It’s a great honor for Ambiq to be nominated as a Finalist in the 2015 R&D 100 Awards. Now in their 53rd year, the awards recognize excellence and innovation in a broad range of industries, from biotech and materials science to electronics and software.
Nominated in the Market Disruptor category, our Apollo ultra-low-power microcontrollers really exemplify what can be achieved by committing to research and development. Using innovative sub-threshold chip design techniques, Apollo redefines the concept of low-power electronics, enabling 10x or better improvements in energy consumption. Because of this, our devices can enable an entirely new class of products to be developed that were previously not possible. For example, wearable devices that might otherwise require a battery change or charge after days or weeks can be designed to function for months or years.
We believe that “disruptive” is the right term for this!
The key innovation behind the Apollo microcontrollers is Subthreshold Power Optimized Technology (SPOT). This allows us to use standard, mainstream semiconductor manufacturing technology while reducing energy usage by an order of magnitude when compared to traditional circuits.
The transistors in a device based on SPOT operate at sub-threshold voltages – as low as 0.5V (traditional devices turn their transistors all the way “on” at 1.8V). The leakage current of “off” transistors is used to compute in both the digital and analog domains.
But sub-threshold switching is only a part of Ambiq’s innovation story with Apollo. The sub-threshold concept itself is not new but it is a challenging technology to implement and that’s where the hard work of the R&D team comes in. The real innovation of SPOT is that we have overcome the problems previously associated with sub-threshold operation: noise susceptibility, temperature sensitivity and process drift.
That effort has taken more than eight years of genuinely novel research and development.
So we can see that in order to create this award-nominated disruptive technology, quite a number of elements had to come together. First was the market need, driven by the emergence of wearables, energy harvesting and other products that require ultra-low-power electronics (and let’s remember that when we’re developing products we’re talking not only about the emergence of the need itself, but also the identification, potentially years in advance, of that need). Second was the technology concept – in the case of Apollo the realization that sub-threshold technology could potentially answer this need. Third came the hard years of research and development (itself requiring a long-term mixture of inspiration and diligence).
Without all of these three elements clicking into place, Apollo wouldn’t exist. Research and development is vital to our industry, and many others. But it’s not an isolated activity – it’s an intrinsic and interconnected part of what we do.