Engineering Entrepreneurs: Taking University Research to the Public

Mar 7, 2011

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom

By Claudia Luther

UCLA, one of the most prolific creators of new startup companies that help grow the economy of the region, state and nation, this year has already seen a major startup go out into the commercial market.

AutoESL, which was founded in 2006 with a license to xPilot, a system-level synthesis software developed at UCLA with support from the National Science Foundation and other major funding sources, was acquired by Xilinx Inc., a leader in digital programmable logic devices. Exact terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.

In 2010, UCLA entered into 27 licensing agreements with startup companies formed to commercialize novel technology developed in campus labs. This “technology transfer” was four times the level it was just five years ago, said UCLA Vice Provost Kathryn Atchison, who oversees UCLA’s Office of Intellectual Property and Industry Sponsored Research.

AutoESL was founded directly by faculty and graduate students from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. Using the technology licensed from UCLA, AutoESL found a critical niche in developing tools that reduce design time and improve the quality of integrated circuit design, and in less than five years, the company became an acquisition target for Xilinx.

Atchison said the AutoESL acquisition was one more indication of the growing importance of university-led research in creating jobs, particularly at UCLA, a national leader in the number of research dollars received. Recently, President Obama announced Startup America, a public–private effort to stimulate economic growth. The initiative brings entrepreneurs, corporations, universities, foundations and other leaders together with a wide range of federal agencies to help new companies get started and grow.

“Universities are a key place for forming startups based around technology developed using federal funding,” Atchison said. “AutoESL is one example of how research coming out of universities gives startup companies strong technology, which in turn provides them with a competitive edge to help grow the U.S. economy.”

Vijay K. Dhir, dean of UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, one of the top engineering schools in the country, said UCLA Engineering “is not only educating the next generation of scientists and engineers who will become industry leaders, but we are also developing innovative technologies that can lead to commercialization and will be of great benefit to society on many levels.”

Jason Cong, Chancellor’s Professor in computer science at UCLA Engineering and a co-founder of AutoESL, worked with UCLA Engineering graduate students in developing the technology.

“It’s not an easy path, as usually there is a considerable gap between the research prototypes developed at universities and the commercial-strength systems acceptable to industry,” Cong said. “I believe that university spinoffs involving the developers of the original technology are the best way to bridge such gaps.”

AutoESL is the second spinoff from the research lab Cong directs at UCLA. The first was Alpus Design Technologies, founded in 1988 and acquired by Magma Design Automation in 2003.

“In both cases,” Cong said, “it was an exciting experience for the students to see firsthand their research results making a direct contribution to society.”
Zhiru Zhang, a former doctoral student from Cong’s group at UCLA and a co-founder of AutoESL, said the experience was “truly exciting and rewarding” for the students involved.

“We grew a student research project into a commercial product, learned the meaning of entrepreneurship on the fly, tasted the bitterness of economic downturn and managed to attract customers from multiple countries and continents,” Zhang said. “We are proud to prove the worth of UCLA technology by making positive contributions to the semiconductor and software industries and global society in general.”

The majority of AutoESL employees currently located at the company’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., and Beijing will become Xilinx employees. In announcing the acquisition, the company said it was “delighted to welcome the AutoESL team to Xilinx.”

AutoESL is a software tool used for designing integrated circuits. AutoESL works together with other software tools in a design flow that chip designers use to design and analyze entire semiconductor chips. Electronic system-level (ESL) design and verification is an emerging electronic design methodology that focuses on the overall circuit function first; the function is then used to synthesize a circuit design that will implement the desired behavior. AutoESL is used by designers for both high-level circuit-function design and, later, the sythesis of a circuit design using predefined libraries of circuit blocks or elements such as those produced by Xilinx. This saves circuit designers time and helps streamline the design flow for the ever-increasing complexities required by current integrated circuits.

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