Semi trouble

-Contact Thomas Rasmussen, Greg Quick

There are bargains aplenty in the semiconductor sector. From Integrated Device Technology’s $20m tuck-in of Silicon Optix last month to Sun Microsystems’ takeover last April of Montalvo Systems for an estimated $25m, we’ve seen a flurry of lowball purchases of semiconductor startups over the past year. The reason? These companies tend to have a high burn rate, without much revenue to offset that. (For instance, we estimate that Silicon Optix generated just $4m in sales in the year leading up to its acquisition, while Montalvo was still a pre-revenue company.)

Of course, the semiconductor industry has been slumping for several years, with a sharp decline in valuations. While the number of deals has been tracking steadily at around 180 per year recently (147 so far this year), the amount spent on deals – a far more important figure – is down almost 40% from last year, and close to 80% from 2006. Things are not getting any better, either, at least according to our recent Tech Banking Outlook Survey. Bankers rated the semiconductor industry the lowest in terms of anticipated M&A spending for next year.

This dour outlook is likely to have an extremely negative impact on the semiconductor startups still out there trying to make it. And there are a lot of companies, backed by a lot of venture capital, trying to crack into markets that have taken much longer to materialize than ever imagined. For example, in the promising category of 10Gbase-T physical layer technology, we wonder about the outlook for Teranetics and Solarflare Communications. Also, we recently wrote about the troubles in the highly crowded and fragmented 10-Gigabit Ethernet controller space. Although Intel, Broadcom and the overall market are starting to show signs of life, the situation for the many startups in the sector is not looking any better. In fact, we heard recently that Neterion’s president might have thrown in the towel and that the company could be on the block. Having wagered in the vicinity of $100m, investors will undoubtedly take a bath on this one.