Artificial intelligence Semiconductors and 5G Startups Venture

US Semiconductor Startup Funding Slows Even As AI Beckons

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Semiconductors have seemed to carve out a permanent place in the news cycle recently, whether it concerns SoftBank-backed chipmaker Arm attempting to go public or huge tech titans battling it out for AI server chip dominance.

The industry appears to be on investors’ minds too — although not like in recent years and certainly not when it comes to U.S.-based semiconductor startups.

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According to Crunchbase data, global venture dollars have maintained a solid pace through just over a third of this year, with startups receiving nearly $2.3 billion in funding in 168 deals. At that pace, this year’s total should come in just a tick below the $7.9 billion that semiconductor startups saw last year in 349 deals.

It also is interesting to note that unlike many industries, semiconductors did not see a huge falloff last year in funding from 2021 — mainly thanks to some large rounds raised by Chinese companies. In 2021, semiconductor startups raised $8.3 billion in 263 deals globally.

However, closer to home, semiconductor startups in the U.S. have not fared nearly as well, per Crunchbase data. Venture funding is on pace to hit its lowest total since 2019, when those startups in the country raised only $712 million in 60 deals.

Semiconductor startups in the U.S. have raised only $262 million in 17 deals thus far in 2023.

Big dollars overseas

Global numbers have been helped by several large rounds out of China again this year, including China-based SJ Semi — a foundry with global customers — locking up a massive $340 million Series C in April.

In fact, the four biggest rounds this year for semiconductor startups all have gone to China-based firms.

Meanwhile, the largest round in the U.S. went to Santa Clara, California-based 5G chipmaker EdgeQ, which locked up a $75 million investment from a handful of institutional and strategic investors — including Strategic Development Fund, EDBI, Iron Grey and ST Engineering among others.

“This environment is not an easy environment to raise money in,” said EdgeQ co-founder and CEO Vinay Ravuri.

EdgeQ’s business maturity greatly helped in a market where investors have returned to looking for basic fundamentals, Ravuri said. The company has an actual chip — not just a design — as well as customers, and will be generating revenue this year.

“We were different from others and that mattered,” said Ravuri, adding relationships with investors also helped.

Who are the investors?

However, the semiconductor industry in the U.S. has never pulled in big numbers in fundraising — due to the complexity of the technology and its ecosystem, as well as the small pool of investors that specifically focus on it.

“There have always been ups and downs in semiconductors,” said Stefan Dyckerhoff, managing partner at Palo Alto, California-based Sutter Hill Ventures. The firm’s portfolio includes semi startup Astera Labs — which locked up $150 million in a round last November — and open-source semiconductor technology and software provider SiFive among others in the sector.

“This is not a generalist’s area,” he added.

That doesn’t mean there are not significant opportunities. As new tech emerges with complex needs, investors see more potential in the specialization of the chip for different sectors such as AI, sensing, automotive and others.

“We think this is one of the richest times for the industry because of all the emerging applications that will require the rethinking of the semiconductor architecture approach,” said Nicholas Brathwaite, founder and general partner at San Francisco-based Celesta Capital. The deep tech investing firm’s portfolio includes Palo Alto, California-based SambaNova Systems, whose $676 million round in 2021 is the largest ever for a U.S.-based semi startup.

AI’s role

Not surprisingly, AI could play a role in the next chapter for semiconductor startups.

“With ChatGBT, the data center architecture will need to be rethought,” Brathwaite said.

The AI industry will bring about changing graphics processing unit and network i/o needs, and those transforming demands could bring investment opportunities.

“AI has fundamentally different needs for compute,” Dyckerhoff said.

With generative AI companies that focus on the end user raising billions, chip startups specializing in the AI ecosystem could see their share. In fact, SambaNova started out as an AI chip designer.

“You have seen some money go to those startups and you’ll see more,” Brathwaite said.

EdgeQ’s Ravuri said AI’s role in the semiconductor industry may extend beyond which chip is used in new AI applications. Artificial intelligence could actually help with chip design and creation, assisting scientists with some of the complicated mathematical debates and problems in the industry, he said.

AI also could be incorporated into the electronic design automation tools engineers use to create chips, he added.

“There are definitely opportunities,” he said.

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Illustration: Dom Guzman

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