Startup Funding: April 2021

5G, ReRAM, and AI processors shine in April; 22 startups raise over $2.3B.


April showers brought mega fundraising rounds to the semiconductor industry. In China, a mobile chipset maker looking to go public won significant funding along with partnerships with major smartphone companies. In the US, AI hardware startups are drawing interest with unique processor architectures and business models. Plus, a major test and design services company drew new investment. This month, we take a look at 22 companies that collectively raised over $2.3B.

Semi & design
Unisoc raised CNY 5.4B (~$814.6M) in new funding, with Guosheng Capital, Country Garden Venture Capital, Haier Financial, and W&W Fund among the participants. The fabless company designs a range of chipsets for mobile and IoT/IIoT applications, including 5G mobile and baseband as well as NB-IoT. It is currently working with Xiaomi and OPPO on a sub-6GHz 5G chip. Formerly known as Spreadtrum before its acquisition by Tsinghua Unigroup, Unisoc is based in Shanghai, China. It is reportedly preparing to list on the Shanghai STAR market later this year.

Memory startup Innostar Semiconductor raised $100.0M in a pre-Series A round led by Shanghai Lianhe Investment and joined by New Alliance as well as new investors Atlas Capital and KQ Capital. The company will use the funding for development of resistive RAM (ReRAM) and storage chips. “We hope that we can design new generation memory chip products and improve storage technology, as well as advance ecosystem in partnerships with semiconductor designers and manufacturers,” said Innostar founder and CEO Xiang Zhang. The company said it has also received backing from Crossbar Asia Pacific, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Lam Research, SAIF Partners China, Northern Light Venture Capital, CBC Capital, and Oriza Ventures. Based in Shanghai, China, the company was founded in 2019.

Tessolve received a $40.0M private equity investment from Novo Tellus Capital Partners. Tessolve, which started as a semiconductor test services provider, now offers a range of chip design, systems engineering, and test services. The funding will be used to expand its chip and ASIC design business and embedded services offerings, fund acquisitions, and expand in both India and global markets. Founded in 2004, the company is based in Bengaluru, India. Venture company Hero Electronix holds a majority ownership of Tessolve, which last year acquired Test & Verification Solutions (T&VS).

Security processor startup Axiado raised $20.0M in Series B funding led by Orbit Venture Partners and joined by individual investors including Dave Welch and Dick Kramlich. Axiado developed a processor targeted at edge IIoT systems and coprocessor for servers, PCs, and mobile devices that provides a hardware root of trust with key management, secure I/O hub, and machine, device, and user identity. They also include an AI engine that detects anomalies by analyzing behavioral patterns. “This funding will enable us to grow our operations and productize our technology with partners as we are advancing our products to the cloud data center, 5G base station, network security, and IoT markets,” said Axiado CEO Gopi Sirineni. Founded in 2017 and based in San Jose, Calif, it has raised $33.0M.

Ideal Semiconductor raised $11.8M in venture funding from Applied Ventures. The startup says it has created a new technology for energy conversion in electronic systems that provides increased energy efficiency and can be implemented in various semiconductor materials, including standard silicon. “Ideal’s SuperQ Technology has the potential to bring an exciting innovation to the high-voltage power industry similar to what we saw with Super Junction Technology 20 years ago,” said Michael Stewart, Investment Director at Applied Ventures. Based in Bethlehem, Pa., and founded in 2016, Ideal Semiconductor has raised over $26M to date.

IoT connectivity company RAKwireless drew $10.0M in a Series A round led by led by Creo Capital, the venture arm of NWS Holdings Limited, followed by Shunwei. The company provides modular IoT solutions including LoRa, LPWAN, and sensors. “With this round of funding, we aim to build a truly one-stop service factory, enabling us not only to create and produce better products, but also to provide custom design, assembly service and more to our customers,” said RAKwireless CEO Ken Yu. Founded in 2014, it is based in Shenzhen, China.

MEMS startup Vesper received $8.0M in financing led by Applied Ventures and joined by Accomplice, Amazon Alexa Fund, Bose Ventures, Sands Capital, and others. The company makes piezoelectric MEMS sensors for pervasive voice interfaces and acoustic event-detection products. Vesper recently introduced an analog piezoelectric voice accelerometer, or bone conduction sensor, as its first non-microphone product. The funds will be used to scale the mass production of its microphones and support expanded research and development, hiring, international sales offices, as well as grow customer support. Based in Boston, Mass., and founded in 2009, Vesper has raised $65M to date.

Odyssey Semiconductor Technologies raised $5.0M in a private placement. Publicly traded on the OTCQB Venture Market as ODII since August 2020, the funding was for 1.25 million shares at $4.00 per share. The company makes high-voltage vertically-conducting power switching components based on gallium nitride (GaN). The devices are targeted at applications such as EVs and renewables, and the funds will be used for further development and production of engineering samples this year. It also owns and operates a 10,000 sq ft wafer fab, through which it offers foundry services. Based in Ithaca, N.Y., and founded in 2019, it has raised $7.5M to date.

Movellus will receive a $3.0M investment from the University of Michigan’s Accelerate Blue Fund, starting with an initial $150K investment. Along with providing PLL and DLL IP, the company has a platform to orchestrate clock distribution in SoC designs. The platform combines a clock architecture, software automation, and application-optimized IP to solve common clock distribution challenges while scaling to high-performance multi-GHz frequencies. Movellus was founded in 2014 and is based in San Jose, Calif.

AI hardware
AI platform startup SambaNova Systems raised $676.0M in a Series D round led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2 and joined by Temasek Holdings and GIC along with existing backers BlackRock, Intel Capital, GV (formerly Google Ventures), Walden International, and WRVI. SambaNova’s ‘Dataflow-as-a-Service’ offers a subscription-based, extensible AI services platform based on the company’s software-defined Reconfigurable Dataflow Unit (RDU) processor paired with optimized AI algorithms. SambaNova chairman Lip-Bu Tan said the company’s aim is to “make AI accessible for any organization.” Founded in 2017 and based in Palo Alto, Calif., SambaNova has raised over $1B.

AI chipmaker Groq raised $300.0M in a Series C round led by Tiger Global Management and D1 Capital, with participation from The Spruce House Partnership, Addition, GCM Grosvenor, Xn, Firebolt Ventures, General Global Capital, Tru Arrow Partners, TDK Ventures, XTX Ventures, Boardman Bay Capital Management, and Infinitum Partners. Groq developed a tensor streaming processor (TSP) architecture that uses a single large processor with hundreds of functional units, which the company says increases performance (up to 1,000 TOPS) and energy efficiency while reducing latency and making the inference chip easier to program. The funding will be used for hiring, market expansion, and second-generation product development; the company currently provides PCIe cards and nodes containing eight cards in a single chassis. Founded in 2016 and based in Mountain View, Calif, it has raised over $360M.

Vastai Technologies raised CNY 500M (~$77.3M) in a Series A+ round led by Matrix China Partners and China Internet Investment Fund and joined by 5Y Capital, Redpoint China Ventures, Glory Ventures, SAIF Partners China, Sirius Capital, and Yuan Capital. Vastai develops AI, computer vision, and video processing chips and plans to release a cloud-based AI chip later this year. The proceeds will be used to further chip development, explore other applications, and for hiring. Based in Shanghai, China and founded in 2018, it has raised at least $127M.

Neuchips drew $14.0M in venture funding from 15 investors. The startup is developing AI inference accelerators and last year launched one targeted for deep learning recommendation models running in data centers that it says can perform 500,000 inferences per second. Neuchips is also working on edge neural network accelerator IP as well as a high-efficiency CNN architecture. Based in Hsinchu, Taiwan, the startup was founded in 2019.

Anari AI drew $2.0M in seed funding led by Earlybird, with participation from Acequia Capital, Serbian Entrepreneurs, and investor Eric Ries. The startup provides a cloud-based platform for designing, customizing, and deploying AI-problem-specific hardware. Anari uses a Python-based programming framework, which it says makes it easier for software engineers to design hardware. Anari says its first configurable chip can provide 100x more efficient processing of 3D Point Cloud/Graph data structures compared to a high-end GPU. Based in Novi Sad, Serbia, it was founded in 2020.

Axera completed pre-A and Series A funding, raising “hundreds of millions” of yuan (CNY 100M is ~$15.5M). The rounds were led by Qiming Venture Partners and Beijing Heju Investment and joined by Legend Star, Glory Ventures, Zoo Capital, and Cedarlake Capital. The startup is focused on chips for edge computer vision, including applications like facial recognition and object detection, but also says it’s working on a neural network accelerator. Founded in 2019, Axera is based in Beijing, China.

EasyMile drew €55.0M (~$66.4M) in a Series B round led by Searchlight Capital Partners and joined by McWin and NextStage, along with existing investors including Alstom, Bpifrance, and Continental. EasyMile currently offers an electric autonomous tow tractor for airports and logistics centers, as well as L4 driverless passenger shuttles for spaces such as universities, corporate campuses, hospitals, and parks. Based in Toulouse, France, and founded in 2014, it has raised $91M.

Industrial autonomous vehicle company Oxbotica received a £10.0M (~$13.8M) Series B investment from grocery delivery company Ocado Group. The online grocery platform is partnering with the autonomous driving startup on a range of vehicles including those that would operate within fulfillment centers and for last-mile logistics. Ocado will outfit some of its current delivery and warehouse vehicles with devices to capture data, which Oxbotica will use in development and testing. Based in Oxford, UK, Oxbotica was founded in 2014.

Electric powertrain maker IRP Systems raised $31.0M in Series C funding led by Clal Insurance and Altshuler Shaham and joined by Samsung Ventures, Carasso Motors, and Shlomo Group, along with existing investors Entrée Capital, Fosun RZ Capital, JAL Ventures, Tal Capital, Union Tech Ventures, Cendana Capital, and Champion Motors. The company currently offers a line of off-the-shelf powertrains for e-scooters, e-motorcycles, and quadricycles, and develops custom solutions for EVs and HEVs. Based in Ness Ziona, Israel, and founded in 2008, the company has raised $51M in total.

EV battery maker SES (formerly SolidEnergy Systems) raised $139.0M in a Series D round led by General Motors and joined by existing investors SK Holdings, Temasek Holdings, Applied Ventures, SAIC Motor, and Vertex Ventures. The company provides materials for lithium metal batteries, as well as cells, modules, recycling processes, and AI algorithms that optimize battery safety and charging. As part of a joint development agreement, GM will build a manufacturing prototyping line in Woburn, Mass., where SES has a location. Funding will be used to improve the lithium metal electrolyte and scale up the cell. Founded in 2012 and based in Singapore, it has raised over $225M.

Gridtential Energy raised $12.0M in note financing led by 1955 Capital with participation from Silicon Valley Bank, Crown Battery, East Penn Manufacturing, The Roda Group, and investors David Marquardt and Yumin Liu. The company makes an Absorbent Glass Mat (AGM) battery based on ‘Silicon Joule’ technology that replaces metal grids in conventional lead batteries with specially processed silicon wafers and a stacked-cell architecture to reduce weight, speed charging, and extend cycle life. Gridtential is positioning its technology as a replacement for lithium-ion in transportation and energy storage. The latest funding will support a new production line of advanced lead reference batteries, including a factory-ready single-block 24V deep-cycle lead battery. Founded in 2010 and based in Santa Clara, Calif., it has raised $28M.

Standard Energy raised $8.9M in Series C funding from Softbank Ventures Asia for its vanadium ion battery. The company says vanadium ion batteries have less risk of ignition than lithium ion, higher capacity retention, provide 96% energy efficiency, and use more easily sourceable materials. However, vanadium batteries aren’t aimed as a replacement to Li-ion, as they are not as compact. Instead, they’re targeted at energy storage systems for renewables and grid, as well as EV fast-charging stations. Based in Daejeon, South Korea, and founded in 2013 by researchers from KAIST and MIT, it has raised $22.5M.

Battery startup Volexion raised $1.1M in seed funding from Clean Energy Ventures and Energy Foundry, part of an expected $2.2M investment. The company has developed a graphene coating for lithium-ion batteries that increases energy and power density, as well as cycle life and safety. The coating acts as a protective layer around battery cathode materials to suppress material and electrolyte degradation. It can be integrated into existing battery manufacturing processes. Based in Chicago, Ill., Volexion was founded in 2018.

Table 1: Selected companies that received funding in April 2021.

Silicon Catalyst added six new companies to its portfolio. The semiconductor-focused incubator aims to lower the capital expenses associated with the design and fabrication of ICs, sensors, and MEMS devices by providing tools and services from a network of partners.

  • AlphaICs – inference AI processors
  • Lelantos – CMOS piezoelectric gas sensors
  • Oculi – edge vision SoCs
  • Salience Labs – hybrid photonic-electronic chip for AI
  • Sonical – earbud audio processing and app platform
  • Visual Dawn – soft contact lenses with AR

CTC Capital closed a $539M fund, which will target semiconductor companies providing solutions for AI, data centers, 5G, IoT, and smart autos. The VC is based in Shanghai, China.

AI applications
Investors put big financing behind a wide range of companies using AI in their products. Tools to help companies manage and deploy ML models continue to draw lots of investment. Home-based guided fitness, cybersecurity threat detection, and pharmaceutical research companies were among those drawing $100M+ rounds.

  • Group 42 raised a $800.0M investment for its AI and cloud computing platform for analytics in a range of industries including government, health, fintech, energy, and sports.
  • Trax raised $640.0M in Series E for its computer vision platform that provides shelf-monitoring and dynamic merchandising analytics for retailers.
  • Cera raised $361.4M in private equity funding for its in-home health care services that use AI in diagnostics and patient monitoring.
  • Scale AI raised $325.0M in Series E for its platform that provides labeled datasets and helps companies build and manage AI models.
  • Fiture raised $300.0M in Series B for its home fitness smart mirror that uses AI to guide workouts.
  • ActiveCampaign raised $240.0M in Series C for its email and marketing automation platform.
  • Exscientia raised $225.0M in Series D for AI and big data small molecule drug discovery.
  • Tempo raised $220.0M in Series C for its home fitness system that uses 3D sensors and AI to provide personalized workouts.
  • CloudMinds raised $152.6M in Series B for its cloud-based robotics, facial and voice recognition, and temperature scanning platforms.
  • Shumei raised $135.0M in Series D for its real-time content moderation API to filter images, video, text, and audio for objectionable content.
  • Vectra raised $130.0M in Series F for AI-driven cybersecurity threat detection and response for cloud, data centers, and IoT applications.
  • Deep Instinct raised $100.0M in Series D for its end-to-end cybersecurity framework it says can protect against zero-day and previously unknown threats while reducing false positives.
  • Phenom raised $100.0M in Series D for its HR management platform that uses AI in the hiring and recruitment process.
  • Caresyntax raised $100.0M in Series C for its software to manage and analyze surgical and operating room data.
  • StoneWise raised $100.0M in Series B for its small molecule drug discovery and design software.
  • Gaussian Robot raised $100.0M in Series B for its commercial cleaning robots.

Find our prior startup funding reports here.
Israel: Startup Powerhouse
Cerfe Labs: Spin-On Memory
Moov: Used Equipment Digital Marketplace Startup
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