The Oregonian: Mentor Graphics donates $825,000 to establish chip testing lab at Portland State
Author: Mike Rogoway, The Oregonian
Posted: July 18, 2012

Read the original story in The Oregonian here.

Computer chip design is a rarefied field, and "emulation" technology -- which uses a supercomputer to test forthcoming chips -- is even more specialized. 

So Mentor Graphics Corp. hopes to cultivate a new crop of experts itself. 

The Wilsonville company has donated $825,000 to Portland State University so the school can add a faculty member and open a lab dedicated to emulation training and research. PSU says it's among the biggest corporate gifts in the university's history.

Emulators speed the testing of computer chips to provide assurance that a new design works, without going to the time and expense of building the actual chip. 

This isn't the sort of skill you can pick up on the fly in your garage. 

The hardware is expensive -- Mentor gave a $1 million emulator to PSU in 2009 -- and it's extremely complicated, according to Mentor President Gregory Hinckley.. 

"The problem with it is emulators are hard to use," said Hinckley, who is also an advisor to PSU's Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science. "We need to create a community that is more familiar with how to use an emulator." 

Emulation is a relatively small industry now; Hinckley pegs the total market at roughly $200 million. But Mentor is a big player in the field (along with rival Cadence Design Systems), and it's key to Mentor's growth plans. 

Chipmakers want to move from the design phase to mass production as quickly as possibly, and cannot afford the possibility that a flaw in a new design will turn up after a new product ships. 

Emulating a new chip design on customized hardware is up to 1,000 times faster than simulating it using standard computers, according to Hinckley. As chip design grows increasingly complex, Mentor hopes emulation will take off. 

"We're very interested in having numerous graduates from Portland State going out into the world and being familiar with the use of this relatively complex technology," Hinckley said. 

Mentor is the largest pure technology company based in Oregon. It employs more than 1,000 at its Wilsonville headquarters, and its sales passed $1 billion for the first time last year. 

But the past two decades have been uneven for Mentor, whose fortunes have risen and fallen with the cycles of the global electronics industry. Mentor hopes for sustained growth as products from semiconductors to cars and airplanes grow more sophisticated. 

The PSU donation includes $700,000 over five years for the new faculty position, and $125,000 for a five-year license on technology developed in PSU's lab. 

Portland State sees opportunity in the Silicon Forest, according to Renjeng Su, dean of the engineering school. 

Though Oregon's tech industry has never fully recovered from the dot-com bust, the state remains a hub for electronics research and manufacturing, and Intel does its most advanced research at its Ronler Acres campus in Hillsboro.

More than 1,000 of Intel's Oregon employees hold degrees from PSU, but the chipmaker still looks outside Oregon for most of its top engineers. 

Working with Intel, Mentor, Tektronix and the region's other standouts represents an opportunity for PSU to capitalize and advance the private research already under way in Oregon, Su said. 

"It needs a commensurate premier engineering school, computer science school, to support it," he said. "Portland State has to play up." 

 -- Mike Rogoway; twitter: @rogoway; phone: 503-294-7699