Microsoft backs $35M funds into AI chip startup Syntiant


Microsoft Corp.’s M12 arm has placed a bet on Syntiant Inc., the startup behind tiny artificial intelligence chips for connected devices that it says is 100 times more power-efficient than rivals.

M12 co-led a $35 million funding round into Syntiant that was announced this morning. The other lead investor was the venture arm of Applied Materials Inc., a maker of semiconductor fabrication equipment.

Irvine, California-based Syntiant has shipped more than a million chips to date and is reportedly aiming to hit the 10 million mark by year’s end. Its AI chips, the NDP100 and NDP101 (pictured), are both a small fraction of the size of a penny. They’re designed to power a narrow but broadly implemented use case: powering the voice features of devices such as smart speakers.

Syntiant’s backers see an opportunity because hundreds of millions of voice-enabled devices have shipped in the last few years. Inc., whose Echo smart speakers account for a notable chunk of those shipments, is also an investor in the startup.

Syntiant says its chip architecture provides up to 10 times the throughout of rival products with up to 100 times the power efficiency. In practice, that means device manufacturers can build products with longer battery lives. Under the hood, the chips use what the startup describes as a near-memory approach, which means processor circuits are placed close to memory so data can travel between them faster and thus be processed quickly.

The company also hopes to set itself apart on on the software side. Specialized AI chips often require developers to make modifications to their models, which adds complexity and by extension cost to projects. Syntiant’s architecture, in contrast, can run models built using Google LLC’s popular TensorFlow tool without any major changes.

The feature set of the startup’s current chips apparently wasn’t the only factor that drew its investors’ interest. “This is just the first generation, with an exciting roadmap ahead,” Samir Kumar, the general manager of Microsoft’s M12 fund, wrote in a blog post today. Syntiant Chief Executive Kurt Busch said earlier this year the startup was planning to debut a second-generation chip in the fourth quarter with a “completely” new way of processing data.

Syntiant has raised a total of $65 million from investors as of today.

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