Monday, 20 December 2010 14:54

Eric Deal bounces back from a startup shutdown to establish Cyclic Design

Reprinted from EETimes:  The Entrepreneurial Engineer By Sean Murphy - 12/20/2010

I met Eric Deal, president of Cylic Design, through the IEEE Consulting Network of Silicon Valley and was impressed by his energy and enthusiasm in bouncing back from one failed startup to begin a second one.

The ongoing recession is encouraging a number of engineers to be more entrepreneurial. I think entrepreneurial engineers will find Eric's answers insightful. His approach to establishing Cyclic Design as a successful IP company had three key components:

  • He built on his two decades of design expertise.
  • He leveraged his knowledge of trends in the solid state drive (SSD) market.
  • He reframed the problems the recession was causing his prospects as an opportunity he could focus on.

What follows is an edited transcript of our interaction with links added for context.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your background

I graduated from Texas A&M University in 1992 with a BS in Electrical Engineering. Over the past 18 years, I have worked in digital logic design and architecture on a variety of projects at IBM, Conexant, and Sigmatel.

In 2008 I left Sigmatel to found an enterprise SSD startup called Multixtor as the VP of Hardware Engineering. In this role I defined, designed, and verified the hardware architecture for a multi-channel SSD. Unfortunately, we began fundraising about the time the market crashed, so in June 2009 we decided to pursue other options.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about what led you to found your company, what was the problem that motivated you?

In the middle of the recession, I didn't see any interesting opportunities at local companies, so I took the opportunity to start my own business doing consulting. To differentiate myself (and keep myself busy since few companies were hiring contractors/consultants), I took my expertise with error correction and created BCH IP (the algorithm used for NAND flash) that I could license to companies in need of a solution.

When I left Sigmatel, they were left without an ECC expert. I wondered how many other companies would be in a similar position as layoffs and lack of investment in R&D during the recession; when designs started ramping up again as the economy recovered, they would be left with a deficiency in the ECC of their NAND flash controllers.

I also saw the transition in NAND flash correction block size as an opportunity. The companies I had worked for were designing large SOCs, where they typically had designed their NAND controllers as a highly-integrated portion of a larger IO controller. For these companies, buying a new NAND controller was not a good option since it would require discarding their legacy hardware design and software drivers. It seemed that these customers would benefit most from simply integrating ECC IP into their controllers, preserving this investment.

Q: How did you get started?

I started networking with companies in Austin to determine if I could address this disconnect in the NAND market with a service. My goal was to determine if firms would value ECC as a consulting service. If they did, my plan was to offer a faster time to solution by building on a flexible ECC IP platform. I found my first customer at NXP for their SOC applications. I also promoted Cyclic Design online and became a Design & Reuse partner to improve visibility outside of Austin.

Q: Can you give me a brief overview of where the company is today?

There were a few bleak periods, but now Cyclic Design is to the point where we have a few customers and a few more on the way, and it's getting easier to find and close new business. As a small company, we can provide a high level of service to customers and have the ability to customize the IP in order to better fit their needs. Cyclic Design has also expanded IP offerings to support higher ECC levels for MLC flash as well as providing a solution for SLC devices as customers transition from single-bit Hamming codes to BCH algorithms requiring 4-12 bit correction.

Q: What are the two or three things that you have been able to accomplish that you take the most pride in or satisfaction from?

As a designer, it is satisfying to see Cyclic Design's IP used in a wide variety of applications across the market. It is also pretty incredible to think that with easy access to global communications, Cyclic Design is providing solutions for companies all over the world.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise? What was one key assumption you made, perhaps even unconsciously, that has caused the most grief?

Probably the biggest surprise is how hard it is to get potential customers from first contact through licensing. Having a solution that meets an engineering need doesn't necessarily turn into a successful business relationship.

Q: What development, event, or new understanding since you started has had the most impact on your original plan? How has your plan changed in response?

Over time we learned that our initial ideas about customer demand was a little off, but we were able to learn and adapt our offerings. Now we believe we've gotten a better understanding of what most of the customers need, and we have a pretty good handle on what product offerings to do next.

Q: Any other remarks or suggestions for entrepreneurs?

You have to find something you love doing; otherwise, it is really hard to make it through the down times with little to no income or when a client changes direction and decides not to use your product or services. Also, before starting a venture, you need to know how long you can afford (financially) to stick with it before moving to something else; in this respect, a good financial adviser is a great asset.

Q: Thank you for your time.

Sean Murphy is CEO of SKMurphy, Inc, a consulting firm that offers customer development services for entrepreneurs with a focus on early customers and early revenue.


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