RWTH SPIN-OFF WITH ‘THINK BIG’ MINDSET ACQUIRED BY XILINX
FROM SUCCESSFUL ENGINEERING COLLABORATION TO INTERNATIONAL EXIT
The story of Silexica certainly deserves the attribute ‘inspiring’. Starting as researchers at RWTH Aachen University with a “hardcore deep-tech topic”, the team quickly progressed to become a successful international player in software development tooling. And the RWTH spin-off grew at various levels – in size, scale and location. Recently, the team achieved another milestone: Silexica was acquired by Xilinx, Inc. (NASDAQ: XLNX), the leader in adaptive computing, based in the heart of Silicon Valley. The key to Silexica’s success: a ‘Think Big’ mindset based on strong roots in the RWTH ecosystem. Two of the founders, Maximilian Odendahl and Johannes Emigholz, sat down with Marius Rosenberg, who has been watching Silexica’s journey from the start, to tell their success story.
How does it feel to make an exit? “Excited and also a bit surreal”, Johannes explains. “The entire process has been like a marathon. We’ve been working hard on the deal for the past months. It’s a weird but very happy feeling at the same time.” However, the team has yet to properly celebrate their success. “We had a virtual celebration and a firework slide”, Max laughs. “We’re about to move into a new office, so hopefully we can combine the in-person celebration and the move-in party, given the present Covid-19 restrictions.”
MAKING COMPLEX HARDWARE EASY TO USE
What is the exit about? The start-up’s latest milestone is all about its unique technology which fills a painful gap in software development. For years, there has been a trend towards more and more complex hardware with increasingly specific components. “The problem with these complex hardware architectures is that it is really hard and time consuming to program them, even for expert developers”, Max explains. “This is where Silexica comes in. We have built very unique software development tools to make that complex hardware significantly easier to use by raising the abstraction levels for software developers. The underlying question is: How do you efficiently utilize heterogeneous computing of future hardware? And that’s where we started, back in our research days at RWTH Aachen University.”
STRONG ROOTS IN RWTH AACHEN
How did the start-up originate? Silexica has a long history of research at the Institute for Communication Technologies and Embedded Systems (ICE). At the Chair for Software for Systems on Silicon (SSS) directed by Professor Rainer Leupers, the team had access to a profound knowledge base feeding on years of research as well as on a strong industry engagement. The impulse prompting the decision to turn their research into business was given by a workshop with several international companies who demonstrated great interest in their technology and encouraged its transfer.
When the plan to spin off formed, so did the founding team. Max and Johannes both studied at RWTH Aachen University, but in completely different areas: Max, like his co-founder Weihua Sheng, was a researcher at Prof. Leupers’ Chair; Johannes, on the other hand, worked in his start-up in Berlin. “We barely knew each other. We had a mutual friend, so we had said ‘hi’ at a house party once or twice. But that was about it”, Max recalls. However, as plans for the start-up began to take shape, Max remembered his brief encounter with Johannes and immediately called to ask if he would like to join the team.
THE FIRST STEPS WITHIN THE RWTH ECOSYSTEM
Where did Silexica go from there? The interdisciplinary team subsequently embarked on their entrepreneurial journey, with the RWTH ecosystem as a trusted companion and helpful guide along the way. The benefits of the support at RWTH were visible from the start, as Johannes recalls: “When I joined the team, they already had a fairly polished and very well prepared pitch deck. The professionalism really surprised me.” The quality of the initial pitch deck had been the outcome of a joint event with WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, similar to the Tech Side Story, where the team had the chance to work on their pitch and sort out market strategies together with entrepreneurship students. “That was a really great start to get early talent and investors interested.” Backed by the EXIST Transfer of Research, the team managed to generate their first small-scale revenue with their core technology. Yet, they soon noticed that in order to meet the demands of their clients, their software product needed more productization. To be able to afford the necessary software developers, the team reached out to early-stage tech-focused seed investors. “And that’s how we got together with Ansgar Schleicher, then Managing Director of DSA Daten- und Systemtechnik GmbH, and with the Seed Fonds Aachen, now TechVision Fonds, who together led our seed funding of 1 million euros in 2015.” With the help of these two local investors, Silexica took off. Only a year later, the deep-tech start-up raised a series A round of 8 million euros, this time with US investors on board.
FROM AACHEN TO THE INTERNATIONAL STAGE
How did the team make this huge leap forward? The prime reasons were early market success – although initially not on the US market – and the connections they maintained to the RWTH ecosystem. “We were able to win one of the 5G partners from the University as a client of our company”, Max explains. “In addition, we were also able to enter new markets with a sales representative in Japan, who trusted us based on his earlier experiences with RWTH spin-offs.” With the trust in RWTH spin-offs and the initial success in Europe and Asia in their backs, the team eventually headed for the US market, with stopovers in Silicon Valley. “Working in the software industry, it was an obvious choice to go to Silicon Valley eventually. The only question was when – and it was answered by the start of the German Accelerator program”, Johannes elaborates. After making a strong US market entrance through German Accelerator, the team participated in Stanford’s StartX program as the first non-US start-up in the history of the community. And that’s how the founders met their US investors.
THE LOCATION FACTOR
What happened next? Following the Series A round, the start-up expanded even further, both staff- and market-wise. Silexica expanded its international footprint as it began to grow abroad, while keeping its headquarters in Germany. Today, the team of former Silexica employees counts approximately 40 people from all over the world and is growing, forming a new Xilinx center of excellence for compilers and machine learning. During its rapid growth phase, the start-up then moved to its current headquarters in Cologne – a strategic step, as Max explains: “In our industry, Silicon Valley is the place to be. However, this also means that there is a war for talent there.” In Europe, on the other hand, only a handful of companies specialize in the same field. “And Germany in particular”, Johannes adds, “is still a very attractive place to work and live for internationals.”
Moving from Aachen to Cologne was a conscious decision. The team aimed to attract seasoned international developers and recruit new local talents at the same time. “Cologne is a familiar address even beyond Germany, which facilitated hiring international experts.” At the same time, the city is in close vicinity to Aachen, allowing the team to maintain close ties to their alma mater: “There are only few universities in Europe doing research in our specific field and RWTH is one of them. So it’s quite logical for us to look for new talents there. We have been recruiting great interns from RWTH and many of them are now working full-time at Silexica.” But the location has not only paid off in terms of human resources, but also in the exit process. “Due to our unique position, both geographically and on the market, the question of whether or not to relocate the team to the US never came up.”
The acquisition itself was a natural next step, as the start-up and the US company had been working together on various levels for some time, from pursuing joint business opportunities to a successful engineering collaboration. “It’s a natural match: Xilinx is the leader in adaptive computing and Silexica brings in additional tools to complement their future tooling roadmap making hardware accessible to more developers”, Max concludes. Now that the team has finished the exit phase, the two co-founders have made new plans for the future: While Max continues his journey as a Senior Director at Xilinx, Johannes will soon leave Xilinx to pursue his next venture, coach other deep tech start-ups and make angel investments.
As a start-up community with a strong deep tech focus, we are delighted to see your continuous commitment to complex technological solutions and hope to see your impact in the RWTH ecosystem! But for now: Congratulations to the teams of Silexica and Xilinx and all the best for your future endeavors!