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Innovation in Electronics: Tiny Devices, Big Disruptions

by Brooke Seawell

As consumer tech lingers in the shadow of punishing public markets and the enterprise is improbably lauded as “sexy,” the electronics sector continues its steady march of innovation. Not long ago, we saw NEA-backed Fusion-io turn the traditional disk drive industry upside down with its Solid State Drives (SSDs), paving the way for instant-on, lighter computers and faster cloud-based data centers. Today, another fast-growing company is setting the pace for innovation in electronics—literally.

SiTime, recently recognized as the fastest-growing semiconductor company in North America by Deloitte’s Technology Fast 500, is bringing much-needed innovation to the $6 billion timing chip market. Timing chips provide the clocks that are the heartbeat of every major electronics product, and have been based on quartz crystal technology for the past 60 years. Quartz has long struggled to meet the requirements of new electronic products that incorporate more features and higher performance, yet are smaller and cheaper.

Enter SiTime with its silicon Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) technology. MEMS are tiny semiconductor devices that you rely on every day—ubiquitous in a vast range of electronic devices like gyroscopes, accelerometers, and microphones. SiTime has developed a combination of analog semiconductor and MEMS technology to incorporate more features, higher performance and smaller size than quartz. Furthermore, these devices are programmable, so they can cover a range of frequencies that would previously require a number of different quartz crystals. The resulting value is compelling – in the last five years, SiTime has shipped 150 million units to over 800 customers.

It’s not a question of if MEMS-based timing solutions will entirely displace quartz crystal, only when. The disruption of the timing market is accelerating, and it is only a matter of time before quartz crystal-based timing technology goes the way of the vacuum tube. This shift in the timing chip market is an exciting one, as it demonstrates potential disruption for many other electronics markets. MEMS are a prime example that the tiniest things can create substantial disruptions.