April 20, 2024
How much are Nvidia's rivals investing in startups? We investigated


Over the past couple of years, Nvidia, by far the largest AI chipmaker, has ramped up its investments in startups that propel it deeper into the AI space. According to S&P Global and Crunchbase, the funding and investment database, Nvidia’s startup investments jumped 280% year-over-year from 2022 to 2023, with the company and its VC arm, Nvidia Ventures, participating in ~46 deals last year.

It’s not the only one. Nvidia’s chief rivals in the AI chip space — AMD, Arm and Intel — have been investing aggressively in startups, too, looking to make up ground in markets inclusive of the especially frothy generative AI segment.

We at TechCrunch were curious to see how the investments stacked up between the top AI chipmakers — Nvidia, AMD, Arm and Intel. So we pored over Crunchbase data, with an eye toward recent activity from each chipmaker and their VC divisions.

Intel

Of Nvidia’s competitors, Intel far and away has the biggest startup investment operation thanks to Intel Capital, its long-running VC. In 2023, Intel Capital deployed over $350 million across its investments, including OpenAI rival AI21 Labs, video analytics platform Twelve Labs, app delivery network Fly.io and workplace safety outfit TuMeke.

Crunchbase data isn’t exhaustive. But it shows that Intel Capital participated in 32 startup deals in 2023, down from 47 in 2022. Intel also directly invested in two startups last year, per Crunchbase — bringing its grand total deal count to 34 in 2023 and 47 in 2022.

Curiously, AI startups — despite their strategic importance to the chip industry these days — make up a relatively small portion of Intel’s venture portfolio. According to Crunchbase, Intel’s holdings in software, IT and enterprise SaaS companies far outnumber its AI startup holdings by deal volume.

That could change as Intel seeks to deliver new software products and services, including GenAI-powered products, that make its hardware more attractive for a range of AI applications. Just in January, Intel spun out a company, Articul8 AI, to build GenAI solutions running on Intel chips for enterprises in the aerospace, financial services, telecommunications and semiconductor industries.

Arm

Arm might not be a particularly active startup investor compared to Intel. But the company, which makes most of its money licensing chipsets it designs to customers, has several direct investment deals as well as deals through Deeptech Labs, a VC fund and accelerator that Arm co-launched with the University of Cambridge, Cambridge Innovation Capital and Martlet Capital.

Last year, Arm made four direct investments in startups — microprocessor venture SiPearl, eSIM security company Kigen and Raspberry Pi and the Raspberry Pi Foundation — and six investments through Deeptech Labs. Beneficiaries of the Deeptech Labs cash included Nu Quantum, a quantum networking startup; RoboK, which is building 3D sensing tech; and Perceptual Robotics, a provider of automated wind turbine inspection tech.

Altogether, then, Arm poured money into 10 startups in 2023. That’s a significant uptick from 2022, when Arm invested in just four companies — a direct investment in the open source hardware startup Arduino and three investments through Deeptech Labs (Waku Robotics, Xapien and SonicEdge).

One presumes Arm’s future investments will rope in AI in a more obvious way, given that the company’s betting on sales of both its data center and consumer AI chips to steeply increase this year.

AMD

AMD has a VC org of its own, AMD Ventures, through which it invests in startups. But for AMD, the deals come relatively few and far between.

Last year, AMD Ventures made a handful of investments, participating in the Series A for Ethernovia, a startup building a family of ethernet chips and software, and investing in rounds for Essential AI, which looks to pioneer AI-powered software automation tech; Moreh, a company creating tools to optimize AI models; and Hugging Face (alongside Intel and Nvidia). The year before, AMD inked a single deal with Radian Arc, an infrastructure-as-a-service platform for cloud gaming and AI — and made no other investments.

AMD’s deal total in 2023 came to four — on the conservative side compared to rivals. But 2024 may look a bit different. Contacted for comment, AMD had this to share from Matthew Hein, the company’s chief strategy officer of corporate development:

AMD Ventures has ramped up its investment activity in the past year and is looking to accelerate further in 2024, targeting reaching a double-digit investment level. We invest across stages, supporting promising early startups poised to become market leaders, as well as mature later stage companies. Most of our new investments in 2024 will be targeting the AI ecosystem, including AI platforms, generative model companies and AI infrastructure offerings.

2024 will be a pivotal year for AMD in other respects. The company’s ramping up production of its MI300 AI chip, which is designed to handle AI workloads in data centers, and launching Ryzen 8040, its mobile AI-accelerated processors bound for laptops.

By the numbers

So it’s true: Nvidia isn’t the only chipmaker investing in early ventures. But it does appear to be outgunning the competition. In the first three quarters of 2023 alone, Nvidia funneled nearly a billion dollars to “non-affiliated” firms, per the earlier S&P Global report — a figure even Intel Capital struggled to match.

Success in the AI chipmaking space needn’t entail fostering a robust startup ecosystem. But it’s clear that Nvidia, one of the world’s most valuable companies with control of about 95% of the market for AI chips, is playing for keeps — attempting to shore up dominance by spreading its financial influence far and wide.

I’d say its rivals have their work cut out for them.



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