Start-ups, Silicon Valley and EDA

by Hervé Lebret

  • “Risk taking in EDA is gone”  Joe Costello

  • “If there is a single point I wish to make here today, it is that as a discipline, both in industry and in academia, we are just not taking enough risks today.”   Richard Newton

When I decided to write a book about start-ups and Silicon Valley, Start-Up, What we may still learn from Silicon Valley, EDA had to be an important component of its content. A full chapter is indeed about EDA.

I wrote the book because I was angry and frustrated. In Europe at least, and I am sure in many other places, the word Start-Up is not understood. In many areas, copying Silicon Valley has been tried with little success. In many instances, it has been a total failure.

Silicon Valley technologist Paul Graham wrote, “I read occasionally about attempts to set up ‘technology parks’ in other places, as if the active ingredient of Silicon Valley were the office space. An article about Sophia Antipolis bragged that companies there included Cisco, Compaq, IBM, NCR, and Nortel. Don't the French realize these aren't startups?”

What I tried to show in my book, to Europeans and to many others, is that the start-up world is not a linear model of innovation. Innovation cannot be planned; it is not a process. From the foundation of Fairchild in 1957 by eight “traitors” who disagreed with William Shockley to the “recent” Google success, Silicon Valley has mainly been a series of accidental empires. As much as success in Silicon Valley is accidental, however, luck is just one of several important ingredients. Because success in Silicon Valley also only belongs to those who are daring enough to try.

As a former venture capitalist with Index Ventures, I have been in contact with the EDA industry and its entrepreneurs for a number of years. I was fortunate enough to meet Magma founder Rajeev Madhavan and Synopsys founder Aart de Geus, and I have also been close to start-ups such as Numerical Technologies, Barcelona, Pulsic, and Kimotion. In each instance, I have seen that behind the brilliant technologists, were entrepreneurs who were not afraid to face uncertainty.

Vinod Khosla, legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist, explains: “Launching a start-up is not a rational act. Success only comes from those who are foolish enough to think unreasonably. Entrepreneurs need to stretch themselves beyond convention and constraint to reach something extraordinary.”

What EDA so beautifully illustrate through its Kaufman awards is that innovation in Silicon Valley involves even more, however, than accidental success or fearlessness. It also involves close proximity and friendships between brilliant academics - everyone from Don Pederson, Carver Mead, Hugo De Man, Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli, Richard Newton, Robert Dutton, and Robert Brayton - and “crazy” entrepreneurs like Jim Solomon, Paul Huang, and Joe Costello.

The Kaufman Award proves Silicon Valley succeeds because it is an open environment where fierce competition does not prevent interaction and exchanges between colleagues (even with the natural consequence of some famous lawsuits). EDA is an industry that may not have existed at all, in fact, without everything that goes into making Silicon Valley what it is – luck, fearlessness, and the start-up mentality of collegiality between its entrepreneurs.

U.C. Berkeley professor Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli, in his superb keynote at the 2003 Design Automation Conference, spoke about “The Tides of EDA” and showed how the EDA industry has matured from the “Age of Gods” to the “Age of Men”.

Yet at this very moment, when Cadence tries to take over Mentor, it would be good to remember what Joe Costello and Richard Newton had to say about EDA: Risk taking has disappeared. Is the “Age of Men” the beginning of the end of Silicon Valley?

When Don Valentine talks about Silicon Valley, he quotes from two true visionaries he has met in his life, Intel founder Robert Noyce and Apple founder Steve Jobs.

Robert Noyce said, “Look around who the heroes are. They aren’t lawyers, nor are they even so much the financiers. They’re the guys who start companies”.

When Steve Jobs was asked about “why Silicon Valley”, he answered, “[There are] two or three reasons. You have to go back a little in history. I mean this is where the beatnik happened in San Francisco. It is a pretty interesting thing… You've also had Stanford and Berkeley, two awesome universities drawing smart people from all over the world and depositing them in this clean, sunny, nice place where there's a whole bunch of other smart people and pretty good food. And at times a lot of drugs and all of that. So they stayed… I think it’s just a very unique place.”

Joe Costello would certainly agree with such claims. Unfortunately, such a model can not be replicated. It is a cultural ecosystem where risk taking is (was?) celebrated and where failure is (was?) tolerated. So, is the Cadence-Mentor merger “another brick in the wall” indicating the end of Silicon Valley? I do not know.

However, technologists, academics,and entrepreneurs should remember how the last 50 years have transformed Silicon Valley. How daring and luck and intellectual interaction have lead to the success of the place. The EDA industry needs to lead the way. The industry needs to remind Silicon Valley why it is the stuff of legends, and it needs to start now.

EDA needs a new Magma, a new Verisity, a new Simplex, a new Quickturn, a new Avant!, a new CCT, a new ECAD, a new SDA, a new Optimal Solutions, a new Valid, a new Daisy, and a new Mentor to show everyone what Silicon Valley is all about.

Hervé Lebret
Lausanne, Switzerland
June 27, 2008


Hervé Lebret is the author of "Start-Up, What we may still learn from Silicon Valley". He maintains the related blog www.startup-book.com.

Lebret works at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) where he supports entrepreneurs and start-up creation. Previously, he was a venture capitalist with Index Ventures. Lebret holds a PhD in Electrical Engineering, and is a graduate of Ecole Polytechnique (France) and Stanford University.


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Copyright (c) 2008, Hervé Lebret. All rights reserved.