CHIPMAKERS: CEO BUSCH COURTS NEW INVESTORS FOR 2020
Tuesday, January 21, 2020
Kurt Busch, chief executive of closely watched artificial intelligence semiconductor company Syntiant Corp. of Irvine, went to Las Vegas this month. His goal: to round up potential investors, partners and customers at the massive CES technology show for his voice-activated chips that help control smartphones, hearing aids and dozens of other products.
For a company whose core product can be used to activate devices with a single “command word,” there was plenty of talking for Busch at CES: he and his team held more than 90 meetings over the course of the multi-day event.
“We’re starting to work on our next round of financing—and that was the investor I really want,” Busch told the Business Journal shortly after wrapping up one meeting with an undisclosed firm.
Busch said the company is planning to close the next round toward the middle of this year. He declined to provide a valuation target, but said the company has made considerable progress since the last capital boost, including doubling in team size and releasing the first product to production. The Business Journal expects the next funding round to give Syntiant a valuation well north of $100 million.
Busch said the company already has some “great investors” for its machine-learning processors for what are called “always-on” battery-powered devices, responding to various voice commands for hands-free functions.
“We raised $30 million so far. Intel Capital led the (Series) A round. Microsoft led the B round. Amazon Alexa Fund, Bosch, Applied Materials and Motorola all participated in the B round,” Busch said during an interview inside the Intel Capital suite at the Venetian Hotel.
Next Gen Chips
“While you use a touch screen today, the touch screen of the future is a voice interface,” Busch said. “That is what Syntiant is bringing. We have working silicon.”
“The market today for battery-powered processors is about $100 billion per year,” Busch said. He estimates that by 2030 about 60% of that will be for processors like the ones Syntiant is offering.
The company has about 60 employees, with most of them in Irvine, and plans to stay here as it expands to about 120 people.
“We’ve been marketing the chip now for over a year. And we have dozens of design wins and our customers are going to production in this quarter,” he said. “Every quarter, new customers will be bringing products out with the Syntiant chip inside.”
As an example of potential users, he said in the past an elderly grandmother would touch and press “volume up” or “volume down” on her hearing aid.
“Now, she’ll be able to just say, volume up, volume down,” according to Busch. “Not only will it recognize those words, but it will be tuned to her speaker ID. So, you can’t whisper in her ear and say volume up, volume down, she’ll have to do it herself.”
Eventually, he said, the technology could be used to start your car.
“We’re bringing a voice interface to any type of product,” he said.
“We’re working with a customer that makes an entertainment robot that responds differently to the parents than to the children. So, the speaker ID recognizes it. If I talk to it, it says ‘hello, Kurt’ and if you would talk to it, it says ‘hello, Kevin.’”
So far, the company has had “very little revenue,” Busch notes.
“We expect decent revenue this year, though we’re not giving any numbers.”
As CES was getting underway, Syntiant announced a partnership with Sensory Inc. of Santa Clara to handle voice commands in dozens of languages for battery-powered devices, using Syntiant’s silicon technology.
“They are extending our capabilities,” Busch said of Sensory. “We offer words in English and Chinese. Sensory can offer multiple languages, dozens of languages and dozens of words. It really gives our customers the opportunity to have a much more full-featured voice interface.”
The CEO’s view of the future: “A busy mom in Korea setting a house alarm or teenager in Barcelona raising the volume on his smart speaker—voice commands are becoming more ubiquitous driven by worldwide consumer demands.”
Syntiant says the company’s processors—known as NDP100 and NDP101 microwatt-power Neural Decision Processors (NDPs)—are being shipped to customers globally.
“We’re really targeting the low-power applications, battery-powered applications. For us, it’s battery-powered, always-on applications,” the Syntiant CEO said. “That’s a huge market for us.”
The processors have been designed into a wide range of battery-powered devices, such as earbuds, laptops, mobile phones and smart speakers, according to the company.
They consume a tiny amount of energy—less than 140 microwatts—while increasing privacy, reliability and responsiveness free from a cloud connection.
Syntiant’s “wake word” offering, which brings the Alexa electronic assistant back into action, received Amazon qualification.
That means Syntiant’s low-power chips can be used in Alexa-connected products ranging from hearing aids, to ear buds, watches, cellphones and laptops.