Silicon is apparently the new gold these days, or so VCs hope.
What was once a no-go zone for venture investors, who feared the long development lead times and high technical risk required for new entrants in the semiconductor field, has now turned into one of the hottest investment areas for enterprise and data VCs. Startups like Graphcore have reached unicorn status (after its $ 200 million series D a year ago) while Groq closed $ 52M from the likes of Chamath Palihapitiya of Social Capital fame and Cerebras raised $ 112 million in investment from Benchmark and others while announcing that it had produced the first trillion transistor chip (and who I profiled a bit this summer).
Today, we have another entrant with another great technical team at the helm, this time with a Santa Clara, CA-based startup called NUVIA. The company announced this morning that it has raised a $ 53 million series A venture round co-led by Capricorn Investment Group, Dell Technologies Capital (DTC), Mayfield, and WRVI Capital, with participation from Nepenthe LLC.
Despite only getting started earlier this year, the company currently has roughly 60 employees, 30 more at various stages of accepted offers, and the company may even crack 100 employees before the end of the year.
What’s happening here is a combination of trends in the compute industry. There has been an explosion in data and by extension, the data centers required to store all of that information, just as we have exponentially expanded our appetite for complex machine learning algorithms to crunch through all of those bits. Unfortunately, the growth in computation power is not keeping pace with our demands as Moore’s Law slows. Companies like Intel are hitting the limits of physics and our current know-how to continue to improve computational densities, opening the ground for new entrants and new approaches to the field.
Finding and building a dream team with a “chip” on their shoulder
There are two halves to the NUVIA story. First is the story of the company’s founders, which include John Bruno, Manu Gulati, and Gerard Williams III, who will be CEO. The three overlapped for a number of years at Apple, where they brought their diverse chip skillsets together to lead a variety of initiatives including Apple’s A-series of chips that power the iPhone and iPad. According to a press statement from the company, the founders have worked on a combined 20 chips across their careers and have received more than 100 patents for their work in silicon.
Gulati joined Apple in 2009 as a micro architect (or SoC architect) after a career at Broadcom, and a few months later, Williams joined the team as well. Gulati explained to me in an interview that, “So my job was kind of putting the chip together; his job was delivering the most important piece of IT that went into it, which is the CPU.” A few years later in around 2012, Bruno was poached from AMD and brought to Apple as well.
Gulati said that when Bruno joined, it was expected he would be a “silicon person” but his role quickly broadened to think more strategically about what the chipset of the iPhone and iPad should deliver to end users. “He really got into this realm of system-level stuff and competitive analysis and how do we stack up against other people and what’s happening in the industry,” he said. “So three very different technical backgrounds, but all three of us are very, very hands-on and, you know, just engineers at heart.”
Gulati would take an opportunity at Google in 2017 aimed broadly around the company’s mobile hardware, and he eventually pulled over Bruno from Apple to join him. The two eventually left Google earlier this year in a report first covered by The Information in May. For his part, Williams stayed at Apple for nearly a decade before leaving earlier this year in March.
The company is being stealthy about exactly what it is working on, which is typical in the silicon space because it can take years to design, manufacture, and get a product into market. That said, what’s interesting is that while the troika of founders all have a background in mobile chipsets, they are indeed focused on the data center broadly conceived (i.e. cloud computing), and specifically reading between the lines, to finding more energy-efficient ways that can combat the rising climate cost of machine learning workflows and computation-intensive processing.
Gulati told me that “for us, energy efficiency is kind of built into the way we think.”
The company’s CMO did tell me that the startup is building “a custom clean sheet designed from the ground up” and isn’t encumbered by legacy designs. In other words, the company is building its own custom core, but leaving its options open on whether it builds on top of ARM’s architecture (which is its intention today) or other architectures in the future.
Building an investor syndicate that’s willing to “chip” in
Outside of the founders, the other half of this NUVIA story is the collective of investors sitting around the table, all of whom not only have deep technical backgrounds, but also deep pockets who can handle the technical risk that comes with new silicon startups.
Capricorn specifically invested out of what it calls its Technology Impact Fund, which focuses on funding startups that use technology to make a positive impact on the world. Its portfolio according to a statement includes Tesla, Planet Labs, and Helion Energy.
Meanwhile, DTC is the venture wing of Dell Technologies and its associated companies, and brings a deep background in enterprise and data centers, particularly from the group’s server business like Dell EMC. Scott Darling, who leads DTC, is joining NUVIA’s board, although the company is not disclosing the board composition at this time. Navin Chaddha, an electrical engineer by training who leads Mayfield, has invested in companies like HashiCorp, Akamai, and SolarCity. Finally, WRVI has a long background in enterprise and semiconductor companies.
I chatted a bit with Darling of DTC about what he saw in this particular team and their vision for the data center. In addition to liking each founder individually, Darling felt the team as a whole was just very strong. “What’s most impressive is that if you look at them collectively, they have a skillset and breadth that’s also stunning,” he said.
He confirmed that the company is broadly working on data center products, but said the company is going to lie low on its specific strategy during product development. “No point in being specific, it just engenders immune reactions from other players so we’re just going to be a little quiet for a while,” he said.
He apologized for “sounding incredibly cryptic” but said that the investment thesis from his perspective for the product was that “the data center market is going to be receptive to technology evolutions that have occurred in places outside of the data center that’s going to allow us to deliver great products to the data center.”
Interpolating that statement a bit with the mobile chip backgrounds of the founders at Google and Apple, it seems evident that the extreme energy-to-performance constraints of mobile might find some use in the data center, particularly given the heightened concerns about power consumption and climate change among data center owners.
DTC has been a frequent investor in next-generation silicon, including joining the series A investment of Graphcore back in 2016. I asked Darling whether the firm was investing aggressively in the space or sort of taking a wait-and-see attitude, and he explained that the firm tries to keep a consistent volume of investments at the silicon level. “My philosophy on that is, it’s kind of an inverted pyramid. No, I’m not gonna do a ton of silicon plays. If you look at it, I’ve got five or six. I think of them as the foundations on which a bunch of other stuff gets built on top,” he explained. He noted that each investment in the space is “expensive” given the work required to design and field a product, and so these investments have to be carefully made with the intention of supporting the companies for the long haul.
That explanation was echoed by Gulati when I asked how he and his co-founders came to closing on this investor syndicate. Given the reputations of the three, they would have had easy access to any VC in the Valley. He said about the final investors:
They understood that putting something together like this is not going to be easy and it’s not for everybody … I think everybody understands that there’s an opportunity here. Actually capitalizing upon it and then building a team and executing on it is not something that just anybody could possibly take on. And similarly, it is not something that every investor could just possibly take on in my opinion. They themselves need to have a vision on their side and not just believe our story. And they need to strategically be willing to help and put in the money and be there for the long haul.
It may be a long haul, but Gulati noted that “on a day-to-day basis, it’s really awesome to have mostly friends you work with.” With perhaps 100 employees by the end of the year and tens of millions of dollars already in the bank, they have their war chest and their army ready to go. Now comes the fun (and hard) part as we learn how the chips fall.
Update: Changed the text to reflect that NUVIA is intending to build on top of ARM’s architecture, but isn’t a licensed ARM core.