Q&A by the coffee machine

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About this interview

7 minutes, the average length of a coffee break in France.

7, also the number of questions in this interview of the CEO and co-founder of IC’Alps.

Read Jean-Luc’s look back at the key events of 2020 and his look ahead to 2021 perspectives.

#1 How would you describe your business to a child?

Air pollution monitor, Electric car, Smartwatch, Smart home voice controller, etc. What do these intelligent sensors and connected devices have in common? They all require electronic systems to operate and connect with the internet.

IC’Alps designs electronic chips as small as a pinhead to be easily integrated in many of these electronic devices.

An electronic chip designed by our team of engineers contains millions of small components called transistors – thinner than a human hair – and all connected together to form a circuit that performs one or more functions such as counting or adding numbers. You can compare a reasonably complex electronic chips such as a microprocessor to a brain of computing.

#2 IC’Alps received 3 ISO certifications in 2020. In your opinion, why is Quality Management System so important?

Beyond the objectives of contribution to the performance of the company (technical, financial, HR, sales & marketing performance) and a structured management of projects, several aspects seem important to me:

1. The basis is to take an interest in customers’ needs to provide solutions that meet their expectations, taking also into account all their specific requirements.

2. The involvement of all, and the strength of the collective contribution, as the foundations of the performance and growth of the company.

3. The desire to be part of a continuous improvement process, and active reflection to imagine solutions to serve innovation.

And the main expectations of our customers are of course the on-quality and on-time deliveries.

#3 Connected health is a hot term, but we don’t hear much about ASIC, why?

It’s true for connected health devices, but it’s generally true regardless of the application. The end customer/patient expresses an unmet need and to address this need, a new product or generation of product is developed by a company.

Electronics will certainly be integrated in the product for collecting, processing, storing and communicating information, either using a combination of already available/high volume circuits (COTS – Circuits Off The Shelf, or ASSP- Application Specific Standard Product) or with full custom circuits (ASIC – Application Specific Integrated Circuit) optimized for the intended application.

It is in this second approach that IC’Alps operates, by doing tailor-made developments.

For medical devices, CE marking/FDA approval is also required. This is why our customers often choose to build the first release/proof of concept with COTS. Then, they generally need to position their product in a unique way for example with new functionalities (on-board AI, custom embedded security features, etc.), an improved energy management system, or miniaturization of their electronics (to reduce the bill-of-materials and adapt the shape of their device). A custom ASIC is an ideal solution to meet these requirements.

To secure their competitive advantage, we guarantee that:

1. Every ASIC is exclusively developed for one customer

2. Our customer is the only owner of the ASIC design

3. Each ASIC is specifically designed to interface with our customer’s sensor and system

#4 What do you think are the biggest challenges for the custom chip industry in the 5 coming years?

Since the start of my career almost 30 years ago, developments in the electronics and semiconductor industry have been numerous and very rapid – and I have no doubt that new breakthrough innovations will soon emerge from private and publicly owned research centers. So for sure, a great adaptation will be necessary for companies like IC’Alps in terms of required expertise, design tools, business models, to better serve the technological innovations we are facing in our connected world.

As a French SME, we will have other tricky points to address in the near future:

1. How to contribute to a certain independence of the semiconductor industry in France and Europe, to develop our know-how with high added value?

2. What evolution for an entity like IC’Alps in an industry with numerous M&A within international structures? What are the alternatives to such an international dynamic of consolidation?

3. How to motivate young graduates and students for our technologies and businesses that today seem a little less attractive?

4. And, based on the current COVID pandemic, and even if it goes beyond the scope of our custom chip industry, what will be the evolution of our social interactions and our relationships to work and the related environment? We will have to innovate in this field too.

#5 What about the culture you are fostering at IC’Alps?

Innovation is not just reserved for technical solutions. We also try to create, evolve and sustain modern practices in the workplace, fostering employees’ autonomy, significant accountability and an invitation to go beyond its own perimeter, more informal moments of exchange, individual and collective objectives and sharing the values that are important to us:

1. Customer-oriented mindset.

2. Our people/team are the heart of everything we do.

3. A motto “working seriously, without taking ourselves too seriously”.

We firmly believe that a good work environment, the well-being of our employees and the growth opportunities within the company fosters incredible teamwork and creativity.

#6 What is on the horizon for IC’Alps?

For 2021, our horizon is promising. We target a strong growth dynamics with 3 times revenue increase, serving worldwide customers (Europe, Asia and North America).

We plan the arrival of 6 to 10 new talents to strengthen our design team, the target of a 50-persons team is in just over a year from today.

We are discussing or we have already started several beautiful challenging projects for both our analog (IC for medical & automotive applications in particular) and digital (IoT, IoMT, IA applications among others) experts.

And we expect to launch in high-volume production a first integrated circuit designed in-house for one of our customers.

We are proud about our collective achievements within this adventure started nearly 3 years ago.

#7 If you found Aladdin’s lamp, what 3 things would you wish?

A first wish will be to remove our face masks and to be able to once again consider good times with friends, a drink or a coffee on the terrace, a small restaurant, a cinema screening or a museum visit, or even the free practice of sporting and / or cultural activities.

A second will be to see IC’Alps achieve a position of European leader, recognized for its performance, the quality of its work, as well as for its involvement day after day in ever more demanding integrated circuits requirements.

A third could be to share our experience of starting a business, the good times as well as the fears, the points of attention, the richness of meeting people, and more generally our human adventure – if humbly we can encourage people to jump in their dream of being an entrepreneur.

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