MU alum takes degree to California

Dave Holt, president of Lightspeed in Silicon Valley, has developed a new way to build semi-conductors.
Tuesday, May 11, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:15 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Dave Holt and his company may be improving your life, and you don’t even know it.

Holt is the president and CEO of Lightspeed, a structured array company in Santa Clara, Calif. Structured array is a new way to build semi-conductors, which are crucial to the operation of many gadgets Americans take for granted.

“Semiconductors or ‘chips’ are the devices in your cell phone, your Walkman, or in your digital TV,” Holt said. “Chips power the Internet, your Gameboy, or the broadband delivered via DSL or cable to your house. They are the devices that enable the functionality in most consumer products these days.”

Lightspeed is part of Silicon Valley — the “high-tech Mecca,” as Holt describes it. But he isn’t a California boy. Holt is a Columbia native and an MU engineering graduate.

He came back to MU in April to speak to different business-focused student groups on campus, including the MU Entrepreneurs’ Group.

“The reason I came back was to help foster a spirit of entrepreneurism here at UMC,” Holt said. “The focus of all these discussions is not so much on the technology but more on how to start your business. What are the things that you should care about in a high tech business ... success factors, failure factors, that sort of thing.”

Starting early

Holt has been starting businesses since college. He got his real estate broker license in Columbia at 19, worked as a realtor and bought and sold houses to pay his way through college.

Since then, his contributions to the structured array field have been substantial. Lightspeed developed a way to cut back the time and cost it takes to produce an updated version of a chip. This is the first time in more than 30 years that the time has been reduced, Holt said. It’s his company’s goal to help keep the semi-conductor industry on pace.

“There is a well-known law in the chip industry called Moore’s Law,” Holt said. “What it says is that every 18 months, we’re gonna either double the power, the capability elements of a chip, or we’re gonna reduce the price by half. That law has held since Gordon Moore, who’s one of the founders of Intel, came up with it in the 1970s.”

But Holt said the industry has had a problem keeping up with this law going forward.

“Now we’re starting to see that 18 months stretch out to 24 months or 30 months, and companies are seeing that it’s taking longer to bring this economic promise to consumers,” he said.

Holt’s company has taken that trend and found a way to turn it back around.

“Lightspeed is all about pushing that time back down to 18 months,” he said. “So bringing the cost down, bringing the time down, and allowing the semi-conductor industry ... to continue to deliver products to the consumer marketplace is our focus.”

Holt has been in the semi-conductor field since he graduated from MU. He went to Silicon Valley in 1993 as a vice president of engineering for a start-up company. Since then he has been a part of three business start-ups.

It has not always been smooth sailing for him, however. Many of Holt’s endeavors have failed, and many of the things he’s turned down have gone on to be huge successes without him.

“I worked as a consultant for about nine months at CISCO,” Holt said. “They wanted to hire me on as a director, but I wanted to start my own company. It was one of those decisions in life where I could have been a 10 gazillionaire now if I had made the other decision.”

Though it hasn’t made him as wealthy as a career with CISCO might have, Holt’s company has been a success because it makes life simpler for others.

“(Structured array chips) simplify the complexity of custom silicon design by providing a fabric of identical building block cells that are prearranged in a series of sizes and complexities,” according to Lightspeed’s Web site. “This means the design task is mapping the circuit into a fixed arrangement of known cells, rather than mapping standard cells to the design.”

But sometimes the drive to make life simpler for others can make Holt’s life very frustrating. He related an experience from a prior startup that he co-founded.

“We built a chip, a single chip that would go into a PC,” he said. “It cost $25. This one chip did DVD, it did fax-modem, it did SoundBlaster compatibility, it did video phone and 3D graphics acceleration, all on one chip. All for $25, and it was totally killed by the giants who control that industry because it took away their profits. So one of the hard knocks that you learn as an entrepreneur is if you’re playing against the big guys, they have a lot of power.”

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