The Israel Innovation Authority wants to let local high-tech companies use a processor developed in Israel with some state funding for free, thereby enabling them to reduce their dependence on chips from abroad and also save money.
Aviv Zeevi, the authority’s vice president for technological infrastructure, said the Israeli chip is suitable mainly for simple, basic purposes, meaning devices that don’t require massive processing power. Among these are devices used in the internet of things, medical devices, diagnostic tools, sensors and cameras.
“Based on the estimates we received, the savings could reach 15 to 20 percent of the cost of the device,” he said. “And companies want to achieve technological independence, because that reduces their dependence on outside companies.”
The chip was developed by the chip consortium GenPro, which was founded three years ago. The Innovation Authority chipped in 42 million shekels ($13.6 million) in funding; the consortium’s partners provided additional financing.
GenPro’s main partners are the companies DSPG, Mellanox-Invidia, CEVA, SatixFy, Dolphin (which withdrew last year after it was bought by a foreign company) and Western Digital, alongside researchers from four local universities – Bar-Ilan, Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion and the Technion.
According to the Innovation Authority, the consortium was formed to get several companies and research institutions working together in order to spur “the research and development of innovative technologies to create a comparative advantage for Israeli industry in international markets,” in the Innovation Authority’s words.
GenPro’s goal is to develop hardware and software technologies based on the open core of a processor that uses RISC-V architecture. The participating organizations joined to accumulate knowhow in the field and also to develop a processor for their own use.
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As for the authority, it also sought to grant other local tech companies free access to any products GenPro developed.
GenPro’s chip is based on RISC-V architecture, which is a kind of instruction set used to plan the chip. This technology was developed at the beginning of the previous decade as a more open and flexible alternative to the two chip development architectures that dominate the market – 86X, which is used by Intel and AMD and on which most processors for computers and servers are based, and ARM, on which most processors for smartphones and laptops are based.
What local companies will be offered isn’t the chip itself, but its plan and copyright. This will enable them to use the plan freely and adapt it to their own needs.
Currently, companies that make smart devices rely on processors based on ARM architecture. This means they have to pay ARM several cents as a licensing fee for every device they sell. Thus Zeevi says that if they switch to GenPro’s new chip based on RISC-V, they can save money and improve their profitability.
Another advantage, he said, is that “companies can take the basis of the processor and make relevant changes adapted to their own needs. Consequently, companies will have greater control over the plan and can achieve better performance.”
In practice, however, it’s likely to be hard to persuade many high-tech companies to adopt the new technology. Most of them have been working with ARM processors for years, and they will be reluctant to take the risk of a new technology. Moreover, doing so would require a process of conversion, adaptation and quality control, with all the attendant expenses.