Smartphones are equipped with a range of chips that perform various functions. Among them, there’s a semiconductor chip called the power amplifier that is responsible for conditioning and amplifying the signal through the antenna. Energy efficiency in power amplifiers is a feature that is becoming more crucial as app makers make increasingly energy-intensive services.
Falcomm, a semiconductor startup based out of Atlanta, Georgia, is working on a new type of power amplifier to cut energy consumption in hardware ranging from Wi-Fi networks and satellites to consumer products like smartphones and IoTs. The power amplifier, in the words of Edgar Garay, co-founder and CEO of Falcomm, is “the device that goes before the antenna in a radio” and is “responsible for conditioning and blasting the signal through the antenna.”
“When you see your cellphone and you see the signal bars, that’s basically how good your power amplifier is operating. Anytime you have wireless signal transmission, you have a power amplifier. Whether people are aware of it or not, in your everyday life, you use hundreds of power amplifiers,” he added.
Falcomm enables simultaneous signal transmission at all different terminals of a transistor, a semiconductor active element and the “workhorse of the modern electronic era,” in Garay’s words. Doing this lowers the “knee voltage” of the transistor, enabling Falcomm’s power amplifiers to deliver efficiency levels over 50% at 28 GHz compared to competitors’ 25-35%.
The market for power amplifiers is immense — $23 billion according to Garay. Of course, the company has to start somewhere with a focus, which for now includes satellite companies, wireless infrastructure manufacturers and Wi-Fi OEMs.
“If you’re very successful and you’re able to capture 5-10% of that, then you’re looking at a couple of billion dollars in terms of addressable market,” the founder said. Falcomm is a so-called “fabless” chip company, meaning it contracts foundries to manufacture its chips, and it can potentially monetize by selling semiconductor products directly to customers or licensing its technology to manufacturers.
Investors have shown confidence in Falcomm’s technology to supercharge power amplifiers. The startup, which is one of the Disrupt Startup Battlefield 200 companies in 2023, is announcing today that it has signed a term sheet with Squadra Ventures and is set to close a $4 million round on September 22, with more details to come. It’s the second round of equity funding since the company spun out of Georgia Institute of Technology, where Garay completed his PhD in electrical engineering.
Despite their critical role in hardware, power amplifiers have seen limited technological advancements, partly due to incumbents’ reluctance to disrupt the industry. Garay compared his startup’s potential influence on Qualcomm, Broadcom and Skyworks to what Tesla did to the auto industry.
“If you look at the automotive industry in the late 90s and early 2000s, there wasn’t a lot of innovation. They weren’t doing anything to innovate because they had a hold of the supply chain. It took Tesla and some other startups to push the status quo,” he said.
“I think the same thing is gonna happen with semiconductors, especially now that we’re getting the Chips Act, and we’re getting investors interested, and we’re getting private capital being funneled into semiconductor startups. It’s a super exciting moment to be working on semiconductor innovation.”
The costs of starting a semiconductor company also explain the industry’s sluggish progress. Even before Falcomm became a commercial business, Georgia Tech had spent $5-6 million on supporting the development of its technology for six years.
Nonetheless, the lack of innovation is good news for Falcomm, which believes it has little competition at the moment.
“One of the great things for us is that there hasn’t been a lot of innovation in terms of semiconductor companies. We have kind of been using the same technology over and over. The only thing that’s been improving for the past couple of decades is manufacturing processes, but not the architecture per se,” the founder explained.
Falcomm plans on using its fresh funding proceeds on hiring. It won’t be easy to find the right people quickly, but there’s a sizable group of semiconductor talent who also wants to challenge the status quo, Garay suggested.
“You don’t usually hear startups and semiconductors in the same sentence. Hiring the caliber of people that we want to hire, and who are also excited about joining a startup with a mission of bringing innovation to the semiconductor world — I think that’s one of the challenges. But I think there are enough people out there who don’t want to work for Apple and don’t want to work for Qualcomm. They want to do something that’s meaningful and something that is challenging.”