By Adam Edstrom

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Santa Clara, Calif. Founded 1997

The powerful microchips made for PCs might be great at letting you surf the Web, burn CDs, IM, and put together PowerPoint documents--frequently all at the same time--yet they're overkill for specialized devices like cellphones or digital cameras. That leaves engineers at equipment firms to spend years designing their own chips, a process that gets harder as chips get more complex.

Tensilica, founded by Chris Rowen, a 47-year-old chip guru, offers a solution: an innovative architecture around which specialized chips can be designed, plus tools to design them. Companies incorporate only the features they need, squeezing years from design time and making the resulting chips ten to 100 times faster, smaller, or less power-hungry than standard chips. Some 70-odd companies pay millions for Tensilica's technology: Cisco uses it for networking chips (it's also an investor); LG uses Tensilica-based chips for third-generation phones in Korea. Rowen has also won fans in the ivory tower: Renowned innovation professor Clayton Christensen at Harvard Business School regularly hails Tensilica as a "disruptive technology," along the lines of Linux, eBay, and Amazon. --Adam Edstrom