Why Lam Research funds startups to disrupt the semiconductor industry | Audrey Charles interview

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Lam Research recently held its Lam Capital Venture Competition contest at its headquarters in Fremont, California. I attended the event to get a flavor for the startups in the semiconductor and semiconductor manufacturing equipment space.

It turned out there was a vibrant atmosphere at the event, which was sponsored by Lam Capital. The first time it was held in person, the event drew hundreds of folks, including investors like Weili Dai, and her husband Sehat Sutardja, the founders of Marvell, as well as other funds and corporate VCs that Lam works with. At the event, I spoke with Audrey Charles, senior vice president of corporate strategy at Lam Research and head of Lam Capital.

She said a total of 70 startups applied to the contest, and 10 made presentations to the judges at the event. Crystal Sonic wound up winning the event and the grand prize of $250,000. Lam itself has done more than 20 investments, mostly in the $1 million to $10 million range. There is more activity thanks to the CHIPS and Science Act, which authorized $50 billion in government support for building up semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S. as a strategic technological priority.

The judges included Weili Dai, serial entrepreneur (Silicon Box, MeetKai, Marvell) and investor; Rene Do, senior investment director, SK Hynix; Ben Haskell, investment director, Lam Capital; Amir Salek, senior managing director, Cerberus Capital Management; Vera Schroeder, partner, Safar Partners; and Lucas Tsai, senior director at TSMC North America.

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With investments in the semiconductor ecosystem, we’ll find out soon if AI has a dramatic impact on the ability to build ever-more-sophisticated semconductor chips, or if the industry will face the barriers of the laws of physics, which have slowed down the progress of Moore’s Law in recent year. Charles is optimistic that technological progress will continue.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Crystal Sonic won the $250,000 prize in Lam Research's venture competition.
Crystal Sonic won the $250,000 prize in Lam Research’s venture competition. Left to right: Tim Archer, Arno Merkle of Crystal Sonic and Audrey Charles.

VentureBeat: How long have you been doing this? What’s your way of introducing the event to people who don’t know about it?

Audrey Charles: This is our third competition. The first one was in [2019] at MIT. The second was at UC Berkeley in 2022]. It’s our first time doing it on site. We wanted to do that, as I said, to have more internal people come. But how we get the word out about it, importantly, is very multifaceted. Of course we have the Lam Capital website. We do advertising, a push through social. But honestly, a lot of the companies you see pitching today, most of them will come through networking – through the funds that we work with, through other corporate VCs that we participate with. Then they’ll provide visibility, that this competition is ongoing, what the theme is, what the structure is, and encourage companies they think may be a good fit to apply.

VentureBeat: How many applicants were there this time?

Charles: There were more than 70 applicants. Which is definitely a high. That’s a really good number for something like this, and really high quality applicants. We selected down to 12, just to make sure that everyone could make it, and we have 10 companies pitching today.

VentureBeat: How many judges are there?

Charles: There are six judges. They pick the final one. We’ll have a runner up and a final one. The one gets the prize money, $250,000.

VentureBeat: How many people are coming today?

Charles: We had more than 250 registered. About 100-plus external participants, and then about 150 internal as well.

VentureBeat: Are a lot of those outside investors, investors who might be interested in these companies?

Charles: Exactly. You’ll see a representation of that in the panels, and just going around. We have a mix of CVCs, people from other corporate venture groups we work with, that we’re connected with, and then others from venture funds as well. You’ll have some startups who did not get selected, but are interested in being here and networking with people who are here.

VentureBeat: What sort of patterns and trends did you see in the applicants? Is there a concentration of pitches in a category?

Tim Archer, CEO of Lam Research, at the company's venture competition.
Tim Archer, CEO of Lam Research, at the company’s venture competition.

Charles: It was very diverse by the nature of how we did our canvassing, relative to going to different funds specialized in different areas. We saw a theme of people highlighting connections to AI. You saw that coming through in the first couple of pitches. That’s the strongest theme that came through this year.

When we look at applicants, we go back to Lam Capital’s investment pieces, which is around semiconductors tied to Lam. You can see that coming through today as well, whether it’s in the advanced packaging space. Interconnect, Dede called that out on his panel. Things that can make us better, faster, cheaper, more efficient. Automation, smart automation types of things. Disruptive innovation in the markets we serve.

VentureBeat: How much has Lam invested through Lam Capital?

Charles: We’ve done more than 20 investments. When we come in, typically it’s pretty early in the company. Lining up to where we think is the value proposition from a CVC perspective, and also how Lam thinks it can help the most, and potentially also get the most value as well, earlier on the company’s life cycle. Again, typically series A, series B. Not pre-seed, as they said this morning. Typically in those rounds we tend to be significant investors. Those checks run in the $1-10 million range. But it really depends. I don’t have the exact capital in.

VentureBeat: What inspired the thinking behind the contest?

Charles: I was able to go to the last one. That was the first one I had attended. It’s just really inspiring, the view into the disruptive technology and what the founders are doing. That’s number one. Number two, it’s also this unique forum in the semi industry, to bring together the room full of people that we have today. People really appreciate it. If you walk around and talk to people, everyone says, “This is great, I just met such-and-such.” There’s a lot of knowingness in the people in there, but there’s also a lot of new connections to be made. People really value doing that in this compact forum, with a lot of great content.

For Lam Capital we feel it’s a great opportunity for us to get our name out and facilitate it. We can become better known to the startups that we may want to work with in the future. We can highlight to people that we’ve done this and we have these connections. There’s public representation of the companies that have had positive outcomes because of this. It’s multi-tiered.

VentureBeat: Do you have any sense of what the environment feels like, having gone through this again? The optimism and pessimism in the environment?

Charles: It was very present in the investing panel. From a semiconductor startup ecosystem perspective, it’s incrementally more positive. There’s more interest in the segment. There are more people, more VCs who are launching semiconductor-focused practices and looking for partners there. It’s still a challenge. It’s a difficult industry to understand. What we do is pretty hard, especially if you’re on the hardware side. It can be capital-intensive. High barriers to entry. Getting to proof of concept is not trivial.

That said, there are lots of positive developments in the general ecosystem at the moment that are making things more positive, and probably encouraging more people to pursue their ideas or go down this path. That goes as well to not just the venture funding, but the support and interest driven by things like the CHIPS and Science Act. Government being very vocal about the innovation ecosystem is important to the long-term sustainability of the industry. Whether it’s through universities or research collaborations, there’s a more positive climate at the moment.

VentureBeat: Were there some smaller things in the CHIPS Act that help in the startup area, aside from all the big manufacturing?

Intel is making some big changes in the way it manufactures chips.
Intel is making some big changes in the way it manufactures chips.

Charles: I don’t know the specifics, to be honest. I wouldn’t want to comment on it. That’s a pretty detailed space. But I would say that–you saw a lot of the startups today talking about ties to universities. All of these things, it’s like a virtuous cycle. R&D gets more funding. Then you have more programs that you can fund. The ability to support more entrepreneurs. And then these very serendipitous spin-outs that start from universities.

VentureBeat: Do you see more diversity among the entrepreneurs? Are they coming from a wide range of walks of life?

Charles: It’s not something I have data on, but I would say–again, it’s inspiring to see all the different types of people you meet. If you look at the pitch participants today, we have someone from Singapore, Korea, the U.K., close to home. Everyone, every team is very different, with different backgrounds. But ultimately they’re all here trying to drive success in something they think is enabling the future of semiconductors. I do think there is a lot of diversity. People are coming from a lot of different places.

VentureBeat: Back to some of the optimism around the industry level, there had been a lot of talk about the end of Moore’s Law. I wonder how much that either becomes the opportunity for startups to pursue, or a big barrier that everyone worries about.

Charles: It’s true. If we were having this conversation seven or eight years ago–there was more of a conversation around, “What does next look like?” Now, if we go back to the drivers in the chart, it’s around the enablement of these different technologies. For example, 3D scaling, advanced packaging. That’s emerged as one of the fundamental ways by which performance gain is enabled across pretty much all devices and segments.

Back to the power revolution, EVs, the explosion among what we’ve seen in what we would have called the more mature specialty technologies, and how much innovation that’s driving in that space. Couldn’t comprehend that, I think, seven to 10 years ago. But today–there’s a long way to go, but we can see this autonomous, connected, smart driving future.

We don’t know exactly what it’s going to look like, but we know that AI at the edge, or AI on phones, is going to be something that drives a lot. From a fundamental driver perspective, the interconnectedness of this industry to what our lives are going to be like–it’s there for sure, and there’s a lot of opportunity to continue to innovate and figure out how we’re going to solve some of these big problems.

VentureBeat: Does AI come into this part of the industry as a welcome injection of innovation? Or do people worry about it? Too much AI taking all the jobs away?

Charles: I do think it’s seen very much as an enabler. It goes back to this complexity challenge. The complexity today, solving some of these problems – the products that we make, the processes we develop, the number of potential permutations and combinations of development parameters to deliver the result the customer needs – it’s really tough when you’re working on the angstrom level, which is where we work. Being able to have the power of AI-assisted tools is actually something that is seen as a huge potential benefit in shaping the curve as we go forward, making things possible.

Intel is making glass substrates for its chips by the end of 2030.
Intel is making glass substrates for its chips by the end of 2030.

We have an article that was published in Nature talking about our perspective on that. We’d be happy to share it. It doesn’t go too deep, but the key takeaway is that if you can combine these AI-assisted process development tools, which we call Semiverse Solutions, with experienced workers, process engineers and so on, that’s how you will get the best results. That’s going to make things possible. It’s how we can continue scaling in the future, how we can continue to get better, how our customers can continue to get better.

And of course there’s the workforce. I’m sure you’ve seen a lot about some of the potential workforce shortages in this industry, to sustain what customers need to run their fabs and their operations. AI-assisted development, advanced automation in fabs, that’s something that will be very powerful from the point of view of doing what we need to do.

VentureBeat: Related to the CHIPS Act, do you see a lot of activity across the board in the U.S. now? Startups, but also the notion that a lot of your equipment might be going into U.S factories?

Charles: We noted that there’s been more than $300 billion that’s been identified throughout the world. That’s a great opportunity for the industry overall. There have been a lot of announcements about investments happening. That’s a very positive opportunity for us to work closely with our customers.

The event is really about giving us the opportunity to tap into innovative companies, to represent what Lam does, and to be good participants in the ecosystem. By having this connection and representing them, we can bring a lot of that technology innovation spirit into Lam as well. We can help these companies grow.

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