in all sorts of ways,” he added. “It takes a long time to figure these things out, which is why it’s better to verify the chips before they get out there.”

Reveal Design Automation plans to license its software or sell it on a subscription basis. The company is based in Ann Arbor, with satellite offices in Israel and California, and employs about 10 people full time. (Andraus said Reveal Design Automation is hiring “constantly,” and directed “sharp engineers and designers looking for a challenge” to send an e-mail inquiry.)

The company’s previous investors include Ann Arbor SPARK, Automation Alley, First Step Fund, Ann Arbor Angels, and the National Science Foundation.

The Zell Lurie Commercialization Fund is a student-led pre-seed investment fund meant to help commercialize ideas generated at the university, with a focus on healthcare, technology, consumer products, and cleantech.

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