A Year in Good Company

Bringing cool back to semiconductors with SiFive

San Francisco, Brannan Street. While Giants fans pour out of AT&T Park, SiFive employees walk out of the office after another long day of coding. Building a startup isn’t glamorous, and it’s understood that only those who put in the hard work and extra effort will make it through.

As academics at the University of California, Berkeley, we were very fortunate to have the kind support from our research sponsors, tool vendors, and fabs to build RISC-V chips. It didn’t take us that long to realize that the hackers, makers, even small companies didn’t have the same luxury to build their own custom chips. That’s what got us to start SiFive: to democratize access to custom silicon. However, the “real world” proved that starting a semiconductor company as a business isn’t so simple.

Last year, we met investor after investor trying to convince them that a new business model for building custom chips centered around open-source was not only possible, but necessary to bring innovative ideas back to the stagnant semiconductor industry. But unfortunately, time after time, as soon as the investors heard the word “hardware,” the conversation was over. We quickly discovered that most of the “Silicon” Valley investors lacked confidence in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the way we build custom silicon as we approach the end of Moore’s law.

That is, until my fellow co-founders — Krste Asanović and Andrew Waterman — and I met Sutter Hill Ventures.

With investing in semiconductors having fallen out of favor in recent years, Sutter Hill’s decision to fund SiFive was considered bold by some; however, Sutter Hill Ventures has a successful history of investing in forward-thinking technologies (having backed companies like Nvidia and Pure Storage), and their team recognized the opportunity in our vision for democratizing access to custom silicon.

So, with a term sheet and a small team, we hit the ground running.

It’s amazing and heartening to see the progress SiFive and the RISC-V community have made in just a year. At the 3rd RISC-V Workshop held in January, sixteen companies joined the RISC-V foundation to discuss the open-source instruction set architecture — and attention has only grown since. By the 4th RISC-V Workshop in July, that number had grown to 41 companies in the foundation, 60+ companies in attendance, and 40+ universities represented. The roster included visionaries like SiFive as well as some of the biggest names in the business — companies like AMD, Google, HPE, IBM, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Oracle and Microsoft — all supporting alternatives to the traditional ways of developing chips.

Also at the 4th Workshop, we formally introduced our vision to the world, launching our first customizable SoC platforms — Freedom Unleashed and Freedom Everywhere. We announced partnerships with TSMC and our first customer, Microsemi. A RISC-V supporter from the start, Microsemi worked closely with us to ensure our first successful commercial delivery.

Since then, we’ve seen continued growth and momentum as a company, accelerating our internal expansion to meet the burgeoning market demand. We’ve grown from a core group of four employees a year ago to more than 20 today, all working to push boundaries and exceed expectations. What we learned through this growth is that we are not only enabling our employees to create and innovate the way they’ve always aspired to, but we’re also enabling a younger generation of innovators — the two hackers working out of their garage to build the next big thing with the power of custom silicon — to succeed. We are bringing cool back to semiconductors.

It hasn’t always been an easy road. Like any startup, we’ve had late nights and long weekends, but we’ve invested our hearts and souls in the Freedom family of platforms. We’re convinced that we will invigorate the semiconductor market and that we will show the world that #AlternativesReallyMatter. We want to provide an alternative solution by bringing the power of open-source and agile hardware design to the semiconductor industry. Our goal is to make custom silicon available to all — from large companies to early stage startups, inventors, as well as makers — by providing open access to our Freedom platforms.

But the journey’s not over yet — the 5th RISC-V Workshop is coming up quickly and we have some exciting news in store. If you’re interested in seeing what all the fuss is about, take a look at our developer site and forums for additional information.