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(Image courtesy of Keyssa).

Can You Take the Connector Out of Connectors?

Keyssa, a startup headquartered in California's Silicon Valley and Oregon's Silicon Forest, has spent the last decade trying to create the connector of the future. The company offers an alternative to pin-and-socket plugs that can be clamped on a circuit board or attached to the end of a cable—without all the pins, sockets and wires. Keyssa sells a coffee bean-sized chip that transfers data at high speeds using 60 GHz wireless signals.

The result is what Keyssa calls a contactless connector. The company's latest chip, the KSS104M, is a replacement for physical board-to-board and device-to-device connectors to transfer data or stream video. The chips have to be positioned close together to share what they know, so close Keyssa calls its technology Kiss Connectivity. The short range helps lower latency, limit power consumption and boost bandwidth to speeds of around 6 Gbps.

The startup is trying to tackle more than just the connector's physical constraints. Keyssa is offering customers a solution to the bandwidth, signal integrity, and reliability issues surrounding copper connectors—issues that are worsening as electronic devices grow faster and more compact. Smaller form factors make managing higher speed signals more difficult due to various forms of signal interference, according to Keyssa.

"When you get right down to it, connectors are so fundamental to everything," vice president of marketing Steve Venuti said. "Our whole point is that the connector has never been looked at with an eye toward really changing the architecture of the technology." The potential payoff is huge: Last year, global connector sales grew to about $67 billion, according to Bishop and Associates. Radio frequency and other analog semiconductors like Keyssa's were a $59 billion market in 2018. 

"The connector is long overdue for reevaluation," Venuti added.

Keyssa, which moved KSS104M into mass production last year, is still the underdog. But it has positioned itself as a formidable contender in the connector market: Samsung and Intel are among the companies trying to turn Keyssa's Kiss technology into a standard feature of personal computers and phones. It has partnered on product development with Foxconn Interconnect Technology, a subsidiary of the world's largest made-to-order device manufacturer.

The company, which has around 50 employees, knows what it takes to create interface standards. Keyssa is led by chief executive Eric Almgren, one of the founders of Silicon Image, which helped head up development of the HDMI digital video standard. He was hired in late 2012. The company's executive ranks are rife with veterans of Silicon Image, which was sold to Lattice Semiconductor in 2015. Venuti was previously president of HDMI Licensing.

Since it was founded in 2009, the company has focused on designing chips that can be dropped into devices as easily as standard connectors. Keyssa's key innovation is that its chips can support several several independent interfaces, including USB, DisplayPort and SATA, among others. No changes to software or firmware are required, Keyssa said. As far as customers are concerned, it is a drop-in replacement for mechanical connectors.

Based on TSMC's 65-nanometer node, the chip is economical enough to be used in phones and other consumer devices. Depending on the application, Keyssa's prices can be on par with standard connectors. But for the most part, "Keyssa does not compete on price," Venuti explained. "Our customers are looking to address fundamental challenges that cannot be addressed with existing connectors."

The question is how much success Keyssa's Kiss technology will end up having. The world's largest connector company, TE Connectivity, alone offers customers nearly 50,000 different products in the circuit board connector category, each of which is tuned to specific interface requirements. Potential customers may end up sticking what they are used to, especially if they can buy mechanical connectors that meet their current and future needs.

But over the last three years, Keyssa has started to spark the imagination of computer makers. The company's chips can be used in so-called two-in-one laptops that turn into tablets when the display is detached or flipped around. By slipping solid-state connectors in the keyboard and tablet, the display can be rotated without pinching cables crammed in the hinge. Acer uses Keyssa's technology in its Aspire Switch line of two-in-one laptops.

Keyssa has released a reference platform with Intel for adding wireless connectors to two-in-one detachable devices. Once the connectors are added to the tablet and the corresponding base, both parts can then transmit and receive USB SuperSpeed signals using a short-range wireless link. Keyssa has also partnered with flash drive manufacturers to design an aftermarket device that acts as expandable storage for phones and tablets.

The startup is aiming to address other looming problems with physical connectors. At higher bandwidths, copper connectors radiate energy that can interfere with Bluetooth and WiFi signals, which themselves pose a threat to the connector's signal integrity. All that electromagnetic commotion can make designing devices more challenging. But using the 60 GHz frequency band means Keyssa's connectors can better handle interference,

Keyssa's technology could also be used in cars, robots and factories subject to vibrations or other stress that can shake loose the connector's gold-plated pins or lead to pins bending or wearing down. Using the company's wireless connector, smartphones and other devices can be sealed to shut out water and dust. Since the chip also supports slower speed signals, multiple mechanical connectors can be replaced at the same time.

The chip is not so much a substitute for cables as an alternative to high-pin-density connectors that have to bridge short gaps. But the startup is definitely onto something. It has raised roughly $100 million in funding led by Samsung, Intel Capital and investment firms Playground Global and Alsop Louie Ventures, among others. Keyssa's chairman is Tony Fadell, the former Apple executive who helped develop the iPod and iPhone.

One of the company's investors could also be an important customer in the future: Foxconn Technology, more formally known as Hon Hai Precision Industry. Foxconn's claim to fame is as the largest manufacturer of the iPhone, but it has also become a big consumer electronics player. Sharp, a subsidiary, is one of the world's largest suppliers of displays. Belkin, another subsidiary, specializes in computer and phone accessories.

"They see our technology as valuable not only in the products they design for customers that require an external connector, but maybe more so they value its potential to change system design and internal connectivity," Venuti said. In 2017, the startup partnered with Foxconn and Samsung to turn Kiss Connectivity into a standard smartphone feature. They are developing a ready-to-use module, the KSS104-CW, to sell to phone manufacturers.

With the module dropped in, smartphones can connect to different devices that also have Keyssa inside, such as peripherals, televisions or other handsets. The startup is also a potential winner from the push led primarily by Samsung to offer foldable smartphones, which could create internal connectivity issues. Customers could also seal up all the connector cutouts in phones by combining Keyssa's connectors with wireless charging. Keyssa is inside an unnamed smartphone due out in 2019.

Keyssa has had some trouble. Over a year ago, Keyssa sued Andy Rubin's phone startup Essential Products alleging trade secret theft. Essential looked into using Keyssa's connectors in its final product to interface with cameras and other accessories attachable to the back of the device. Essential ended up using SiBeam's rival chip instead. But Keyssa said that the smartphone was also using proprietary technologies it shared with Essential confidentially and barred from using commercially.

Since it was selected by Essential, SiBeam has struggled much more than Keyssa. A unit of Silicon Image, SiBeam developed its Snap wireless connector to replace standard USB plugs. It also aimed to replace HDMI cables by sending large amounts of data over longer distances using 60 GHz wireless signals. Both products were letdowns. SiBeam’s chips were discontinued by Lattice Semiconductor last year to cut around $10 million in costs.

Keyssa has partnered on another front with Foxconn Interconnect Technology, which sells electronic connectors to companies inside and out of the Foxconn conglomerate. Together, they designed the Kiss Connector, which features Keyssa's connector attached on the end of a cable and clamped to a circuit board with a PCB connector. It can be placed into any pair of electronic devices as an alternative to USB connectors. "They are really using us as research and development," Venuti said. 

Last year, the companies built a modular connector for 8K displays. With it, TV manufacturers can remove the core video electronics from the high definition display, slimming down it significantly. Then the display can be magnetically attached to the video source processor mounted on the wall or a separate stand. The connector combined 32 transmitters and 32 receivers from Keyssa to support 96 Gbps of throughput. They are developing another model for 4K displays.

Keyssa is also trying to get designed directly into chips to enhance their performance. Last year, the company announced its Virtual Pipe I/O technology, which takes signals based on any protocol and aggregates them into a single channel. The signal is delivered to its destination using standard or wireless connectors. On the other side, the signal returns to its original format, which could be DisplayPort, USB or any other protocol.

Ajay Bhatt, one of the architects behind Keyssa's VPIO technology, said that "with the myriad of low- and high-speed legacy protocols that exist in every processor and every system, I/O cannot scale with processor and memory performance." To support all these different protocols, many separate pins have been designed into chips. Using the VPIO architecture, all these signals can be combined into a single channel.

“Every chip and system designer struggles with an immutable fact: There is no Moore’s Law for pins," Bhatt, who helped lead the development of the USB, PCIe and Thunderbolt standards at Intel, said in a statement. “With VPIO, we are reaching further into the system to address the source of I/O shortcomings and solve the fundamental issue of I/O inefficiencies," Almgren added.

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