Efinix’s Chong Discusses Hiring, Malaysia’s Design Strengths, and Outlook for the FPGA Industry

Article By : Stephen Las Marias

Efinix's Thow Pang Chong talks about the company's hiring strategies, its design activities in Penang, and provided his insights on the trends and opportunities for FPGAs in the region.

Thow Pang Chong started his career in the FPGA industry as a design engineer at Altera Corp. He was hired straight out of college by Sammy Cheung—CEO and co-founder of Efinix Inc.—who was then a director at the company.

Chong spent close to 12 years at Altera, before moving to Intel Corp. and then PMC-Sierra. In 2018, Cheung asked him to join Efinix. The rest, as they say, is history.

Chong is now the Vice President of Engineering at Efinix, as well as Country Manager for Malaysia. In an interview with EE Times Asia, he talked about the company’s hiring strategies and its design activities in Penang. He also provided his insights on the trends and opportunities for FPGAs in the region, as well as his outlook for the industry.

EE Times Asia: So, it was in Altera that you first worked with Sammy.

Thow Pang Chong: Yes. In fact, you can say that I am the first new-college-graduate hired by Sammy, straight out of UTM (Universiti Teknologi Malaysia).

EE Times Asia: Since then, you are now leading the Penang plant. What are the activities here?

Chong: My current team is more focused on the engineering side—completing the whole IC design flows from the final design until the product rollout. We also do have a team of engineers working out of Kuala Lumpur right now.

Overall, the company here not only focuses on engineering, but also on operations—which means the product management side—before we ship for final testing to our customers. So, it is a complete process: from engineering until the product is used by our customers.

Thow Pang Chong

EE Times Asia: Considering the history between you and Sammy—how you were hired straight out of college—when you look for new talents, are you also considering fresh university graduates here?

Chong: Yes. We have a lot of talented students graduating from different universities in Malaysia—from UTM, USM (Universiti Sains Malaysia), UM (Universiti Malaya)—all universities produce good engineers for the industry.

And you will be surprised that the hiring rate from all the universities is high in our industry, especially in Malaysia, because the industry is booming during these past couple of years. But we are also losing our talents to Singapore—it is our major competitor from a talent pool perspective.

But yes, we will continue to hire as much as possible these students from the local universities because of their talents and skills, quality of education, and of course, the language.

EE Times Asia: From a design perspective, what can you say about Malaysia’s strengths? I understand the biggest design center for Efinix right now is here in Penang.

Chong: If you look at the history of Malaysia, it started as mostly manufacturing-centric, from a semiconductor industry perspective. Malaysia’s industry has evolved since then; and this is what we are doing when our design center is being set up in Malaysia. A lot of experienced veterans who were with Intel or other companies before, are now setting up new design centers in Malaysia.

From Efinix’s perspective, our team have transformed from being an execution teams to now being able to conceptualize products that we can produce fully in Malaysia. This means we work on the microarchitecture of the product, the design entry, until the product is taped out for fabrication.

This is what all Malaysian engineers have been dreaming of. When we started working—my era, back in 1990s—this is what we have dreamed of, to make Malaysia one of the global hubs for semiconductor design. That dream has started to materialize in Malaysia.

EE Times Asia: What makes Efinix FPGAs unique compared to other devices in the market?

Chong: If you look at how a product is developed, it all starts with the small and simple. And then they continue to add more features into the device. When the device becomes bigger and more complex, it gets harder for the device to be modified or updated throughout the years.

This is the advantage that Efinix provides. Our founders understood the advantages and disadvantages of the current products of our competitors, and based on that, architected the Quantum core technology that we are using right now.

We provide flexibility—for example, small form factors from area perspective, lower power, and higher performance. And our FPGAs are much scalable compared to those of our competitors.

EE Times Asia: Tell us more about your Quantum technology.

Chong: It is quite simple. If you look at the current FPGA products, they always have a concept of core logic—the programmable logic that we use to configure to develop functions. We connect all these logic through the routing channels, or routing fabrics. There are always these two elements in the FPGAs that we are developing right now.

It is no different compared to other FPGAs—the advantage we have is that our logic not only enables programming of different functions, but it can also be converted to become routing as well. In this case, it provides all the flexibilities of how the design is being fitted to our products to give better area optimization and better performance. That is the high-level concept of how our technology looks like.

EE Times Asia: From your perspective, what are the challenge and opportunities you are seeing for the FPGA industry in this region?

Chong: When we look at the FPGA market, we very much talk from an applications perspective. In Malaysia’s current industry, we are architect and produce the FPGAs to be sold to external markets. Locally, we have not been seeing a lot of applications that are using FPGAs, such as, for example, artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), and automotive.

Of course, this is probably because the industry that we have right now is not that matured yet. And that is something that we need to continue to push and look into. We help not only to promote the programmable platforms we have, but to also help local communities and push for higher value chains in the industry, such as creating more advanced and efficient systems using AI and IoT.

EE Times Asia: What end-markets right now have already adopted Efinix’s FPGA solutions?

Chong: We have a lot of vision customers that are adopting our applications. We are also expanding into industrial markets. For example, the vision systems to be used in the production floor to scan all the dimensions of the products, or defects, which can be quickly analyzed and filtered from the production line. We are also expanding into the medical and industrial printer sectors.

EE Times Asia: What trends should we expect to see moving forward from Efinix?

Chong: Moving forward, we are looking not only at the hardware or software development from an FPGA perspective, but we need to create an ecosystem where customers can easily adapt to our FPGA environment. It also focusing on things like AI solutions that customers would like to quickly adopt into their applications.

We will see more developments like this, where we will push for more system-level ecosystem to complete the whole FPGA programmable platforms.

EE Times Asia: What is your outlook for the FPGA market in Southeast Asia?

Chong: I would say that the potential is high, especially since the adoption rate of FPGAs in this region is incredibly low. Asia is a highly active market in terms of pushing for system-level solutions, like for AI and IoT, especially if you will look at how China’s market is reacting to all these applications.

When all these trends are pushing now to other countries, it will create a lot of opportunities to have those applications within this region to adopt our solutions. So, I would say that the outlook is very bright.

EE Times Asia: Do you have any final comments?

Chong: In terms of the FPGA platforms produced by Efinix, we want to push for more adoption in this region by working with different agencies or entities. And we have been getting great support from our customers.

Looking at how Malaysia’s semiconductor industry is growing—starting from just manufacturing to now having design executions—we are now moving to architecting products by ourselves here. It does not mean that the other regions do not provide things or resources. Of course, we are still working very closely with other regions to develop our products. But it is more in terms of the capabilities or knowledge that we have within this region, which have been built throughout the years. Our current engineers not only execute, but they have the innovation to define the products, manufacture the products, and at the same time roll out the products to the market. You can see that there have been a lot of changes over the years for this industry.

We collaborate with our global teams to define together the needs of the products for our customers and at the same time to manufacture it. Of course, we are trying to balance all the scope that we have across different countries to make sure that we are focusing on the strengths of different regions, to make sure that we tap the right area and help to continue to grow our customer base, and our company.

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