Twenty years is a long time in this industry. In February Tanner EDA celebrated their twenty birthday in EDA. The company offers high performance tools for analog/mixed signal ICs, ASICs and MEMS. They count 25,000 installed seats (around 4,000 customers) in 67 countries and two planets. The company has had an average annual growth rate of 20% and has been profitable for 8 of the last 9 years, an enviable track record. If you have not heard much about Tanner over the years, they intend to do something about that in the future.
I recently had an opportunity to talk to Dr. John Tanner, founder and CEO of Tanner Research, about the company, the products and the future.
Would you give us a brief biography?
I graduated with a Ph.D. from Cal Tech in 1986. Carver Meade was my advisor, the author of one of the well known IC design books. I co-founded a company at that time to do chip design. While we were graduate students, we wrote software that helped design chips. But when we graduated and tried to build a real company, the solutions that were available were expensive requiring dedicated workstations and software to run on it. The PC had just come out. We tried writing software that would run on this PC to do chip design and we found that with careful software design, we could get a reasonable tool. As we used that tool ourselves to design chips, other people came by and saw it. I convinced my partners that we should start selling it to others. Eventually that grew to be enough of a business and a distraction to my partners that I spun it out in 1988, two years later after I graduated to become Tanner Research. It has been privately held since then, 100% employee owned. It has grown organically at a rate of over 20% per year since then.
How does Tanner EDA relate to Tanner Research?
Thank you. Tanner Research consists of two large divisions and some smaller things. Tanner EDA is the biggest division and represents two-thirds of the company. Most of the rest of it is another division called Tanner Labs that does a lot of advanced R&D based upon government contracts, mostly from the Department of Defense, some NASA, NSF and DARPA. Some of the projects that go in the labs include chip design and micromachine design. So we have users of our tools just down the hall from the folks who provided the tools. That has worked out very well for us. But the primary focus, about 2/3 of the business is Tanner EDA.
How big a company is it today?
In terms of revenue or people?
Both, if you will tell me.
We are running about $10 million a year with about 65 people worldwide.
When you started the company, some people approached you asking to acquire the tools. How did you build up the awareness of these tools? Why were people interested in tools from a recent graduate?
It was certainly a challenge in the early years but then we did not have many mouths to feed either. We started with a tool that was $500 and catered primarily to the educational arena. Those were the folks we knew very well. But as time went on people tried to do real work with the tools. We enhanced the tools over and over again, made their capacity greater, their speed greater, built in standard industry interfaces with other tools. Just word of mouth accounted for much of our growth. In terms of “how did we make others aware of us?”, we have not done a great job for ourselves. We are on the verge of making a significant change that I think will help with that. That is with the hiring of Greg Lebsack. He is on the road today. He became the new president of Tanner EDA a few weeks ago. I am still the CEO and Chairman and of course founder. But Greg is the first outsider that we have brought in. He has a particular focus on marketing and sales. We have developed a lot of good products. We are engineering heavy. We have more support people than we have sales people and more developers than we have support and sales people. But it is time we started making more efforts in getting the word out about the tools that we have, so that we can grow even faster. We expect Greg to help with that change.
You said that initially you had a $500 product. What is the ball park price for your current offerings?
That same product is now $5K or $6K. We have added a whole lot of new modules that we have bundled together in various ways. The initial product was L-Edit, a layout editor, a polygon physical design tool. Now we have added verification and simulation, sort of the baseline suite of products that does a fairly complete job with mixed signal chip and is in the neighborhood of $10K to $15K for the suite. A few years ago we introduced a new line called HiPer for high performance. A complete suite of tools there goes for $5K and up depending upon options. We are still, of course, well below Mentor and Cadence that we sometimes compete with. Our goal is to deliver high value.
Is it still the educational market?
No! As of 15 to 18 years ago, we shifted over more and more into the commercial side. The educational arena is very interesting. There is a lot of cutting edge stuff going on but they demand as much from the tools as anyone else but do not have very much money. So we shifted over a long time ago to the commercial market. We have customers that range from one person in their garage, all the way to the biggest companies. For example, a couple of years ago Intel was our biggest customer. Now I think that we have some others that have surpassed Intel in terms of ordering our software. Our sweet spot is really sort of a 5 to 50 person chip design company or MEMS design company. Cambridge Silicon Radio in the UK accounts of 60% of all Bluetooth chips in the world and used our product to design them. Proteus Biomedical is an emerging company just getting their products in the market. They are using our products to design some ICs and some MEM devices that do very interesting things. I could elaborate on that.
They are a very creative company. One of their products coming onto the market is a chip that gets implanted between the controller for a pacemaker and the electrodes that go to the tissues of the heart. After the implantation the doctor can electronically switch which electrodes are used to minimize the crosstalk into the nervous system and deliver as much of the signal as possible to the heart tissue. Another product that I think is particularly fascinating is a tiny chip that is embedded in a pill that a patient takes. The problem that they are trying to solve is that some patients do not take their medication. They forget it or for whatever reason, they do not take it. The medication is in a pill that has a chip in the middle from Proteus Biomedical. When the chip is swallowed and the coating dissolves, it activates a tiny battery and the chip starts sending a signal throughout the body with a serial number on it that tells what the medication was. The patient wears a patch that picks up the signal, transduces it, and transmits it to a cell phone and from there to the doctor’s office. The doctor can see that the patient took the medicine at say 8:30 and took another medication at 9:00. So even if someone is forgetful, they can monitor the medication they are taking. This is an example of how our customers are using our software, a really creative thing. Some of the other customers include an image designer that originally worked for JPL and is now out on his own. He designed the imager for Spirit and Opportunity Mars Rovers. So there are now several copies of imager chips on Mars that were designed using our software. Some others are currently orbiting Mars in the Mars reconnaissance orbiter designed by the same guy.
Very interesting! Tanner is a private employee owned company. If an employee wants to leave or needs money for say college tuition for his children, how does the employee get cash for his stock?
That’s a really great question and one that I don’t hear very often from people outside the company but of course inside there is keen interest inside the firm. We decided long ago when we started issuing stock options with no intention of going public or being acquired, that we had to provide a liquidity path. We decided on a formula for evaluating our stock that is based upon our revenue. So as our revenue has grown over the years, the value of the stock has grown. At any point, anyone can compute the value based upon our recent revenue number, what the stock is worth is, if they chose to cash out. We cash them out directly from our company coffers. The stock remains owned by the employees. In fact, the employee stock options comes with the restriction that if they leave the company for any reason, the company has the right to buy back their stock according to this formula price, so that we retain employee ownership of the company.
The original intention was not to go public or to sell the company. Is that position likely to change in the future?
I have not seen any reason to change it. It is possible that at some point, a change in the market or my energy level will change but right now, it is a lot of fun. There are tremendous challenges and lots of opportunities. We have really dedicated ourselves to becoming a broad line supplier that is consistent with not going public or selling out. The traditional CAD success story that you hear about is a company that comes in and makes a niche product, best-of-breed, but does a very narrow range of the whole tool flow. If they are successful, they manage to sell themselves to one of the Big Three. That has never been our strategy. We are attempting to make the best integrated product, a suite of tools that work very well with one another because they are all engineered from the ground up to work together as opposed to our big competitors whose tools suites have grown through acquisition. The attempts are made after the fact to have them work together. Those attempts do not always work out that well. We have really focused our entire effort on a suite of tools, an ever expanding suite, that always work well together.
How challenging has it been over the 20 years to attract and retain talent when other companies are offering stock options with a view to going public or being acquired?
At times it has been incredible challenging. In the late nineties, the 2000 era, during the dot.com boom, we were having to give big raises and were still losing people. But today, a lot of EDA companies are struggling. Our folks are very happy to stay put. Over the years, we have managed to have a very low turnover rate. We provide an environment where people get to do their creative thing. They are well paid. They are not upset by a lot of turmoil associated with the EDA companies, the volatility of their stock prices, the acquisitions, the cutbacks and things like that. We have a very stable environment where people do great work. They see the results of their work in the fantastic things our customers are doing. It all makes for a very fun place to work.
What are the factors that have contributed to your success, to the 20 years and growing more that 20% per year?
We always felt that the key is analog deign rather than digital design as these customers are all unique. The design challenges that they face are unique. We try to make tools that do not get in the way of their creativity being applied to the job. When they encounter anything beyond the tool, we have a strong application engineering team. Customers can call and get help. If the AEs can’t help, they pass it along to the developers. A lot of our new features and some of the completely new tools are based upon customer requests. The teacher customer has been very helpful to us. These are people really pushing the envelope of analog design and yet willing to work with us to improve the tools because they need them. That has been one of the keys to our success. It does not seem like a magic formula but we hear over and over again that the other EDA companies do not behave like this. Once the sale is made, it is often difficult for customers of our competition to get a return call. We of course try to minimize the problems our customers have by careful design of the product in the first place but when those problems inevitably occur, our support staff is incredible in terms of wading in and finding out what is necessary to get the customer going again.
One of the keys from a technology standpoint was that early on was unpopular was that we believed in the PC as a platform at a time when dedicated UNIX workstations were perceived to be the way to go We stuck with that and found that gradually the Intel processor overcome the dedicated UNIX workstation. That war is over now and we are very glad because it has produced a platform that over the years more and more powerful and at the same time less expensive. It also allows the customer all the things they need to do besides design. They have to write reports, do spread sheets, and make PowerPoint presentations. They can do all of that on the same computer that they are doing chip design. With our software running under windows they can input chip layouts into the PowerPoint presentations; things like that. Of course, one of our recent announcements in the last few months is the release of our full suite of software running on Linux. While we still expect Windows to be our primary customer platform, for those who insist on Linux, we have that covered as well.
Who do you see as your primary competition?
In some arenas it is Cadence, Mentor and Synopsys. But I think the biggest competition is people just not being aware of us. In some areas we work well with the other competitors. For example, Mentor had a number of customers come to them who wanted to use the Calibre design rule checking but wanted to review the results of errors in our tools. So Mentor approached us and asked if we could make an interface between the two tools, which we did. We introduced that as a separate product. In some cases we compete with the big guys and in some cases we align with them.
Are there any smaller companies that Tanner goes head to head with?
There used to be a company called IC Editors. They went out of business a year or so ago. We do not bump into them often. Silvaco has sort of an intermediately priced suite that we sometimes go head to head with. In Taiwan there is a product called Linker by Silicon Canvass. They are a very tough competitor in Taiwan but not much outside Taiwan. That’s about it in terms of competitors. Even then we have a broader tool suite than either of these other two. So if we can get the word out about the breadth of our tools, we often come out on top.
The major obstacle for Tanner to grow even faster is primarily a marketing one, getting the word out, and you have just hired a president whose forte is marketing and sales.
Yes! He is going to be building up the marketing staff. Apart from the new president, the number of marketing people we have at the moment is zero. I think it says something for our company that we have been able to do as well without much in the way of marketing. It is also kind of sad that people do not know about the tools that are available.
Where did Greg Lebsack come from?
He came from the software industry not the EDA industry. He was previously CEO of ASP Open System. In three years he doubled their revenue and increased their profitability by 1500%. So we are hoping he can do the same for us.
Editor: Previously, Greg was the CEO of ASP Global Services
(Chatsworth, CA), a leading provider of software-as-a-service (SaaS) supply chain software. Prior to joining ASP Global Services, Greg worked for Sprint where he held several management positions. He is also a board member of the Technology Council of Southern California.
Would you give us an overview of Tanner EDA’s product suite?
Consider the flow chart below.
One of the things I would mention is flexible licensing. We have noticed that some of our competitors go out of their way to restrict licensing. You can only use a license within a certain country for example. So, if you have a staff that rotates around the world in different time zones, you can not reuse the same license. We do not have those kinds of restrictions. We go out of our way to make licensing flexible. We have this thing called a converter license. A customer can check out a license for a few days and put it on their laptops. If they have to go on a plane, they can do chip design. If they go fishing, they can do chip design in their cabin in the woods. Wherever they need to be, they can take their license with them.
Our products are almost entirely perpetual license based. If a customer wants to do time-based license, we are more than happy to accommodate a subscription base but for the most part we have stuck with perpetual licensing. Our thought there is that the customer really prefers a perpetual license. Our big competitors switched a number of years ago to time-based license as a way to temporarily reduce the cost to the customer (their prices are so high) and then to hook the customer so that their software will quit running, if they do not continue to pay the vendor. We do not believe in that kind of hook with the customer. We want them to continue to pay us maintenance, if they feel they are getting value from the improvements made to the tool. The result of this though is that we do have to have a continual stream of innovations and new capabilities, not only introducing new tools but continuing to add capabilities to old tools. The improvements are based upon customer feedback to make their lives easier or more productive.
What about the individual products?
Tanner Tools are fully-integrated solutions consisting of front end tools for schematic capture, circuit simulation, and waveform probing, and back end tools for physical layout and hierarchical, foundry-compatible design rule checking (DRC) verification.
Front end tools include S-Edit for schematic capture, T-Spice for simulation, W-Edit for waveform analysis and HiPer Simulation for Verilog-A
One of our new things with T-Spice simulation is support for Verilog-A behavioral language, so you can have both circuits and behavior together. W-Edit is our waveform viewer and analysis tool.
For physical layout tools we have several different DRC tools. One of them is interactive DRC (L-Edit Interactive DRC). It does not do the most advanced DRC but it runs while you are drawing. That allows people to get it right the first time, instead of finding the error very downstream and having to correct it then.
Schematic driven layout is a big important part of our tool suite. People can do their schematic in S-Edit and bring that netlist or a netlist from some other editor into L-Edit. It does a manual assist. You can do the placement and it shows you the fly lines. As you route the fly lines, it updates. We have just introduced SDL router to do the routing for you automatically. We have standard place and route which is the sole entry on the digital side of things for small gate counts digital parts and digital subsystems you need to add to the analog. You can use our standard cell P&R. There is a device generator tool that produces complex multi-fingered transistors of different aspect ratios according to the parameters that you set up.
For physical verification tools there is Verification tools hierarchical extract and DRC, standard DRC (L-Edit DRC), standard LVS (L-Edit LVS) and HiPer Verify for foundry compatible DRC and netlist extraction. HiPer Verify is Calibre compatible, the only low cost Calibre compatible extractor and design rule checker. It puts us in a very unusual position where in one case we have allied with them but compete with them elsewhere. So we have a love-hate relationship.
Node highlighting with L-Edit NHL is one of the new capabilities where you can poke on some piece of your layout and see where that electrical node extends. HiPer PX (Parasitic Extractor) is a new tool that allows you to extract parasitic resistance and capacitance at a much higher accuracy level.
We also offer a set of specialty tools important to some customers but not to others such as TFT routing, dummy fill and pad report.
Recently introduced capabilities include cross probing of layout or schematic from the netlist. We can provide this, because we engineer our tools from the ground up to work together. We can do some activities between tools that are more difficult to do with other vendor suites that were not engineered together. HiPer Verify now supports Dracula Extaract decks and Assura rule decks. A 64-bit engine enables all of our tools to run on Windows-64 which allows customers to break to 2 GByte memory limit. There are not a whole lot of customers that have designs that big but it is growing in importance.
We provide Linux support with identical features to our Windows version. L-Edit now has T-Cells, programmable cell equivalent. People want to write code to algorithmically construct some of their layout.
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