How an Irish skunkworks team is re-defining the future of chip giant Intel

4 Oct 2013

Philip Moynah (centre) with members of the Intel Quark team in Leixlip, Co Kildare

ROME – Up until three weeks ago, Intel was a company that leaned on three pillars. There was cloud (Xeon), desktops and ultrabooks (Core), and mobile devices (Atom). Now there is a fourth pillar called Quark serving trends in wearable computing and the internet of things, and a 70-strong team in Ireland led by Philip Moynagh is injecting a start-up culture into the world’s biggest chipmaker.

Their approach to an impossible deadline involving products made at an atomic scale is unprecedented and firmly puts Ireland on the map for designing and delivering sophisticated and complex technologies.

Their journey could also have a disruptive effect on how quickly Intel will react decisively to future trends.

Moynagh general manager of Intel’s Quark platform, has up until this point in his career mainly been concerned with running 2,000-strong fabrication facilities in Arizona, Oregon and Dublin.

But when a new market opportunity around the growing trend in wearable computing, ubiquitous computing and the internet of things presented itself, he had a chance to lead a start-up within a multinational. Moynagh will also be talking about these trends as keynote speaker at the Innovation Ireland Forum in Dublin on 11 October.

He said Ireland had the ingredients to try something new and daring at Intel – to foster a small, crack team that could go about addressing the market opportunity aggressively and fast and with fewer resources.

“We’ve been in Ireland for almost a quarter of a century and we have a deeply impressive track record in three areas: hi-tech manufacturing, product development and R&D. We had 24 years of building those pillars.”

Because of that, when Intel CEO Brian Krzanich decided he was going to have a ubiquitous computing product within a few months, he could have gone to places that were cheaper to deliver, but what he wanted was a place that was cost competitive and trustworthy to deliver this type of Quark processor.

Beg, borrow and steal

Moynagh said the start-up team on the Quark project had to do things differently and grabbed whatever resources it could find to get up and running fast.

“We stole people and we stole ideas and we stole business processes and office space. We used and abused this magnificent infrastructure that the Ireland site has developed over a quarter of a century. Probably the piece that we did that was a reflection of the Irish team was we decided to pull out all the stops in terms of how high we aimed. We decided if we aimed high and missed it, we would still get to a higher place than we could have before.”

Noel Murphy, head of the X1000 group at Intel’s plant in Leixlip, Co Kildare, wrote a business plan, and after a stringent assessment, IDA Ireland came on board and supported the project, recognising a shrewd bet on the future.

Justification for the Intel and IDA teams’ leap of faith came three weeks ago at Intel’s IDF conference, when Krzanich showed off the fruit of the team’s labour, but then set a further target.

“He outlined the biggest things that Intel was working on and included our X1000 system on a chip. We thought all our birthdays and Christmases had come at once. But he also said that it was not enough that we need to enable the developer community and go to market with a dev board.”

At yesterday’s Maker Faire in Rome, Krzanich singled out the Quark team, the IDA and the Irish Government for praise in enabling Intel to target the internet of things opportunity with a fully working Galileo dev board powered by a Quark X1000 processor.

“He sees the value of Quark, the value of our education/maker-oriented solution and the value that the Ireland team can give, as well as the engagement of the IDA and Government.

A start-up within a multinational

Leading a start-up venture – a “skunkworks” as Krzanich called it – was a considerable change for Moynagh, who is used to leading complex, 2,000-strong teams.

“I got the chance to work with 70 incredibly smart people to do a start-up within a multinational. We got unquestioned angel funding from the corporation to have a go – they made it clear that this was a start-up worth protecting, investing in and trusting in. It has been a real privilege for me and an amazing experience.”

Moynagh said there were two core challenges: the first was to make the product, the second was to get it done in a world-class way.

There was another challenge – changing the conventional way of doing things at Intel, where vast resources are required to serve vast server and PC markets, and planning and processes require years of prior planning.

The Quark team in Dublin and another team it was working with in California did not have the luxury of time or vast resources.

“Intel is 100,000 people, US$1bn a week in revenue and US$1bn a month in profit – so whatever we are doing it is impressive and we will not compromise in huge markets, we are successful. We are hard to compete with in cloud, we are hard to compete with in personal computers and we are in the middle of a battleground for mobile devices.

“Targeting a brand new ‘internet of things’ market space required agility, a new way of behaving and making the product in record time.

“That required a new kind of behaviour, a start-up mindset and the realisation that this is the beginning of our attack on a brand new 50bn-device marketplace.”

Not only did the team meet an internal deadline of delivering a finished product in time for the Maker Faire in Rome yesterday, but it was afforded the rare honour of seeing ‘Designed in Ireland’ emblazoned on the Galileo Arduino-based dev board. According to Moynagh, this almost never happens at Intel and it will only feature on the first batch of Galileo boards.

As Krzanich said, there will be more Quark X1000-based products coming out in future weeks from the Quark stable and Moynagh confirmed he and his team will be at the centre of the activity.

Moynagh and Murphy also received a salute from Intel insofar as their former universities, Trinity College Dublin and University College Cork respectively, are to be among the first dozen out of 1,000 universities worldwide whose computer science departments will receive 50,000 Galileo boards between them.

A fitting tribute indeed.

At the Innovation Ireland Forum in Dublin on 11 October, leaders and stakeholders will discuss Ireland as the go-to destination for knowledge that will drive the next economy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years