Organisation: Amphion Semiconductor
Sector: Technology, media and telecoms
Legal capability: 1
Head of legal: Niamh Lavery
Reporting to: Chief executive officer James Doherty
Main location for lawyers: Belfast
Main law firms: L'Estrange & Brett, FR Kelly & Co. In the US Carr & Ferrell and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati
Northern Ireland has always had some difficulty attracting the international IT industry due to the unstable political situation and competition from the south. But Amphion, which changed its name at the end of last year from Integrated Silicon Systems, is one of the province's home-grown success stories.
Not unlike Iona Technologies in the Republic, Amphion is a spin-off university company, known as a “Qubis” company because of its origins in Queens University, Belfast. It is a leading supplier of application-specific virtual components, providing image compression, audio compression and channel coding for multimedia and communications applications.
Niamh Lavery, Amphion's head of legal, says: “We started very modestly about six years ago, but the last 12 to 18 months has seen rapid growth. We now employ over 50 people and have offices in Boston, San José and Tokyo and have agents all over the world.”
The company's main offices are in Belfast, and Lavery is adamant that being based in Northern Ireland has never been a problem for her. “Is it restrictive? Definitely not,” she says. “We see being based in Northern Ireland as a positive thing. The quality of our engineering here is well recognised, and we're now dealing with a global market. Geographically, it's not a hindrance at all with video-conferencing and email, and if we want to go to Japan today all we need to do is get on the plane.”
But there is extra work involved when dealing with firms in the US from a Belfast office, particularly when you are the company's sole legal representative. Lavery sees it as one of the challenges of the job. In the US Amphion deals with Carr & Ferrell and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. “You have to make yourself open, do research and find out what aspects of US law you're dealing with,” says Lavery. “I find using US attorneys is very straightforward if you work hard and you know what you're talking about. You can't keep thinking of things in parochial, local terms. We're in a global market now.”
Amphion has already begun to expand beyond its local markets by joining VCX (Virtual Component Exchange). It is the first internet-based business-to-business exchange for trading semiconductor intellectual property (IP). Here it works with giants from the IT sector such as Sony and Toshiba, companies whose success Amphion is seeking to emulate.
Lavery has had a busy year in taking the first tentative steps towards this goal. Second-round funding was completed in January, with a $10m (£6.9m) investment in the company by venture capitalists, including the UK's Apax Partners & Co and the investment syndicate Enterprise Equity. Both also invested in Amphion's first-round funding in 1999. The funding also led to the appointment of two new non-executive board members in the company, Peter Magowan, a director at Arm Holdings, and Gregario Reyes, the former chief executive officer and chairman of American Semi-Conductor Equipment Technologies.
Both rounds were advised on by L'Estrange & Brett, the company's principal legal adviser. Lavery holds relationship partner Paul McBride in high regard, and as the only in-house lawyer, she depends a lot on the support and expertise from the Belfast-based firm.
But with the pressure on, Lavery is on the lookout for an extra set of hands in the legal department. “There's no doubt that as the company grows we're getting extremely busy,” she says. “There's no way it's a job for just one person, and we'll probably be needing someone with the proper interest and ability in the next year. Whether this will be on the IP side of things solely, so that we can divorce IP and licensing, or whether we'll just share out the weight of work, depends on the person coming in.”
Lavery currently deals with the majority of licensing issues herself, using FR Kelly & Co for patent issues and L'Estrange & Brett for a wider range of issues. But as an in-house counsel, Lavery feels that working as part of a company is very different to her experience of private practice at Tughan & Co. She says: “You have to make sure that everything goes without a hitch, and that Amphion isn't vulnerable and its IP is protected. You also have to be balanced, making sure that you're working with a degree of commercial pragmatism. As the in-house counsel in a company you're in the thick of things, and you're aware that, above all, the company has to keep going and making money.”
But work goes on in the in-house department. The next few months will see not only the usual licensing and IP issues, but will also herald a new challenge. Lavery says: “We'll be increasingly busy working on a variety of different styles of agreement, such as strategic alliances. It's important that we have a clear understanding of the industry and where we fit in.” n