The current land rush in chip development, spurred as new technologies such as artificial intelligence create new needs, is pitting established semiconductor companies like Intel and Nvidia against tech titans like Facebook that are building their own chips. A wave of next-generation chip companies has also entered the fray. So how much room remains for startups that are relative latecomers?
Plenty, says Chon Tang, one of the leaders involved in launching a new program for chip developers at UC Berkeley’s growing startup accelerator SkyDeck.
Competition isn’t the biggest problem in a field so primed for innovation, says Tang, who is the managing director of the SkyDeck Fund. The most formidable problem is the need for upfront capital to develop hardware innovations—but SkyDeck has found a way to solve it for the startups that will be accepted into the accelerator’s new Chip Track, he says.
While software developers can create new products by working hard and spending little, Tang says, chip inventors need the funds to produce a prototype so they can show how it runs.
“We’re talking about many millions of dollars,” says Tang. “Very few investors are willing to give you many millions of dollars just to hit run.”
SkyDeck has enlisted two companies that will give its chip startups access to an array of services that would ordinarily cost customers as much as $2 million, Tang says.
San Jose, CA-based Cadence Design Systems will provide expertise, chip design tools, and testing features the global company sells to semiconductor companies creating innovative products, Tang says. TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.) is volunteering help from its fabrication facility, or fab, toward making prototype chips for the startups.
A third partner, San Mateo, CA-based SiFive, adds another dimension to the chip design ecosystem being created at SkyDeck. SiFive’s mission is to streamline the traditional process of chip design and lower its costs by allowing customers to cobble a custom chip together by choosing among existing open-source elements, as well as microprocessor unit designs from outside companies. SiFive was co-founded by three UC Berkeley researchers who developed RISC‑V, a free, open instruction set architecture that enables “a new era of processor innovation through open standard collaboration,” according to the RISC‑V Foundation. SiFive, which has raised a total of $64.1 million from investors including Intel Capital, Sutter Hill Ventures, and Spark Capital, also makes prototype chips so that its customers’ designs can be tested.
Tang says he hopes that the lure of all the partner contributions, as well as the Chip Track program’s expert advisers, will draw “dozens, if not hundreds” of applications from across the globe by the deadline, which has been extended to Nov. 7. Advisors to the startups will include David Patterson, a retired UC Berkeley professor of computer science who joined Google in 2016 to work on computer architectures for machine learning. He is a Turing Award winner, an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering, and vice chair of the RISC‑V Foundation.
Among the other advisers is UC Berkeley professor Krste Asanovic, a SiFive co-founder, its chief architect, and chair of the RISC‑V Foundation. Like regular SkyDeck participants, the Chip Track startups will receive an investment of $100,000 from the SkyDeck Fund for a 5 percent equity stake in their companies.
Right now, the plan is to accept two startups into the inaugural Chip Track cohort, though Tang leaves open the possibility that more could be admitted if the partners agree. The chip design and fab companies that will help Chip Track participants for free stand to gain them as customers later, when they’re ready to take a product to market, he says.
“These were the easiest partnerships we’ve ever tried to get,” Tang says. He expects the program to grow in later years, adding more partners and startups.
“If we come back in a year with 10 companies in a cohort, I would not be shocked,” Tang says.
The Chip Track startups will join SkyDeck in January along with the successful applicants to the accelerator’s regular six-month winter session, but the chip designers’ program will extend to 12 months—SkyDeck’s nod to the greater time span needed to shepherd an idea to a prototype for these hardware designers.
Tang doesn’t expect that the Chip Track participants will be vying with semiconductor and tech giants to invent the next general-purpose processors that will become the “dominant chip that can do everything.”
While such semiconductors can be powerful and flexible, they do have disadvantages in an era of mobile devices and computing at the edge of Internet connectivity. “They burn up a lot of power, cost a lot, and take up a lot of room,” Tang says.
Startups are more likely to find profitable niches by going in the opposite direction—creating custom, limited-purpose, low-power chips, he says. They can do this by building software functions into hardware designs.
Tang saw this as a possible next step for a SkyDeck participant, 2Hz, which created machine-learning software that filters out sounds other than human speech to improve audio quality. The first users of the software are putting it into data centers and laptops, he says. But Tang advised the 2Hz founders to incorporate their algorithms into a chip that could fit into a mobile phone’s microphone, drawing a fraction of the power to make the same calculations.
As new devices and new applications arise, there could be a deluge of use cases that could be enhanced by chips that are “super-optimized” to do a few things well, such as processing videos or improving camera functions, Tang says.
Software developers and chip designers will be mingling together at SkyDeck’s multistory space atop an office tower in downtown Berkeley, just outside the UC Berkeley campus. Maybe some of the former will aspire to become the latter.
That’s exactly the kind of migration SiFive CEO Naveed Sherwani envisioned when he talked to Data Center Knowledge writer Christine Hall in April. Sherwani said SiFive had made it possible for “people who do not have five PhDs and 20 years of experience” to design simple, customized chips. “We’re talking about chips that are in vending machines, chips that are in wristbands, chips that go into educational toys, chips that go into sensing in cars, chips that go into various home appliances.”
Tang is on board with the drive to democratize semiconductor innovation. But for now, Chip Track applicants will need to have some expertise in chip architecture development. In fact, he says veteran chip designers working in-house at companies like Google, Tesla, and Facebook would be some of the prime candidates if they want to break out, form their own companies, and explore their ideas independently.
“These people are the ones that could, or should apply,’’ Tang says.