Author: Tronserve admin
Monday 14th June 2021 06:57 PM
US Chip Startup Exploits Trade War To Expand in China
American chip startup SiFive views an opportunity to gain ground in China amid the intensifying trade war by offering an open-source alternative for chip design that could help reduce the country's reliance on Western technology.
The California-based company provides design services for chips, such as for instance those used in mobile devices and storage centers, based on the RISC-V chip architecture. Because RISC-V is open source - this means anyone in the world can access it freely - Chinese companies extremely see it as a possible alternative to global chip leaders Intel and Arm Technologies for powering their devices. This is in particular important as Washington steps up its restrictions on exports of U.S. technology to China.
In May the U.S. Commerce Department placed Huawei Technologies on its so-called Entity List, which bars American companies from transporting technology to it without a special license. Five more Chinese companies were most recently added to the list. These restrictions, nevertheless, don't apply to open source technology, according to Kevin Wolf, a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of commerce and partner at law company Akin Gump.
"Technology that is 'published' and openly accessible is not subject to the Export Administration Regulations and thus not affected by Entity List prohibitions," Wolf said. Because the RISC-V chip architecture falls under the "published" category, it could actually serve as a potential chip alternative for Huawei - though the company has indicated it will continue using Arm-based chips in its devices for the time being. SiFive was founded in 2015 by three academics at the University of California, Berkeley who initially developed RISC-V.
SiFive delivers its counterpart in China with intellectual property related to its design services. "I think there is a common misunderstanding in the market that the U.S. Entity List is a blanket ban, like a wall between U.S. and China, but it's not. It's more like a gate, there are things allowed through and there are things not," Sherwani said.
If SiFive is ever prevented from such transfers in the future, the company's thinking goes, SiFive China will still be able to serve Chinese customers. SiFive at this moment has three offices in China, with its headquarters in Shanghai. The company said it will open more Chinese offices as the country pushes ahead with its national goal of semiconductor independence.
SiFive told the Nikkei Asian Review that it will publicize a 5G chip based on the RISC-V architecture before long. Although the company may not be able to export the chips right to China, most of their design could be transferred to SiFive China, and the local team trained to build the chips within the country, SiFive said. "China has some of the best universities in the world and is producing some of the best PhDs. There are obviously a lot of smart people living there, and it's a question of hiring them, training them, putting them in the structure and getting the work done," Sherwani said.
Earlier this month SiFive raised $65.4 million in a Series D funding round from existing backers such as Sutter Hill Ventures and Chengwei Capital, and new investor Qualcomm. SiFive has also previously received investment from Intel, Samsung and Western Digital and has raised a total of more than $125 million since 2016.
While SiFive does not have any exposure to Huawei, the company said it is open to the possibilities of working together through SiFive China. Huawei rejected to remark for this article. Not everyone is confident that RISC-V will have a way to fill Arm's shoes in China, however. "RISC-V is new and might not be ready yet, especially for the 5G phones," said Neil Shah, research director at Counterpoint, an Asia-based technology analysis company.
But Sherwani thinks RISC-V will soon catch up. "It took Arm 25 years to get here. RISC-V started in 2010, but it was just an academic project and didn't really start in full speed until three years ago," he said. "And in three years, RISC-V has got close to the Arm v8 processor, and we think we will be on equivalent or beyond v8 in about a year."
Source: NIKKEI ASIAN REVIEW