Nvidia, Intel, others pour $130m into optical chip startup Ayar Labs

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Ayar Labs believes future chips and systems will be connected by light rather than electrical signals, and that vision is receiving considerable buy-in from semiconductor giants Nvidia and Intel – as well as a few other major tech companies and more than a dozen investment firms.

This buy-in is coming in the form of a $130 million series-C funding round for Ayar Labs, announced on Tuesday, that will help the startup commercialize its chip-to-chip optical photonics technology, which it claims is a much faster way to transmit data than electrical signaling while using much less power.

The silicon photonics startup disclosed it has already shipped its first products in volume, and it expects to ship thousands of its in-package optical interconnect chips by the end of the year.

"The overall financing is much larger than we originally targeted, underscoring the market opportunity for optical I/O and Ayar Labs' leadership position in silicon photonics-based interconnect solutions," said Charles Wuischpard, CEO of Ayar Labs. "This financing allows us to fully qualify our solution against industry standards for quality and reliability and scale production starting this year."

This isn't the first investment in Ayar by Intel, which has been working on its own silicon photonics tech for nearly a decade.

However, the startup's latest round does represent the first money in for Nvidia. The GPU giant already has its own electrical chip-to-chip interconnect technology, though the company indicated it may need to diversify its strategy in the future to keep up with the need for speed when it comes to AI and high-performance computing.

"Optical connectivity will be important to scale accelerated computing clusters to meet the fast-growing demands of AI and HPC workloads," said Bill Dally, chief scientist and senior vice president of research at Nvidia. "Ayar Labs has unique optical I/O technology that meets the needs of scaling next-generation silicon photonics-based architectures for AI."

Another recent investor is the venture arm of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which said earlier this year it will use Ayar's silicon photonics tech for a future version of its high-speed Slingshot interconnect.

"Ayar Labs' highly differentiated technology is crucial to supporting the high-performance computing architectures of the future," said Paul Glaser, head of the Hewlett Packard Pathfinder venture division. "Ayar Labs represents a strategic investment opportunity for HPE to help our customers more efficiently derive greater insights and value from their data."

The other tech companies opening their wallets once again for Ayar are the venture arm of semiconductor supplier Applied Materials and contract chip manufacturer GlobalFoundries, which announced last month that Ayar will use its new silicon photonics manufacturing technology.

Another returning investor in the corporate world is the venture arm of defense contractor Lockheed Martin. As for investment firms backing Ayar, the list is longer, thanks to returning investors like Playground Global and newbies like asset management firm Boardman Bay Capital Management.

Ayar claims its optical connectivity technology can eliminate bottlenecks in system bandwidth, power consumption and reach. The startup said this can "dramatically" improve performance for existing systems while also enabling the creation of "previously unrealizable solutions" for AI, HPC, cloud computing, telecommunications, and remote sensing applications.

As our sister site The Next Platform wrote in February, electrical signaling will eventually become one of the biggest barriers for increasing capacity in future systems, which is why silicon photonics is an important technology.

"The faster you go, the more dense you make the device, the issues with power, density, complexity, and signal integrity are going to be so significant that electrical signaling isn't a commercially viable solution anymore," HPE's Marten Terpstra told the publication back then. ®

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