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Absolutely fabless: Chip startup funding reaches record $20bn in 2021

America focuses on AI and emerging tech, China on the gaps left by US sanctions

Chip startups raked in a record $19.4bn in funding last year in a boom market driven by semiconductor shortages and trade wars.

In numbers shared with The Register, S&P Global Market Intelligence said the funding for chip startups grew by 8 per cent from 2020. It was a historic high since the research firm started tracking the numbers in 2000.

The funding to startups came from venture capital firms and governments. A larger industry shift to a fabless model, in which chip IP can be licensed from vendors, is opening the door for startups, said John Abbott, a research analyst at S&P Global.

"The US is more focused on emerging technologies, like design of AI and things like that, whereas China is really looking at the bigger picture because it's trying to fill in the gaps from all these export control problems, which means they desperately trying to make sure they have everything they need," said Abbott.

S&P's numbers tracked 475 deals in small and large rounds worldwide. The largest funding round last year was a $1.2bn investment in Chinese company GTA Semiconductor, which received investments from institutions including government-run agencies.

The Middle Kingdom is coming

China is funding startups focused on semiconductor manufacturing equipment, and packaging, which require heavy investments, Abbott said, adding "I think that affects the figures quite a lot."

The trade wars and sanctions imposed by the US government has limited China's access to the latest manufacturing and chip technologies. China is also building its chip infrastructure to become self-reliant on chip technology.

Some of the largest funded US companies included SambaNova Systems, which received $676m in funding in April at a $5bn value, and Cerebras Systems, which received $250m round in November last year, valuing it at over $4bn.

Many chip startups emerged at the onset of Nvidia using GPUs for AI, and design tools became more accessible and cheaper. Startups realized AI chips could be designed without a fab, Abbott said. "The whole design process is much shorter and less expensive than it was before," he opined.

In case you missed it... The Biden White House last month reportedly threatened to cut off US chip supplies to Russia if it invades Ukraine. As seen with Huawei, Russia would in that case be banned from acquiring chips made by American manufacturers or made using American technology or equipment.

The chip industry has also been consolidating over the last 15 years with mega-mergers, but old-guard companies like Intel and Qualcomm and Broadcom were lagging in sensing new opportunities, opening the door for startups.

"They have been very slow to get onto this bandwagon of programmable chips at the edge especially for cars and stuff like that. But now they are [catching] up," Abbott commented.

The exit strategy for most chip startups is to get acquired, but it's a long road ahead, Abbott said. A rare exception was Nuvia, which was set up in 2019 by chip designers from Apple, AMD, Google, and others, and was then bought by Qualcomm last year.

Software companies have been the darlings of VC firms, and it remains to be seen if sudden VC interest in chip startups can sustain, Abbott said.

"Is it a long-term thing? It's depends on the success, really. A lot of these things are emerging technologies, and they're still evolving. These companies need an exit strategy. There's only so many customers for them, and those are mostly the big cloud companies," Abbott said.

Companies that received heavy funding over the last five years are still operational, and only a handful of failures, like Wave Computing which emerged from bankruptcy last year. Others such as Chinese startup Bitmain, which has received billions in funding, started off focusing on cryptomining chips but diversified into AI and custom ASICs, Abbott said.

Lead times

It usually costs more than $50m and an order of three years for a semiconductor startup to see its first product, Andrew Feldman, CEO of Cerebras, told The Register.

"In a software start up it is often less than $2m. The result is with a handful of software guys and four or six months one can build a prototype of a software product, and get it in the hands of customers for feedback," Feldman said.

Venture capitalists like software deals because it is easy code up a demo, get customer feedback quickly, add features and pivot.

"In semiconductor startups, there is a several-year period where your technology bets are embedded in hardware, and very difficult if not impossible to change. VCs don’t get feedback for years after they invest capital," Feldman said.

Cerebras has built a mega-AI chip now being used in government labs and in the cloud.

The chip supply chain issues have presented an opportunity for startups, but could also derail plans if shortages persists. The likes of TSMC, Samsung and Intel prefer to allocate limited manufacturing capacity to top customers, S&P's Abbott said.

"Startups will have difficulty in getting supply. It could complicate things. But they're not actually shipping in massive volumes at the moment, So that's not quite a problem yet," Abbott said.

Custom chips are also being designed in-house by the likes of Google, Amazon and Microsoft. Governments in US and EU are also prioritizing semiconductors with legislation promising billions in funding, some of which may go to chip startups.

The EU is funding chip startups through the European Processor Initiative, which is designing homegrown Euro chips using the RISC-V and Arm architectures. ®

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