Cactus Semiconductor Delivers Low-Power Mixed-Signal Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs)

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Cactus Semiconductor is an ISO 9001:2008 certified supplier of low-power mixed-signal Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs), specializing in miniaturized portable and implantable medical devices. The company leverages its systems expertise and vast experience with ultra-low-power integrated circuit design to provide optimal solutions for medical device ASICs.

Since their founding in 2002, they have developed ASICs for more than a dozen medical device applications, as well as several commercial & industrial applications, such as energy harvesting and wireless communications. They have also developed an Application Specific Standard Product (ASSP) to help customers jump-start the development of new Neuro-Stimulation devices.

Below is our interview with Andy Kelly, IC/System Architect at Cactus Semiconductor:

MAndy Kelly

Q: How exactly can custom integrated circuits (ASICs) make a difference in design?

A: ASICs are designed solely and specifically for the requirements of one target application. This contrasts with standard products in the IC market, which strive to serve as many different applications as possible – which inevitably leads to a lot of compromises, and rarely represents the best solution for any single application. Through full-customization, we can focus the design effort on one set of requirements. As a result, we can often produce significant power savings, which is the key to miniaturization for many medical devices – because it enables the use of smaller batteries. Customization also enables a higher level of integration which can further reduce size and cost, while increasing reliability by reducing component count. The benefits obtained through custom IC design are particularly valuable for portable, wearable, and implantable medical devices.

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Q: What makes analog circuits a better choice than digital ones, and vice versa?

A: Most electronic devices and systems include both analog and digital components, so neither is really “better” than the other – but they each excel in different areas. Digital circuits use binary logic, so they are inherently less sensitive to noise, can be run at much higher speeds, and lend themselves to extreme miniaturization better than analog circuits. Any type of data storage, computation, or complex control is generally best implemented with digital circuits. The primary limitation to digital circuits is that they can only work with encoded “data”. As many of us old analog engineers believe, the “real” world is still analog. That means that the physical characteristics of our environment – things like light, sound, motion, etc. – are analog in nature in that they are continuous variables, and not quantized into binary encoded “data”.

If we buy into the idea that the world is analog, then even the most sophisticated digital system still needs analog circuits at the interfaces. A simple example of this is an audio system consisting of a microphone, some digital signal processing, and a speaker. This type of system requires analog circuits to sense the signals received by the microphone, and to drive signals to the speaker. Beyond that, the system requires data converter circuits; Analog to Digital Converters (ADCs) to convert the analog input signals to digital data, and Digital to Analog Converters (DACs) to convert the digital data back to analog signals to drive the output. The data converter circuits are called mixed-signal circuits, because they usually include both analog and digital circuits in the same functional block. Cactus Semiconductor, like most analog companies, excels in both analog and mixed-signal design.

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Q: What are your plans for 2018?

A: Our plans for 2018 include continued growth of our ASIC business, and to establish ourselves as the premier provider of medical device ASICs worldwide. Other plans include an expansion of our capabilities into tangential markets that fit well with our current experience and expertise. For example, some recent projects include Wireless Communication, Energy Harvesting, and MEMS Interface ASICs. These types of products are critical parts of the booming Internet of Things (IoT) market. Most of these IoT applications present challenges like those faced by our medical device ASICs. Specifically, they require complex power management and aggressive miniaturization. Cactus believes that we are well-positioned to participate in those applications, and plan to continue our growth in those markets.

Q: What’s the vision that guides you?

A: The vison that guides me personally is that technology can and should be employed to improve the world we live in and to help people in need. I also believe that there is more to be gained through cooperation than through competition, and that companies should seek out win-win agreements in a culture of mutual respect. When I started working at Medtronic in 1991, I chose that job because I wanted to focus on medical devices, rather than toys, gadgets, or weapons – which are the focus of many technology companies. More recently, that same desire attracted me to Cactus Semiconductor, since Cactus also focuses on medical technologies, and shares a similar vision – as demonstrated in our vision statement, which says, “Cactus will develop life changing semiconductor products by collaborating with partners that believe true success can only be maintained when all stakeholders are successful.”