Today’s post will be an interview with Tony Pialis, founder and CEO of Alphawave. Alphawave recently got the all-clear from their KPMG auditor, and shares have been unsuspended. This interview is lightly edited for readability. I have some thoughts at the end as well.
Doug O’Laughlin: Hey Tony, this is Doug, and I’m excited to have you hear on Fabricated Knowledge today to talk about Alphawave Semi. Alphawave is a company that I’ve talked about, and there are a lot of aspects to this story that has been confusing. So I’m happy to have you hear so you can tell your story to people and discuss the obstacles lately.
Let’s first start it off with what’s the story of Alphawave and what’s your story, specifically Tony.
Tony Pialis: Thanks for the great introduction, Doug. I have also been following you and am excited to be here. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about Alphawave. It is the cumulation of my life’s work.
So first, a little background about myself. I’ve been in the semiconductor industry for 25 years, exclusively focused on connectivity. Everyone talks about computer chips and how they are used to process data, but connectivity brings the data on and off the chips.
It’s a lot like the human body; if the processor is the brain, connectivity is like the spine. It brings all the information from the limbs into the brain and back to the limbs to do work. That’s what I’ve been focused on, and that’s what Alphawave Semi is focused on.
I’m also a little bit of a serial entrepreneur. Alphawave is the third business that I cofounded and funded and led. The previous two had successful exits, but Alphawave when I founded it I had a different ambition.
We are building the next great semiconductor company in the industry. We are doing it focused on high-speed connectivity. We started focusing on high-speed connectivity. We started by delivering it in Silicon IP, which is IP that other semiconductor companies such as Intel and AMD, and networking companies like Broadcom or Marvell could integrate on their chips.
After we took the company public in 2021, we expanded the product portfolio to include delivering our connectivity technology into silicon format, which means we're now a vertically integrated semiconductor. So we can deliver our solutions as IP that goes into someone else's chips as custom silicon where we build a custom computer chip to meet a hyper scaler-specific need. Let's say something like an AI chip.
And we also sell networking chips currently today targeting longer-reach networking. So whether it's driving cables, whether it's driving optical communications, and so look, that vision will help Alphawave Semi continue to grow.
We've guided the market that by 2027 we'll be doing over a billion dollars of revenue per year. You know, one thing I also want to highlight is just growing 100% year on year is difficult, especially when you get to our scale, which is expected to do.
Almost 1/3 of a billion dollars, or over 1/3 of a billion dollars this year in revenue, we closed on a great Q1, even though everyone's worried about recessions where we booked more than $100 million of revenue. And look, we continue to win, and we continue to execute in the marketplace.
Doug: I would want to ask and maybe have you rehash some of your acquisitions because I'm just gonna assume that not everyone has followed the story in depth, right?
Tony: So if you’d like to talk about OpenFive and then Banias and the thought process and what each acquisition brings to Alphawave and how they transition Alphawave into a much bigger company.
So probably the best analogy for investors to think of us from a vertically integrated business model was a company called Inphi. Doug, I’m sure you remember you tracked Inphi before being acquired by Marvel, I think, for almost 10 billion dollars. You know they delivered the same 3 product types. They had their networking silicon. Most of their revenue came from silicon that drove fiber optics, which is what we're doing today.
And there are two types of fiber optics; one leverages what's called PAM4 in the industry, and the other leverages coherent.
So PAM4 is used within the data center. Coherent fiber optics is used to connect data centers. And as AI continues to grow, we need more data centers. They continue to expand, and so there's increasing usage of PAM4, but also coherent because you got to have these multiple buildings look like one single infrastructure, especially when you're training over a trillion parameters of data for LLMs like ChatGPT.
But then those same hyperscalers that use your networking equipment also are building their own devices. I'll give an example NVIDIA is the clear market leader on GPUs, right, and GPUs are the dominant computer chip and semiconductor used for AI. But guess what? Hyperscalers have specific data trends and specific data patterns. And to deploy more to get higher performance and lower power, they are all building their custom silicon.
So you can imagine hyperscalers in the future will offer a combination of NVIDIA GPUs, probably some AMD and or Intel CPUs, and their own optimized GPUs. And so when they're doing custom silicon, they need help. And so when they're doing custom silicon, they need help. I mean, virtually every advanced device today is using chiplets.
OK, it's the only way that we can get all the functionality that we need onto a single die. It reduces power consumption by 30 to 40% and reduces manufacturing costs by more than 40%. So it's a compelling strategy. We also offer the intellectual property and the capabilities to deliver those custom silicon solutions. And finally, anyone building their own chip, can use our same Intellectual property and IP within their own chip.
So the acquisitions that you originally want me to talk about help expand the business from the core IP. So OpenFive was a custom silicon provider. They had over a dozen chiplet designs pipeline and in the production pipeline. When we brought them in, they brought that custom silicon capability and that forms the foundation of Alphawave’s, custom silicon business unit. They also brought a lot of complementary IP, which expanded our IP portfolio from over 100 IPs to now over 220 IPs.
And finally, Banias Labs, which we acquired late last year, came in on the product side. We had PAM4 technology, which is the product that is used within the data center. But we had a gap in our portfolio which was for the coherent fiber optics, which is used to connect multiple data centers together.
Right now only Marvell and Cisco have that technology in the world and so with that capability combined with our Pam4, we now offer a full suite of networking products that can service all forms of data center inside.
Doug: I would actually love to have like a concrete example for people who follow this story because I've always found semiconductors within the B2B context very hard to follow and understand. But recently you announced a 3-nanometer win with a North American hyperscaler.
That seems to be on the SerDes side of the business. Could you give us an example of how that works? How do the customers come to you? And then maybe being able to sell more products after an initial relationship? How do you transition from just connectivity IP into a full custom product?
Tony: That was a second-generation design with that customer and you can guess that hyper scaler what chip are they building themselves. AI is probably a good guess, right? The chip is used for generative AI like ChatGPT and so there's so much investment happening with these hyperscalers.
They're transforming their data centers to evolve from a CPU-focused strategy into an AI-first strategy. By moving to an AI-first data center all the connectivity within the data center has to change. People don’t understand that in order to train the current generation of ChatGPT, which is more than a trillion parameters. It takes 10s of thousands of GPUs, and three months to train it. That’s often more GPUs that can be housed in any one data center.
It's 10s of data centers and so now the number of connections because all these GPUs gotta talk to each other change. And so what does that mean? That means that the AI itself needs faster connectivity in order to train. A trillion parameters when the last generation was about 100 million. You need far more connectivity and you need it at lower power. That design doubled the data rates used for the connectivity.
And look, this customer (North American hyper scaler) is at the forefront of bringing AI to the public. So it's, you know, it's amazing for me to know that my products are helping my own kids do their homework every time they log in and use AI.
Doug: So these acquisitions changed Alphawave from mostly a SerDes company into an end-to-end chip company. Buying OpenFive gave you design capability and IP, and Banias gave you a coherent DSP capability. This scales you to an end-to-end provider of connectivity.
But the problem is when you scale into all these acquisitions it creates like you know the headcount has exploded, right? The complexity of running the company has risen, and recently this has really shown up with the audit problems you had this year.
And I think that that's the biggest part of your story right now. Recently Alphawave Semi got halted for a few days because KPMG missed your audit. That’s a big deal, and investors have been concerned, now more so than just the short report in the past.
This audit mess is now a new nightmare for investors. But when you look at it a little closer, many companies in the UK missed their audit. I would love to hear your side of the story.
Tony: So look, just to put some specific numbers in terms of the rapid growth over the last 12 months or so, 12 months ago we were about 175 people. Now we're north of 800.
When we wrapped up our 2021 audit, we wrapped it up, I think just shy of $90 million of revenue. 100% of it came from silicon. In 2022 we closed the year with revenue 100% higher at 186 million in revenue and the revenue came from a combination of both silicon IP as well as actual silicon that we were selling.
So we're a vastly different company and there's not a lot of semiconductor auditors in the UK and certainly, our experience with the auditors was that they don't have a lot of other clients in our space to learn and understand our business. We knew it would take a lot of work to help them understand the new businesses we've added.
So we kicked off the process in late November, early December with the auditor. We had a new audit partner last year because the previous year there were also delays with KPMG. So rather than switch auditors, which is a major step given it was our first year as a public company, we swapped the senior partners.
My second learning was that we deployed this year as we also program-managed it ourselves. Normally when I work with someone like a contractor that builds a home for me, they have their own program managers, right? They give me weekly updates in terms of status. I've found over the years working with auditors that they don't do this.
So I put in my program manager to manage my supplier. But there we were at the end of April; everything looked like we were on track, and then with less than 48 hours left in the audit, we found out that our auditors needed more time. They believe they needed one more week. We did everything possible in less than 48 hours to try to keep it on track.
Unfortunately, it didn't happen. And Doug, as important as being on time, being accurate is even more important. So we aligned with KPMG to delay which we did. But the delay pushed us beyond the 4-month reporting cycle required by the LSE which means you're suspended. That’s because they want the market to have audited results to have an orderly market. So we were suspended.
It was just under two weeks in order to give KPMG the time they needed to complete the audit and all of their internal approvals. And look, we weren't the only company, there were more than a dozen other companies on the LSE in the exact same boat as us.
I also get asked all the time by investors why don't just switch Auditors, well-being a UK-listed company, all of the Big 4 are swamped, including KPMG. I think it’s important to have a Big 4 accounting firm to provide confidence to our investors. And right now it's very hard to have any of the Big 4 take on any new clients because they're already so oversubscribed.
So now what. What are we doing in order to rectify this?
We have an action plan with KPMG where even though we only list and report on a semi annual basis, you know we're starting to operate like a US based company with quarterly closures of our books that are audit-ready quality. Implementing this rigor and working more collaboratively throughout the year rather than just at the end of the reporting cycles To help keep them educated on the progress of the business.
So we're not back down to basics trying to explain what an EDA tool is to our auditors when it comes to the year-end that we can focus on the specific numbers and even more importantly they can trust us because they're seeing the progression of our business throughout the year.
Doug: That 48-hour window sounded like a nightmare. And there's only so much you can do with that. Now you just announced a CFO transition and search. What’s the story there?
Tony: So Dan decided on his own it was time for a change. Dan Baroni, who was our CFO I think it was a year before the IPO, right up to late April or early May of this year, was a great CFO. He was lucrative for taking the company public and for helping guide us through the three acquisitions. Dan had more than two decades as an investment banker. He was the lead tech investment banker for Barclays, so he was intrinsically in tune with UK tech. That experience, that respect, and the trust that he brought to the Company while he was here was invaluable.
But as we transition to a vertically integrated semiconductor company, as we transition from doing 10s of millions of revenue a year to 100s of millions of revenue, we're now at a point where I think and Dan believed that we need a more traditional CFO with experience running a semiconductor finance organization.
We’re global at this point. We're not just in the UK, we're not just in North America, but we're in Asia. We're in Israel; we're in EMEA. China, you name it.
Bringing in that more seasoned tenure as well as relationships with auditors is going to help us continue to drive growth. That is the motivation. So Christian Bausher, who is the former controller for ARM is our Interim CFO. He's been with us for more than a year. Looking forward, we're a public company and the best thing for our investors is to have the best team around me.
So we are running a search for the next long-term CFO. Christian is obviously a candidate. But we're running an extended search and I'm not going to rush this. Why? Because of the goal of a billion dollars by 2027. What I need is the right CFO with the right experience and the right mentality that is aligned with how I want to drive this business.
We've interviewed and met dozens of candidates. We're shortlisting today. When I find the right candidate, I'll be very excited to introduce him to you and to the rest of the investment community.
Doug: Well we're very much looking forward to that. I think it's an important part of your story and part of Alphawave Semi will grow into a much bigger company than it is today.
Speaking about these long-term ambitions and the 1 billion in revenue by 2027, there seems to be a lot of levers to get there. The one lever everyone wants to talk about today is AI. You guys recently did a webinar talking about how connectivity is important in AI. I would love to hear your thoughts.
It does seem like every other company is trying to say we're an AI company. But SerDes and the bandwidth problems of AI models do seem very helpful for your company. How will AI is going to impact you? Because as everyone knows, NVIDIA owns Mellanox, so Mellanox does their SerDes in house. So what's the opportunity set for you?
Tony: It's a really timely question. Yesterday Barclays released a research note on the top 50 companies that will help drive and benefit from this AI transformation and obviously TSMC, Microsoft and others were on there.
For example, just to train ChatGPT 4 you need more than 20,000 servers which with each server having 8 GPUs on that server. So you add it all up that's hundreds and thousands of high bandwidth connections just to train ChatGPT 4.
Microsoft is spending 4 billion dollars to deploy the next generation datacenter for ChatGPT4. If you extrapolate it for Google and its search capability, it could drive more than $100 billion of investment. There's a keynote I'm giving next week at Samsung in regard to AI and how connectivity fits into AI. There's really two parts to a leading-edge GPU or AI chip. One part is the processor, the rest is the connectivity to other GPUs and to the net. Our core IP delivers that connectivity. And as the hyperscalers bring their own AI chips we could benefit.. Then the second question is, how do you deploy this?
Up until 5 and 4 nanometers, it was all on a single chip. But as the number of processors increases, the size of the chips can’t. So in order to get more computing power and lower power consumption, you must move to chiplets. That's where our custom silicon business also comes in. We're helping to build the chiplets and the silicon for the next generation. And we’re focused on AI.
Doug: That tracks. I want to ask you about the Samsung relationship because that seems new. You recently had a press release with Samsung and being a foundry partner. You’re a foundry partner for TSMC. Are you guys deepening that relationship with Samsung? Will you deepen the relationship with IFS whenever that comes up? I'm assuming the goal here is to be foundry agnostic, correct? Bring IP to any customer who wants to work with you.
Tony: You are correct. That is the goal. Have our IP and even our custom silicon capability available to everyone. Even chiplets are available to anyone building their processor at TSMC, Samsung, or IFS. We’ve been a long-term partner with Samsung.
They're one of my oldest and certainly one of our top customers. It's hard to be able to get approval to list who your partners and customers are. Samsung has been great. Samsung has been a customer back since late 2020. Our business with them has continued to grow.
TSMC is the juggernaut, but Samsung is still a key player. They're the only other player with advanced 3-nanometer manufacturing available today. They are certainly winning in the market and they need high-performance connectivity and they need a strong North American custom silicon partner. And so that's you know that's really the focus of our relationship. Making sure our IP is there and secondly giving them a custom silicon provider that is equivalent to a Broadcom or Marvell that can help their customers build custom silicon and leverage chiplets for their next generation products.
On the IFS side. We made an announcement with Intel that we were joining their IP ecosystem. And I know Intel well; they acquired my second business. I spent years helping the previous version of Intel Foundry try to win and succeed. And I think the opportunity was not there at that time. In 2015 to 2017. But now North America and the world needs Intel to succeed now. TSMC is building an advanced manufacturing plant in Arizona, Samsung is building an advanced fab in New York State, but we need North American process development. North American engineers. Given the geopolitical situation with US and China.
You know closely keeping an eye and posturing around Taiwan, these uncertainties just heighten why we need to bring advanced semiconductor. Advanced semiconductor manufacturing back to North America. The key transition for Intel is to take its CPU-focused semiconductor manufacturing and migrate it to general-purpose semiconductor manufacturing. It's a migration. It's not the same thing.
But we need them to be successful. I'm committed to it. I'm working with them. It's why our IP will be available in their technology and why I'm excited about Intel joining the semiconductor manufacturing fray yet again.
Doug: I would like to ask a question that's hard to answer. Transitioning from a SerDes IP business into a full-stack vertical solution provider is frustrating because the market has a hard time evaluating your wins.
You can’t announce your wins publically. Is there a future where we will know what you ramp, or how can investors keep score of how Alphawave is doing?
Tony: The KPIs we use at our company is design wins and billings quarterly. We likely cannot announce all of our wins, because take for example Apple, our customers are secretive and don’t want to disclose their supply chain.
Investors will just have to become accustomed with gauging our success in terms of quarterly bookings, the number of customers, and the areas we are winning in. Sometimes we are able to disclose a customer after the product is in production. I do expect we will be able to make more specific announcements, but it won't be at the front end of the win. Investors should expect it'll be as the semiconductor parts are entering the the production cycle, which is typically about two years after design wins.
Other key KPIs or revenue, all right, I view revenue far more important to us than earnings right now. Investors track earnings carefully, but we are intentionally investing our earnings back into product development because it's all about scale. We will remain cash flow positive, and we’ve been profitable since day one. We will continue to be profitable, but the second most important KPI is revenue.
Internally, the third is headcount. We continue to disclose headcount because headcount is also an indicator of our scale. How much are we investing into R&D? Is that growing? Is that growth sufficient in order to support the scale of the revenue growth.
Lastly it’s earnings and adjusted earnings. so you know these are the four metrics. These are the indicators I use to manage the business at a macro level. I think these are the best metrics for investors.
Doug: Perfect. I wanted to ask about the business shift toward lower-margin businesses. It’s been not very clear compared to your initial projections because of the OpenFive acquisition.
How much more granularity will you give into the business and margins by each segment? How will gross margins and EBITDA for each of your three main segments be in the long run?
Do you think think you're able to scale your EBITDA margin higher? How can you grow your business into higher-value segments, and how will you get there?
Tony: This is a discussion I regularly have with investors. I can help give some color on the margin side. When we were a pureplay silicon IP business (SerDes), gross margins were greater than 95%, EBITDA was around the 50% range.
But it’s a $1 billion TAM growing to a $2 billion TAM. Not sufficient to meet the ambitions of the business. So we added the custom silicon business, which brings NRE as well as silicon revenue. The business was mostly focused on older nodes, 28 nanometers, 16 nanometers, and consumer electronics.
The NRE gross margin was around 30%, and the silicon gross margins were between the 20 to 35% range. Now what am I doing with that business? I am winding down that business to improve gross margins to a minimum of 30-ish percent gross margin.
All of the deals in my custom silicon pipeline are 4 nanometers and below. That means now NRE gross margins are 50% plus. That means that gross margins are moving from the 20-30% range to the 45-55% range. The transformation on the custom silicon side is as that older business winds the margin goes up.
This new business is far more advanced leveraging our IP portfolio, and has higher revenues and better gross margins. NREs are on the order of 40 to 50 million and margins are higher. They're on the 45 eventually north of 50% gross margin.
The final business that I've added is the networking silicon business (Banias labs). This type of silicon has gross margins in the 75%+ gross margin range for coherent type of products. So 65%+ for the networking products in this business.
So now let’s fast forward to 2027, and a billion-dollar business. I would expect somewhere around $400 million of revenue to come from products. That's the 65 to 75% gross margin mix.
I would expect about 40% of our business coming from custom silicon at that point. I'd expect 45 to 55% gross margins there. And then the last $200 million coming from IP at 95% gross margins.
So for investors trying to model it, this business from where we are today, where we guided 2023 to be, is nominally around 350 million with a 25% EBITDA margin. With this blend of portfolio and margins, we can get you know to a high 30s EBITDA business, possibly even a low 40s EBITDA margin in that time frame. That’s top tier.
Doug: That's really helpful. I want to ask a question about transitioning a team focused on designing 28 nanometer chips to 4 nanometers and below. What are the challenges there? Designing a chip at a much smaller scale takes a lot more people and experience. It’s harder one of the most confusing parts of the story.
The custom silicon business is likely not an ARM kind of business, rather it’s more of a die to die business and focused on connectivity and other IP. Not the traditional logic businesses. Could you give us examples of things you are pursuing in the custom silicon business?
Tony: Sure. First let me talk about the team. I brought in a team of a couple of 100 to 200 people purely focused on custom silicon. But I added to that team, and now it consists of probably north of 100 people located here in North America and also a chip-building team from Israel. So that team is responsible for building the custom silicon of our customers and as well as our internal customers.
So they have experience designing on 3 or 4 nanometer products because that’s where our products sit at today. And my Israel team, my North America team are at the forefront of new nodes. We've worked on every TSMC node and tapped out on every TSMC first shuttle since the company was formed.
As well as Samsung as well as Intel. I've aligned the organization so all of the chip-building teams use One methodology in three nanometers and below. And that methodology is driven by all three groups, but it's architected out of North America, where the hyperscalers are. So we know how they build chips and we make sure our methodology is step with them.
Doug: Examples of the products that you’re doing on the custom silicon side
Tony: Let me talk about one example specifically. When I acquired Banias, we focused on Coherent, a technology to connect datacenters over longer distances. That’s a product that we're bringing to market but its not being used for just data centers, it's being used in telecom.
So you have the Major Telecom players like Nokia, Ericsson that build their own custom silicon in this space. It's these types of customers that have been coming to us now that we have this coherent capability and are asking us to help them build their own chips moving forward.
Coherent connectivity is a combination of advanced analog as well high performance, high speed digital signal processing. You need experience with ARM and experience with RISC-V and experience on the leading nodes. Everyone is focused on driving down power consumption while bandwidth continues to double every two to three years in our base stations and datacenters.
That’s one example beyond AI, which is burning super hot, which is probably where more than 60% of my pipeline resides today. But this highlights the incremental value that the Banias acquisition brought beyond our internal products and the hyper scalar wins for our internal products. It's also driving further custom silicon revenue at the most advanced nodes.
Doug: That's that's an amazing answer. So wrapping this up, Alphawave has definitely been a bumpy road to get here. You’ve positioned yourselves a lot better to become a much bigger semiconductor company. So what are your longer term ambitions other than the revenue goal. How are you going to build this company bigger. I would just like to give you a platform to get your message out there to investors.
Tony: Doug, that's amazing. It's not often I get to wrap up with that type of platform. Simply put, we will be the next great semiconductor company. Like a Broadcom or Marvell. And how are we going to get there?
For the first decade, we'll be focused on connectivity. Beyond that we'll continue to expand. We're an engineering first company. And no one has ever challenged our technology and our technology leadership.
The shorts and everyone else have tried throwing rocks at us have been on the peripheral, but never at the technology. That's because I'm an engineer by trade. All of the leadership team, or the vast majority of the leadership team are engineers. And if technology leadership is critical to our success, that means our engineers are just as critical because they're the ones building the tech.
So we know who are customers are and we focus on them. Our engineers drive innovation, and my job as CEO is to set that north star and everytime I get with my people I remind them to not look at the day-to-day stock price, but to focus on building the next great semiconductor company of the industry. Follow the plan and success and ultimately the share price will reflect our success. And so I'm super excited to be where I am today.
This has always been the goal, but to see the goal beginning to materialize and getting to scale is rewarding. But look I'm a young guy. I'm still in the middle of my 40s. I have a lot of energy and vigor left, and I'm going to use all of that energy and vigor to push this organization higher.
I hope the innovation and passion has come across in this conversation. And from my perspective, we’re a steal today. I hope shareholders listening today know that I am the number 2 shareholder in the company behind the Sutardja family.
I’m aligned with my shareholders. Every decision that's made by myself and my other C level executives are made with the same objective. And it’s not to drive share price in the next 24 hours, but to build a long-term and sustainable business.
Doug: At the end of the day, the results will speak for themselves. You’re clearly an engineer. And you’ve already built this from almost nothing. It’s been a cool story from that perspective. Before I go I want to talk about the share dynamics and the inability of you to buy back shares.
Can you speak on that? Because that’s been part of the story. The Sutardja family has been buying shares, but why can’t you buy more shares?
Tony: This is one of the unique differences of the LSE. Me and my cofounders who funded this company, we didn't have traditional VC's at the time of the IPO. We owned about 48.5% of the company. The LSE and FCA who overseas the policy of the exchange has this takeover panel. And they view me and my cofounders as a concerted party that could operate together to takeover the company. So we are not allowed to buy a single share of the company that would push us to the majority holding position. We’ve gone to the FCA numerous times out of our own pockets to appeal this, and each time it’s been rejected.
So we constantly get asked why aren't we buying more if we're so passionate about the growth and the value of the company and the simple answer is we're not allowed to. But the Sutardjas aren’t a concerted party so they can.
They believe in the company. They believe in the leadership and certainly they know how to build successful companies because they founded and led Marvell for more than two decades. They're buying and they continue to buy.
Doug: Thanks so much for the time. I appreciate you having the opportunity to tell your story and I'm excited to see the continued results and execution because that’s what the market is looking for the most.
The shares reflects low confidence, with the short report to the suspension of shares. Investors obviously want to see results. And hopefully on a quarterly basis. Any other last words, Tony?
Tony: Doug this has been great. I’ll be more than glad to come back regularly and periodically give you updates on the company. I appreciate the factual based writing that you have done in the company. It’s been a pleasure. Take care, Doug.
Doug: Take care Tony.
That’s it for today! I was excited for Tony to come to the newsletter. It’s a frustrating story, but the Q1 results have been solid, and their positioning in theory continues to be best in class. The shares trade like it’s a going concern, but eventually one day the market will not view it as such. Until then.