Ambiq Micro Plans to Expand IoT Uses of Energy-Saving Microprocessor
Austin—Seven years ago, Scott Hanson was a student at University of Michigan who was hoping to raise a few hundred thousand dollars for Ambiq Micro, his fledgling startup that aimed to make low-powered microcontrollers.
Today, Ambiq is headquartered in Austin, TX, has raised tens of millions in venture capital, and sells its energy-efficient chips to international companies such as Huawei Technologies and Fossil Group (NASDAQ: FOSL) for Internet of things products like fitness trackers and smart watches. And, notably for Hanson, he’s no longer the only employee.
“I remember when we were one person in an office—it wasn’t we, I was that one person in an office sitting all alone,” says Hanson, Ambiq’s founder and chief technology officer. “It’s nice to have moved up to the next level.”
Ambiq has raised about $33 million in venture capital funding so far this year, led by Chinese venture firm Tsing Capital and with participation from previous investors such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. That money is helping Ambiq as it works to identify new applications for its microcontroller technology, including smart homes, wireless medical devices, credit cards, and sensors used in buildings and by cities. The company has brought in more than $70 million total since its founding, according to regulatory filings.
Ambiq has a technique of applying a type of circuit design, known as sub-threshold design, to microprocessors, which limits the amount of power they use, Hanson says. Ambiq uses a microprocessor architecture developed by ARM Holdings, a company headquartered in England that licenses a few types of high-end and low-end architectures to technology businesses around the world, he says.
“I can take any general purpose circuit, I can apply my techniques, and suddenly that circuit consumes a lot less energy,” Hanson says.
Ambiq does so by using the microprocessor to fine-tune the voltage levels that a battery releases, which creates an exponential energy reduction, Hanson says. This step is somewhat tricky because running chips at low voltages causes fluctuations in the manufacturing process, including making the chips more susceptible to temperature—meaning that the chips could perform unpredictably or fail, he says.
The “novel approach that’s secret Ambiq technology” resolves that problem, Hansen says, allowing the company to mass manufacture and sell microprocessors that use less energy. That’s attractive to makers of IoT devices, who are looking for better iterations on the current hardware that’s on the market, he says.
“The common thread that our customers have is that they’re all battery-powered, and they’re really strained in their power requirements,” Hanson says. “Moore’s Law has played a big role in the mobile phone world and the PC world. … But the IoT world and the embedded world have largely escaped Moore’s Law. It has been a pretty sleepy world where not a lot has changed from year to year. It’s our goal to change that.”
The $33 million of funding Ambiq raised this year is helping the company develop fourth- and fifth-generation microprocessors to sell to clients, as well as to begin actively pursuing businesses with products in the smart home, smart sensor, and smart credit card markets internationally.
“What’s really cool is that we can apply this technology to virtually anything. We started with microprocessors, but it can easily be applied to radios, and applied to sensors, and applied to really big microprocessors—big signal processors versus small microcontrollers,” Hanson says. “There’s all sorts of things we can do with this very versatile technology.”