SiFive raises $175 million in bid to unseat Arm with RISC-V

The new funding, which values SiFive at $2.5 billion, was designed to help the company establish RISC-V as a real option in the market for third-party chip designs dominated by Arm.

SiFive chipset.

SiFive CEO Patrick Little said that the funding will help SiFive grow faster, and focus more on its most powerful designs for data center and machine-learning applications, which yield a greater profit and help the company grow revenue more quickly.

Photo: SiFive

SiFive received a big injection of cash this week that will help the 6-year-old chip designer focus on its most advanced technology, which pits it directly against Arm’s chip designs.

Days after SiFive unloaded its custom chip unit called OpenFive to a Canadian company for $210 million in an all-cash deal, SiFive said Wednesday that it had raised $175 million in a new round of Series F financing, which values the business at $2.5 billion. The founding round was led by Coatue Management, and SiFive CEO Patrick Little told Protocol that it pushed back the funding several weeks because it wanted to ensure a few more investors were able to participate.

SiFive makes chip designs using the open-source RISC-V architecture developed at the University of California, Berkeley by the company’s founders. To Little, part of SiFive’s technological edge is its independence: The underlying technology is open source, and royalty free, and is developed by dozens of other companies — Intel included RISC-V tech in its $1 billion innovation fund. The per-watt performance of the designs — the computational horsepower achieved with one watt of energy — is roughly 30% better than the competition, according to the company.

“The performance per watt differential is extremely material and particularly in those designs where power is important,” Little said. “We found that the industry is figuring that out.”

Little said that the funding will help SiFive grow faster, and focus more on its most powerful designs for data center and machine-learning applications, which yield a greater profit and help the company grow revenue more quickly. The most advanced chips are typically the most expensive to develop, costing tens or hundreds of millions.

“At the end of every major deal, when we talk to customers, it’s us or it’s Arm,” Little said. “It really gets down to that. When the decisions are made, and it’s down to the short list, with any particular customer, in almost any vertical is really Arm and SiFive.”

Though RISC-V doesn’t command significant market share compared with Arm or x86 chipmakers such as Intel or AMD, the technology received renewed interest after Nvidia’s failed bid to acquire Arm. If Nvidia had managed to succeed, it would have given it control over core designs many of its rivals rely on, prompting many chip executives to take a close look at any alternative technologies to Arm designs.

“So many customers that are betting their roadmap on Arm’s ability to deliver, I think the [Nvidia deal] left a permanent scar,” Little said.

“Anything can happen to an [architecture] that is driven by a single company,” Little said. “Just ask the Sun guys about SPARC, the DEC guys about Alpha, ask the MIPS guys about MIPS. I just think that strategically speaking, from a risk profile, it’s dangerous to bet your entire company’s roadmap on one other company.”

SiFive open top rack server. Photo: SiFive

But licensing chip designs that appear in billions of smartphones has proven to be a tough business for Arm. For chip companies, success is often a function of size and as semiconductor tech gets more expensive to develop, businesses are rapidly attempting to achieve scale. A larger revenue base gives a company more resources to deploy where needed, with the industry average research and development budget sitting at 18.6% for 2021, according to an industry association.

Softbank, which owns Arm, reported its fiscal 2020 adjusted profit of $596 million on revenue of $1.98 billion. The relatively small amount of revenue — Intel reported $79 billion in annual revenue, and TSMC reported $56.9 billion — presented a problem for Arm executives: In order to continue to innovate, Arm needed more resources than its current standalone intellectual property business could generate. With Nvidia backing it, Arm presumably then would have the research and development cash necessary to make a concerted attempt to take data center market share from AMD and Intel.

It’s not clear how large SiFive is at the moment, as the company declined to disclose its profit or sales. Little said that SiFive is going to circumvent that concern Arm presented by offering a licensing model — similar to Arm’s — for some of the markets it serves, but also offering additional products, including potentially chips themselves, in others. And Little likes the licensing tech as a business model because it has the flexibility of selling into just about any market — automotive, edge computing or data centers.

“Yes, the IP model is very important to us in some domains,” Little said. “In other domains we will probably be offering more solutions. It could go all the way to a chip in the future. We don’t know. But we are starting to build the value stack in hardware and software to be greater, and greater, and greater so we can capture more of the pie.”

Capturing more of that pie isn’t going to be easy, as SiFive faces entrenched customers in most of its big markets that have already poured billions of dollars into developing the best chips and software stack to power them. For Little, the answer is to make tech that is indispensable to its customers, taking advantage of any business successes to help achieve the next thing.

“We can’t be complacent, win one domain and sit on it,” he said.


How 'Zuck Bucks' saved the 2020 election — and fueled the Big Lie

The true story of how Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s $419 million donation became the 2020 election’s most enduring conspiracy theory.

Mark Zuckerberg is smack in the center of one of the 2020 election’s multitudinous conspiracies.

Illustration: Mike McQuade; Photos: Getty Images

If Mark Zuckerberg could have imagined the worst possible outcome of his decision to insert himself into the 2020 election, it might have looked something like the scene that unfolded inside Mar-a-Lago on a steamy evening in early April.

There in a gilded ballroom-turned-theater, MAGA world icons including Kellyanne Conway, Corey Lewandowski, Hope Hicks and former president Donald Trump himself were gathered for the premiere of “Rigged: The Zuckerberg Funded Plot to Defeat Donald Trump.”

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Sponsored Content

Why the digital transformation of industries is creating a more sustainable future

Qualcomm’s chief sustainability officer Angela Baker on how companies can view going “digital” as a way not only toward growth, as laid out in a recent report, but also toward establishing and meeting environmental, social and governance goals.

Three letters dominate business practice at present: ESG, or environmental, social and governance goals. The number of mentions of the environment in financial earnings has doubled in the last five years, according to GlobalData: 600,000 companies mentioned the term in their annual or quarterly results last year.

But meeting those ESG goals can be a challenge — one that businesses can’t and shouldn’t take lightly. Ahead of an exclusive fireside chat at Davos, Angela Baker, chief sustainability officer at Qualcomm, sat down with Protocol to speak about how best to achieve those targets and how Qualcomm thinks about its own sustainability strategy, net zero commitment, other ESG targets and more.

Keep Reading Show less
Chris Stokel-Walker

Chris Stokel-Walker is a freelance technology and culture journalist and author of "YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars." His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.


From frenzy to fear: Trading apps grapple with anxious investors

After riding the stock-trading wave last year, trading apps like Robinhood have disenchanted customers and jittery investors.

Retail stock trading is still an attractive business, as shown by the news that crypto exchange FTX is dipping its toes in the market by letting some U.S. customers trade stocks.

Photo: Lam Yik/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For a brief moment, last year’s GameStop craze made buying and selling stocks cool, even exciting, for a new generation of young investors. Now, that frenzy has turned to fear.

Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev pointed to “a challenging macro environment” marked by rising prices and interest rates and a slumping market in a call with analysts explaining his company’s lackluster results. The downturn, he said, was something “most of our customers have never experienced in their lifetimes.”

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.


Broadcom is reportedly in talks to acquire VMware

It hasn't been long since it left the ownership of Dell Technologies.

Photo: Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Broadcom is said to be in discussions with VMware to buy the cloud computing company for as much as $50 billion.

Keep Reading Show less
Jamie Condliffe

Jamie Condliffe ( @jme_c) is the executive editor at Protocol, based in London. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, he worked on the business desk at The New York Times, where he edited the DealBook newsletter and wrote Bits, the weekly tech newsletter. He has previously worked at MIT Technology Review, Gizmodo, and New Scientist, and has held lectureships at the University of Oxford and Imperial College London. He also holds a doctorate in engineering from the University of Oxford.


Should startups be scared?

Stock market turmoil is making VCs skittish. Could now be the best time to start a company?

Dark times could be ahead for startups.

Photo by Startaê Team on Unsplash

This week, we break down why Elon Musk is tweeting about the S&P 500's ESG rankings — and why he might be right to be mad. Then we discuss how tech companies are failing to prevent mass shootings, and why the new Texas social media law might make it more difficult for platforms to be proactive.

Then Protocol's Biz Carson, author of the weekly VC newsletter Pipeline, joins us to explain the state of venture capital amidst plunging stocks and declining revenues. Should founders start panicking? The answer might surprise you.

Keep Reading Show less
Caitlin McGarry

Caitlin McGarry is the news editor at Protocol.

Latest Stories