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Qualcomm buys a startup founded by former Apple chip designers

Engadget logo Engadget 1/14/2021 Steve Dent
a sign on the side of a building: A view of one of Qualcomm's many buildings in San Diego, California, July 22, 2008. Investors in Qualcomm, already expecting strong quarterly results July 23 for the wireless chip and technology supplier, will likely be focusing on its current quarter forecasts and its court case with Nokia in Delaware on the same day.   REUTERS/Mike Blake   (UNITED STATES) A view of one of Qualcomm's many buildings in San Diego, California, July 22, 2008. Investors in Qualcomm, already expecting strong quarterly results July 23 for the wireless chip and technology supplier, will likely be focusing on its current quarter forecasts and its court case with Nokia in Delaware on the same day. REUTERS/Mike Blake (UNITED STATES)

Qualcomm has announced an acquisition that’s bound to make ripples in the chip world — even though you may not have heard of the company it acquired. Qualcomm paid $1.4 billion for Nuvia, a startup founded by three engineers who worked on Apple’s A-series processors that power the iPhone and iPad. It plans to use Nuvia’s technology in future chips for devices ranging from vehicles to smartphones to laptops.

Nuvia was founded by CEO Gerard Williams III, along with senior VPs Manu Gulati and John Bruno, with the original plan to build more efficient data center processors. All held high positions in Apple’s silicon design division. Williams previously worked at ARM on the Cortex-A15 and other cores, and later became the Apple’s chief architecture for its CPU and chipset design — covering chips from the A7 to the current A14. Gulati and Bruno worked under Williams until 2017.

“CPU performance leadership will be critical in defining and delivering on the next era of computing innovation,” said Williams. “The combination of NUVIA and Qualcomm will bring the industry’s best engineering talent, technology and resources together to create a new class of high-performance computing platforms that set the bar for our industry.”

Their experience and background could explain why Qualcomm was willing to pay such a sum for a company that was founded less than two years ago. Nuvia has also designed its own cores (based on ARM designs) and recently published preliminary results from its “Phoenix” CPU, claiming double the performance per watt of rival chips. While Qualcomm has been using ARM Cortex designs in its processors for years, Apple designed its own ARM-based cores for its A-series chips — which are generally acknowledged to have better performance than Qualcomm designs.

The deal with Nuvia could help Qualcomm build more efficient chips, while relying less on ARM designs. That could be crucial for Qualcomm given that chip rival NVIDIA has acquired ARM (pending regulatory approval). While Nuvia originally founded the company to build server chips, Qualcomm said it will use Nuvia’s technology to power “flagship smartphones, next-generation laptops and digital cockpits, as well as advanced driver assistance systems, extended reality and infrastructure networking solutions.”

The announcement included statements of support from a number of Qualcomm partners including Microsoft, Google, Samsung, ASUS and General Motors — all of which are likely keen to see better performance from Qualcomm compared to Apple.

Apple sued Williams back in 2019 for breach of contract, saying he tried to poach Apple employees for Nuvia before he left the company. Nuvia, meanwhile, filed a countersuit accusing Apple of essentially doing the same thing in return.

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