Two years after Qualcomm made an investment in RISC-V semiconductor designer SiFive, Intel is reported to be preparing a bid for the start-up, worth more than $2bn.
According to Bloomberg and Reuters sources, there is the prospect of a bidding war, with “multiple parties” reported to have made offers for SiFive. Of course, there is speculation that one may be Qualcomm. Interest in the open source RISC-V processor architecture has been growing steadily but is likely to have been intensified recently for two reasons.
One is that many developments in the platform have been made in China, which sees RISC-V as a possible alternative to western processor platforms such as ARM and x86. US firms will be keen to seize back the initiative in development, though in Intel’s case, it may be a question of controlling a possible challenger to its own architectures rather than let a key RISC-V supplier fall into the hands of companies, such as hyperscalers, that could use it aggressively against x86. Intel could also apply SiFive’s software technologies for programmable processors to its own architectures.
The other, and more relevant to Qualcomm, is that some ARM licensees may see RISC-V as a future hedge against Nvidia’s proposed acquisition of the processor IP giant from Japan’s Softbank. If the deal goes ahead, ARM customers that compete with Nvidia may be motivated to encourage an alternative platform for future use, rather than see critical IP fall into the hands of a rival.
In July 2019, Qualcomm Ventures took part in a $65.4m round of funding for SiFive, which at the time had already claimed over 100 design wins. The news showed that Qualcomm was keeping a beady eye on RISC-V’s early moves towards processors for the 5G market, and particularly on the potential to build an IP base (open source platforms still include patents of course).
Intel Capital had been part of SiFive’s previous round, worth $50.6m, in April 2018. Other participants at that time included Samsung Venture Investment.
SiFive has grown, since the start of 2018, from fewer than 40 employees to more than 400, across 15 locations in the USA, India, China, South Korea and Taiwan. It has also established a Chinese subsidiary, SaiFan, to serve the local market as an independent local entity, presumably with the hope of working around any US sanctions against Chinese technology. SaiFan raised an additional $11m itself in 2019.