Alum Mo Faisal on building a successful semiconductor company
In recognition of his esteemed career as President, CEO, and Founder of the University of Michigan startup Movellus Inc., Mo Faisal (MSE PhD EE 2011, 2014) received the 2023 ECE Rising Star Alumni Award. He presented about his career as a student and entrepreneur for his award lecture, “What’s it like to build a semiconductor startup,” on October 6th on campus.
“One of the most important lessons U-M taught me was the importance of being open to different opportunities,” Faisal said. “I came to Michigan because I wanted to do research in microwave and RF circuits, but then I got redirected to this synthesizing analog project. And I decided to be open to that, to embrace that opportunity, and that’s what led me to where I am today.”
One of the most important lessons U-M taught me was the importance of being open to different opportunities.
Dr. Mo Faisal, President & CEO Movellus Inc.
Movellus is based on research Faisal originally conducted at U-M with his advisor, Prof. David Wentzloff (Wentzloff serves on Movellus’ Board of Directors). Specifically, Faisal designed synthesizable clock generator technology that is smaller, cheaper and faster than existing solutions. Clock generators are found in microprocessors, which are found in most every electronic device imaginable, from televisions to smart phones to refrigerators to thermostats. His technology also made it possible to shrink the design time by 80%, allowing for a much faster time to market.
Faisal initially designed his clock generators to work in three areas: Bluetooth, wireless wearable electronics, and microprocessors for the Internet-of-Things (IoT). The clock that he designed for IoT applications consumes just nano-watt levels of power. Since the initial days the core technology of synthesizable analog has expanded to include clock generation, droop detection and mitigation, and general on-chip sensors. The technology has been deployed in many areas, including AI and IoT, as well as automotive applications and on satellites.
Faisal then teamed up with Jeff Fredenburg, a fellow ECE PhD student (who also earned his BS and MS degrees from ECE at U-M). Together, they entered their proposal for a company based on Faisal’s research into the 2014 Michigan Business Challenge—which they won. Daniel Andersen, a Ross MBA student, assisted in early business competitions.
“In school, in a research setting, you have to get one or two chips working, and you’re happy to be publishing,” Faisal said. “The real world doesn’t work like that. You have to ship one billion units, and all of them have to work.”
Faisal and his team worked with U-M’s Innovation Partnerships office, and they officially launched Movellus in 2014.
“I had no idea what the heck I was doing,” Faisal said. “But looking back, I was actually asking myself the right questions, which is even more important than having the right answers.”
Today, Movellus is a leader in System-on-a-Chip (SoC) clocking, droop detection, and mitigation, which are enabling the next generation of complex SoCs in AI and mobile device technologies, as well as the automotive and aerospace industries.
“Soon, if you’re driving a car, you’ll be driving a car with Movellus technology in it,” Faisal said. “If you’re using a smartphone or smart devices in your home, they’ll have Movellus technology. When you connect to Wi-Fi, it will go through Movellus technology. It really is a fundamental innovation that touches almost every electronic device out there.”
It really is a fundamental innovation that touches almost every electronic device out there.
Dr. Mo Faisal, President & CEO Movellus Inc.
Movellus is headquartered in San Jose with R&D centers in Ann Arbor and Toronto. In 2022, they secured $23 million in Series B venture funding, bringing their total to $32 million. For Faisal, one of the keys to being successful in entrepreneurship is learning to be a leader rather than focusing entirely on technology.
“As the leader, you have to figure out a way to be the dumbest person in the room,” Faisal said. “If you are not that, that means all the decisions and everything that happens in that room is limited by your abilities.”
For Faisal, leadership also means embracing ways to effect positive cultural change. Companies can launch careers, but they can also make decisions that harm families—something Faisal experienced personally.
Faisal’s family immigrated to Canada from Pakistan when he was a kid. His father was paid far less than what Canadian engineers with the same level of qualifications and expertise were, simply because he lacked Canadian experience. When Faisal became a leader, he was given a similar option to hire an engineer from India and pay her far less.
“That moment was when I realized what being a leader was all about,” Faisal said. “I could actually change the options that affected my family. I could make sure that another family was not affected by the same choices.”
Prior to founding Movellus, Faisal held positions at Intel and PMC Sierra. He earned his BS from the University of Waterloo, and he holds 12 patents. He was named a “Top 20 Entrepreneur” by the University of Michigan Zell Lurie Institute.