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Home > News > Company News > Interview: Sondrel IC design g.....

Interview: Sondrel IC design group keeps an eye on opportunity

  • Author:Ella Cai
  • Release on:2017-06-29
After buying Imagination’s IMGworks, Sondrel CEO Graham Curren talks to Electronics Weekly’s Josh Brooks about the group’s great leap forward.

Look inside a mobile phone, a set-top box or a car’s electronics and you will see many of the chip industry’s biggest names. One company name that you won’t see – although its work is more than likely in there – is that of IC design consultancy Sondrel. 

It’s a name that you will hear a lot more of in the coming months. In May this year the Berkshire-based business took the biggest leap forward in its 15-year history when it acquired the IMGworks SoC design division from Imagination Technologies. 

For Imagination, the sale was the first stage in a wide-ranging restructure of its business that has been accelerated by Apple’s announcement in early April that it would stop using Imagination’s GPU technology in the next two years. Just last week the company put itself up for sale. 

For Sondrel, the acquisition adds 100 people and grows its expertise in system on chip (SoC) design for graphics, GPU and video processing, as well as adding UK sites in Bristol and King’s Langley, and others in India and Poland, to its existing network of offices near Reading UK and in China, Morocco and France. 

Indeed, Sondrel has claimed that with more than 250 staff now in its business, the IMGworks deal has catapulted it to the position of being the biggest digital IC design consultancy in Europe. 

The purchase is the latest chapter in a story of strong business growth driven by calculated, and sometimes opportunistic, risk-taking that began back in 2002. 

Opportunity knocks
Graham Curren (pictured), Sondrel’s quietly spoken but fiercely ambitious founder and CEO, set up the business when he spotted an opportunity after a period working for Avanti leading its applications group. 

“It was becoming expensive and very specialised and there were a lot of start‑ups around at the time. So it seemed like an opportunity,” he says. “But the timing was bad with the dot‑com crash – and the venture capital funding for the start-ups dried up.” 

Instead, Sondrel began life doing projects for big semiconductor companies; the first two clients were multinationals, one in Germany and one in France. “It grew organically from there,” said Curren. “It was always an international outlook – in fact, we’ve always done very little business in the UK.” 

That international mindset has been reflected in Sondrel’s own choices of location. A major milestone in the company’s early life, Curren says, was the addition of an office in China in 2008. “We needed to have access to another pool of engineers; and we needed to have a lower cost base,” he explains. 

“The problem you have in Europe is that the number of engineers in any one location is low. You look at India with design centres of 1,000 or 10,000 people, or China with centres of 10,000 or 20,000 in a design centre – but in Europe we probably don’t have 10,000 engineers in IC design across the whole of Europe.” 

The centre in Xi’an – home of the Terracotta Army – now has about 50 engineers, working on projects mostly for multinationals with design centres in China. “People have this idea that engineering in China is all about doing it cheap – but that’s not true. We do some of our most advanced chips in China,” says Curren. 

shanghai officeSince the centre opened, Sondrel has developed an intensive three-month post-graduate training course with Nottingham University, in Ningbo; an office in Shanghai opened in 2010 (pictured below); and Curren has joined the board of the China-Britain Business Council, a role in which he accompanied former prime minister David Cameron on a trade mission to China in 2010. 

International expansion continued in 2015, when Sondrel opened a design centre in Morocco. The opportunity arose when ST Microelectronics announced the closure of a design office with 50 staff in Rabat. “It was an opportunistic thing – we were looking to open a design centre with 50 people, so it was a perfect fit,” said Curren. The centre provides design services for companies across Europe. 

Fast-forward to May this year and the acquisition of IMGworks, which was an opportunity to add engineers and expertise that had been in the pipeline since Imagination announced plans to sell the unit a year ago. “We’ve known Imagination for a while and we’ve been talking to them about how we might work with them. So when this came along, we knew what they were doing, we knew their projects,” says Curren. 

The acquisition fits Sondrel’s current strategic road-map to focus on key applications areas in graphics, networking, IoT and automotive electronics. 

“The big enabler for us is that it allows us to address much bigger parts of more complicated designs,” says Curren. Sometimes in the past, he says, Sondrel has had to turn down projects that have been either too big or outside of its core skill set and customers. 

“This takes away all those barriers,” he says. “IMGworks comes with a very detailed knowledge of how to put chips together from the beginning to the end; so rather than do what we were doing before, which was part of the design, the methodology and internal IP that they have opens us up to doing more complex jobs in particular areas much more effectively.” 

He says that Sondrel’s independence could create a number of opportunities for the IMGworks business, which was previously tied into Imagination’s IP – for instance, it could now work on chips with an ARM core for the first time. 

Curren adds: “So the challenge is going to be really finding the right customers to work with. It makes sense to leverage the types of customers and application areas they’ve already been working on – that’s the first port of call, so things like video and PowerVR – so we marry what Imagination’s strengths are with our own, and that’s a good starting point.” 

These are clearly exciting times for Sondrel, but they are also interesting times for the whole electronics market, Curren says. He sees two key trends in electronics development. 

First, that the market has, as he puts it, “stopped chasing the technology” – that is to say, the drive for ever-greater processing power, chasing Moore’s Law, has slowed and given way, in many areas, to a more considered focus on doing other things better. 

The second big trend, Curren says, is that development is happening across a range of markets – IoT, networking, storage, automotive and so on – rather than being focused on just one. “This gives a lot of hope that things are relatively stable. If you’re addressing a lot of different markets, when one’s up and another’s down, you can ride a lot of the storms,” says Curren. 

And while the current trend for big technology businesses like Apple, Google or Amazon to bring their chip design in-house is worrying many in the semiconductor businesses, Curren believes it’s good news for Sondrel. “Some of those companies have never done a chip before, and they need help. 

Designing a chip is extremely complicated and if you’re looking to bring chip design in-house, a first step could be to bring some of it in-house and outsource other bits of it. So this creates opportunities for us,” he says. 

Skilled people count

Sondrel’s ability to do any of this, of course, relies on its ability to hire people with the right skills. 

For Sondrel, Curren says that most of the people the company currently takes on are coming with visas from overseas, often from outside the EU. And he takes a pragmatic view on the future. 

“Clearly if the visas stop, then the solution, which is perfectly workable, is that we’ll export the work. That’s a political question of whether you want the people and the tax revenue here or in a different country. That’s for the public to decide. It’s an international world nowadays and some people don’t realise that,” he says. 

It’s a view that feeds into Curren’s overall ambition for the company. “I’ve always been motivated by the change and the growth. I’ve never wanted Sondrel to be a lifestyle business,” he says. 

“Seeing new things, getting involved with new ideas, seeing new customers is what gets me out of bed.” 

And challenges? “The biggest challenge for us is how to manage the growth,” says Curren. “What I try to do is to hire people who have come from where we’re going rather than from where we are today – that is, from bigger companies, so they can come and say that in bigger companies things are done in this or that way.” 

Finally, I ask Curren what has gone right for Sondrel? “I talk to other people who run companies. You have to be willing to take risk and go in another direction. And you have to be willing to put the hours in. That’s how you make a success.” And then, with a glint in his eye, Curren adds: “And you need a bit of luck.” 

Every business needs luck, sometimes, to get on. But you make your own luck. As Sondrel continues to grow and integrates IMGworks, and it becomes an ever-bigger name in the IC design world, there’s every chance that luck will stay on Sondrel’s side. 

Sondrel factfile
HQ: Theale, Berkshire, UK (pictured, right)
CEO: Graham Curren
Key markets: IoT, graphics, automotive, networking
Key services: Digital IC design, verification, DFT, physical implementation, analogue & mixed signal
Timeline
2002 – Founded in Theale, Berkshire, UK
2005-2007 – Offices opened in France, Italy and Israel
2008 – Xi’an design centre opened in China
2009 – Queens Award for Innovation for Helium build tool
2010 – Shanghai office opened
2013 – School of VLSI (very-large-scale integration) Design founded at UNNC
2015 – Morocco design centre opened
2017 – Acquisition of IMGworks from Imagination