News Release

University of Minnesota to lead $5.3 million federal grant to improve electronic circuit design

Computer chip

The University of Minnesota announced today that it has received a four-year, $5.3 million grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, to lead an effort that could spark the next wave of U.S. semiconductor innovation and broaden the competitive field for circuit design. Integrated circuits power almost every electronic device we use today.

The University of Minnesota is one of only 11 lead universities or companies to receive funding from the DARPA Intelligent Design of Electronic Assets (IDEA) program, a new program under the DARPA Electronics Resurgence Initiative. Other partners on the University of Minnesota-led grant are Texas A&M University and Intel, a leader in the semiconductor industry.

The complex circuitry in today’s semiconductor chips is built using software that automates the design of analog and digital circuits, but consumers continue to demand even more complex chip designs.

Today’s system-on-chip platforms incorporate billions of transistors with miles of electrical wiring that are integrated within a tiny chip. This technological feat requires large teams and complex software. As a result, the cost of circuit design continues to skyrocket, narrowing the competitive field to large, multinational companies capable of keeping up with the demand for capital and skilled talent. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for small entities, as well as the Department of Defense, to leverage the high-performance technology it needs to design complex circuits for defense applications.

“The high cost of this software creates a barrier to entry for smaller entities to compete in design efforts,” said Sachin Sapatnekar, a University of Minnesota professor of electrical and computer engineering who will lead the grant. “The goal of our research is to replace the proprietary model with an open-source software environment for analog and mixed-signal designs. In short, we seek to ‘democratize’ chip design by facilitating open access to chip design tools and seeding a community of users. The result will be lower costs to consumers for electronics.”

Through the creation of a software-based, completely automated physical layout generator and an open-source intellectual property (IP) ecosystem, the IDEA program aims to create a “no human in the loop” layout generator that would enable users with limited electronic design expertise to complete the physical design of electronic hardware within 24 hours. The software created under IDEA would be capable of automatically creating circuit design files ready for manufacturing, reducing design time from months or years to a single day.

By applying machine learning methodologies, IDEA hopes to continuously evolve and improve the performance of the layout generator for digital circuits, mixed-signal integrated circuits, systems-in-package, and printed circuit boards. 

“Through the IDEA program, DARPA aims to eliminate the Department of Defense’s resource and expertise gap associated with custom electronic hardware design for the most advanced technologies by enabling full automation and applying machine intelligence,” said Andreas Olofsson, the Microsystems Technology Office program manager leading IDEA.

To read more about DARPA’s IDEA program and the newest round of funding, visit the DARPA website.

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Rhonda Zurn

College of Science and Engineering, Twin Cities