FPGA, CPLD, ASIC, and ASM Design
 

The History of Focus Embedded

An Armadillo at Birth

The Original "Dillotronics" Logo. Much as Microsoft can trace its history to a small company called Traf-O-Data (founded to use primitive computing technology to count cars passing through busy intersections), Focus Embedded can trace its own story back just over a decade to a small Austin, Texas garage shop called “Dillotronics,” founded by current Focus Embedded CEO, Eric Overton to make electronic auto parts. In the days before our image included polished brass, turning gears, and knurled walnut; our mascot and was “D.T., the Armadillo,” a sunglass-wearing Armadillo with a lightning bolt on the side. D.T. was hip, recognizable, and well suited to a small business whose major client base was inside Texas.

Original car magazine ad photo for the K10 Relay, complete with pretty girl in "cat" costume.
The First Products

The very first projects done under the Dillotronics brand label and released for public consumption were mainly solid state high-current switches to replace and modernize the relay circuitry in classic cars. The single biggest selling item was the “K10 Relay,” a replacement for the no-longer-available hazard flasher relay on late 1960’s vintage Mercury Cougars.

Moonlighting - and Fate Stepping In

For several years, Dillotronics operated out of a spare bedroom of the home of its founder. But in late 2007, Mr. Overton, who at that point held a day job as a field applications engineer for Analog Devices, Inc., found himself out of work under unusual circumstances. In October of that year, ADI elected to end the bulk of their applications support for the ADV2xx JPEG2000 video compression chip family and suspend all development of new products based on custom Mallat Spatial Fourier Transform engines. (ADI decided that the thinning margins on the chips wouldn’t support further development at their R&D costs.) But because the technology still had considerable marketplace viability for a lower-tier semiconductor manufacturer, ADI was shopping around to find a buyer for the group when they decided to suspend development internally. Mr. Overton was therefore sent home with full pay and benefits and told, “Do nothing – and in particular don’t take another job until the rights to you are sold and the new buyer can call you back to work.”

A week later Overton’s home phone started ringing. ADI’s customers were calling to ask him, “Why aren’t you at the office? We need your help designing our products.” After a conversation with his former bosses at ADI, all parties drew the conclusion that his working as an independent consultant providing third-party design work for ADI customers was in everyone’s long-term best interests – and that it wouldn’t constitute “taking another job while laid off with full benefits” under the terms of his exit agreement with ADI.

With a few unexpected incoming phone calls from the first new video design customers, Dillotronics the Auto Parts Manufacturer had become Dillotronics the Video Systems Design Company.

A Big Job for 3M

The guts of the MPro Picoprojector Prototype, back when the injection molds for the case hadn't been made, and the exterior shell was CNC machined aluminum.  (Dollar bill is for scale.)  At right is the projector prototype in action, putting out a test pattern. By late spring of 2008, it was becoming increasingly clear that ADI wasn’t going to find a buyer for its ADV2xx design group, so it was time for Overton to make a few hard choices about whether to continue as an independent consultant, to expand Dillotronics to include others, or declare, “This was an interesting experiment” and go looking for another regular nine-to-five job. As luck would have it, at that time 3M’s Austin-based Video Systems Division found themselves in dire need of an unusually good FPGA developer to create a chip to generate video timings for an “optical engine” to be used in one of their new handheld video “picoprojectors.” And their attempts to hire in an FPGA designer through a search firm had only brought them people with the “FPGA” buzzword on their resumes but no real experience.

At the time, one of the few remaining people employed by ADI’s video group – largely still there to support existing designs at very large customers – had been a 3M Video Systems employee before going to work at ADI, and 3M’s management approached him and asked him if he’d like to moonlight as a designer of programmable logic. But because he was by then doing the work of everybody ADI had laid off, he was in no position to take a job “on the side.” Instead, he recommended Overton, and by extension Dillotronics. Along the way, Dillotronics added Douglas “DC” Cowan to the staff to do the job of laying out the PCB onto which the video chip would be soldered. That board-level design job eventually grew to include the design of not only the FPGA at the heart of the system and the PCB on which it sat, but also the embedded microcontroller circuits and the switching power supplies used in the final product. Focus Embedded has been on 3M’s preferred vendor list ever since that project concluded with the introduction of several highly successful “MPro” picoprojectors. (The best known of these is probably the MPro150.)

The First Partnerships

Along the way Dillotronics forged a solid relationship with programmable logic vendor Lattice Semiconductor, who made the FPGA Overton chose to serve as 3M’s video engine. This partnering persists to this day, with Focus Embedded being a part of the Lattice LEADER design consulting program. And Focus is presently in the process of adding to its relations with semiconductor chip manufacturers by also becoming a Cypress Semiconductor Design Partner firm.

Venture Capital by Mastercard

Early stages of growth for Focus Embedded were financed with cash advances on credit cards, borrowing from Mr. Overton's personal retirement funds, and highly creative use of personal lines of credit – until such time as the company got credit of its own established. The startup of any business is not for the financially weak hearted. And bootstrapping (where the cash you’re burning is all your own) is the scariest way of all for a founder to go. Then again, it’s also the one that keeps the executive team the most honest and frugal. Since those few shaky days in the beginning, the company has funded growth and weathered the Great Recession with retained earnings.

Becoming Focus Embedded

By early 2010, with several happy customers, repeat business, and (probably most importantly) a geographic reach far beyond Austin, Texas, it was time to rebrand Dillotronics to translate better into languages, locales, and cultures where there may not be armadillos. At that point the company identity got a makeover, and since then Focus Embedded has sidestepped any future need to answer the inevitable questions coming from places as far apart as St. Paul, Minnesota (“What’s a ‘dillo?”) and Shenzhen, China (“Why you got a big rat on your business card?”). DT the Armadillo is now semi-retired, although he does still turn up on the occasional printed circuit board.

Over a couple of years Focus Embedded operated in combinations of garages, spare bedrooms, and borrowed spaces – sometimes inside customer facilities. As jobs in the area of embedded firmware and device driver design came in, Jerry Kilgore, Chuck Watson, and Hank Basse got added to the crew. When the growing PCB layout business expanded, Ysidro Martinez joined the team to do some of the additional heavy lifting to lay out extremely high speed impedance-controlled PCB’s. Because these folks were geographically widely scattered about the Austin area, from Taylor to Cedar Park to San Marcos (covering hundreds of miles of roads to commute when all added up), telecommuting was the only thing that made sense for many of them.

Joining with eTech

Throughout these startup years, the company worked closely with Round Rock, Texas based contract manufacturer eTech-Web, since often either eTech was building PCB’s designed by Focus or eTech was referring their customers to Focus for services – particularly PCB layout. By late 2011 it was clear that relationship had progressed to a point where the two companies were ready formally to become resellers of each other’s services. Also, eTech’s business in contract assembly was booming and they’d made plans to expand their manufacturing floor by knocking out the wall into the adjacent (and conveniently unoccupied) unit in the industrial park they called home. Along with that expansion, they’d be picking up additional office space that they really didn’t need, but would be more than happy to sublet. Focus Embedded was the obvious tenant.

As a happy side benefit, the Focus crew gets the business mentoring and moral support of eTech’s principals. At some of the scarier moments for Focus, it was helpful to hear from the guys at the now highly successful eTech, “Yeah, let us tell you all about the third time we almost went out of business. We were pretty sure we were dead on several occasions in the early days.”

The Drive to be the Best

Since we started this history of Focus Embedded with a reference to Microsoft’s genesis, maybe it’s appropriate to end with one to Federal Express. (To quote the book Absolutely, Positively Overnight, “Fred Smith literally willed that company into existence. It really should have gone under at least a dozen times.”)

Tenacity pays, and really, to quote our founder, “The only outcome that’s guaranteed is the one you get if you quit.”

Today Focus Embedded approaches its “five years in business” anniversary and is home to six people – with plans to grow to about 20 or so over the next three to five years. Growth is intentionally slow, since Focus wants to hire only the very best and most experienced people possible, and finding and vetting employees at the extreme upper end of the engineering labor talent pool (particularly in embedded systems design) is extremely difficult and time consuming. Additionally, we are being quite selective about which customers we take, and if a job is better done by somebody else, we’ll happily say as much.

Focus Embedded has no interest in being the biggest – only in being the best.