A small but promising part of the tech empire of the Taiwanese group Foxconn, which makes components for 5G, has recently been led by the Fleming Glenn Vandevoorde. ‘In a few years we want to go public with iCana.’
‘English or Dutch?’ The first question that Glenn Vandevoorde asks reveals his long track record as an expat in the Far East. Nevertheless, the top engineer regularly visits Leuven, the second headquarters of iCana, the company he leads on behalf of the tech giant Foxconn.
That Taiwanese group, known as the manufacturer of Apple’s iPhones and countless other electronics products, made an acquisition in our country for the first time last April. She acquired arQana, the company Vandevoorde founded in 2017 that makes components for wireless technology, especially 5G. Foxconn merged the company with offices in Leuven and Taiwan with an American subsidiary and renamed it iCana.
He was not supposed to stay on board, says Vandevoorde. “Sometime after the takeover, Foxconn’s chairman, Young Liu, asked if I wanted to stay on as manager. I now report directly to him. He sees us within the group somewhat as an example of a future-oriented activity.’
The particular focus of the Foxconn summit comes from the potential of the markets iCana serves. The company designs so-called RF (Radio Frequency) chips that are able to send and receive radio waves. Thanks to the revolution in wireless communication, it is one of the fastest growing parts of the semiconductor industry.
We don’t make chips for consumer products such as smartphones, but we do make chips for base stations. Our customers are the major infrastructure builders.
For example, iCana designs and produces components for 5G wireless networks. ‘We don’t make chips for consumer products such as smartphones, but we do make chips for base stations. Our customers are the major infrastructure builders’, says Vandevoorde. ‘Our Belgian team is responsible for the development of chips in higher frequency bands (24-30 GHz), a next generation of 5G that may be rolled out from the end of 2023.’
Another promising market is connected and autonomous vehicles. The car of the future is packed with sensors and chips that can ‘talk’ in real time to other cars and to the road infrastructure. Foxconn is positioning itself to play an important role in that market. For example, it concluded a cooperation agreement with the car manufacturer Stellantis for the development of new chips. Foxconn wants to arm itself against supply problems by producing specialized chips.
Robotics is also a potential new market for iCana. Industrial robots are performing more and more tasks and wireless communication helps in their safe and efficient operation. ‘For that we are looking at next-generation wireless standards.’
It is no coincidence that the Taiwanese bought part of their know-how in Leuven. ‘Belgium and Leuven are known worldwide for RF design. There is a good ecosystem with a lot of talent’, says Vandevoorde. The main source of this top talent is ESAT-MICAS, the KU Leuven lab that is a world authority in analog electronics, co-founded by Professor Willy Sansen. (see inset). A stone’s throw from the lab is the world-renowned chip research institute Imec, which completes the Leuven picture.
Many alumni of ESAT-MICAS find and found their way abroad, where their expertise is in high demand. Vandevoorde – born in Ostend and raised in Mol, where his father worked in the nuclear research center SCK CEN – was asked during his PhD by the renowned Imperial College in London. Together with Chris Toumazou, a British inventor and pioneer in biomedical technology, he founded the company Bionic Innovation. Around the year 2000, the start-up developed prototypes for biomedical sensors. ‘A delegation from Singapore who visited Imperial College in 2001 showed a lot of interest. They suggested I move to Singapore. Because in the meantime I also had a girlfriend who came from Singapore, the choice was made quickly.’
It was the beginning of a long Asian wandering. In 2005, Vandevoorde moved to Taiwan to set up his first RF company, Future Waves, and sell it to Toumazou’s company five years later. Via a friend, the Flemish entrepreneur then ended up in Vietnam, where he focused on several social entrepreneurial projects. In 2014, he resumed academic pursuits with an MBA in Chicago and an appointment at the University of Singapore.
In 2017, he left university and founded arQana, now iCana, with outside capital. ‘Our initial focus was on radar systems and other defense applications. Due to the export restrictions of the then US President Donald Trump, there was a demand for this technology in many countries. But we decided quite quickly to turn our attention to 5G applications. During a search for new capital, just before the corona crisis, we talked to Foxconn, among others. A few months later there was a deal to take over the entire company.’
During a search for new capital, just before the corona crisis, we talked to Foxconn, among others. A few months later there was already a deal to take over the entire company
Vandevoorde gets a lot of autonomy from Foxconn in running iCana, but the bar is set high. “Foxconn’s motto is to be the best in the market. We are compared to external competitors such as the American companies Skyworks and Qorvo. Also (the American-Dutch chipmaker, ed.) NXP has activities in RF chips.’
It is no coincidence that these competitors are all listed. ‘The chip sector is capital intensive. Both the employees and the software tools are expensive and you need a lot of capital to get a chip into mass production.’ In the long run, iCana should also become a public company. ‘By 2025 we want to be financially independent. First we want to balance the cash flow, then become profitable and then go public.’
To realize those ambitions, it helps to have Foxconn as a shareholder. ‘They have a good reputation as a supplier. This helps to convince customers that we are reliable and can go ‘all the way’. Entering into partnerships will also become easier.’
One of the biggest challenges for Vandevoorde is finding new engineers, an important explanation for the presence in Leuven. The company moved from the outskirts of the city to the city center because that is an extra asset to attract graduates. ICana has 60 highly skilled employees, 40 of whom are in Taiwan and about ten each in Leuven and the US. ‘By the end of this year we want to grow to 100 people, of which 15 are in Belgium. We are currently recruiting two or three people a month, but it can always be more.’
‘We connect the real and the digital world’
iCana’s RF chips are part of the larger family of analog chips. They make the connection between the digital world of processors and algorithms and the ‘real’ world of people and things. ‘That is an art’, says Vandevoorde. ‘You have to connect a world full of noise with a binary world where everything is one or zero.’
This art has been taught since 1984 in the Leuven lab MICAS, a part of KU Leuven that was founded by Professor Willy Sansen. The Leuven lab has the wind in its sails, because the number of applications of analog chips is increasing. ‘In many devices they are the first chip’, says Sansen. ‘In an iPhone and in devices to measure your tire pressure, for example, or in biomedical sensors that monitor your heart rate.’
‘Those sensors need a piece of analog electronics to amplify and filter signals and remove the noise. We are one of the few labs that can do this at a high level, because we have always continued to design ourselves. Every PhD student has to design, make and test a chip here. That is a difficult and time-consuming process’, says Sansen.
The sixty or so engineers that MICAS delivers every year often find their way abroad. This results in successful niche players that are taken over by large foreign companies. For example, the Leuven chip designer ICSense ended up at the Japanese electronics group TDK in 2017. A year later, the Indian Cyient took over the spin-off AnSem. The acquisition of arQana by Foxconn also fits in the list.
Another spin-off, Magics Technologies, raised 2.4 million euros last year to sell its radiation-resistant chips worldwide. And earlier this year, Comate, a company from Marc Coucke’s stable, took over the spin-off Zenso.