Startup by Key Apple and Google Chip Designers Catches Qualcomm’s Eye

January 25, 2021 by Luke James

In a $1.4 billion deal, Qualcomm recently announced that it will acquire NUVIA, an Arm-based startup led by three of Apple and Google’s foremost chip designers.

Qualcomm's purchase of NUVIA is expected to help the company build on its prominent Snapdragon technology and deliver improvements in both CPU performance and power efficiency. 

In the press release, Qualcomm also emphasized the need to build on its general computing abilities so that it can meet the demands of next-generation 5G and AI-led technologies. The convergence of computing, 5G, and mobile architectures are notable opportunities for Qualcomm, the announcement by CEO Cristiano Amon reads.


NUVIA's History of Design Excellence

NUVIA is barely two years old, having been founded in February 2019. For most of the year, its existence was unknown with news of the company first covered in a Forbes review in mid-November of the same year.

The startup was founded by Gerard Williams III, John Bruno, and Manu Gulati, three well-known chip industry veterans who between them have vast experience at Apple, Google, Arm, AMD, and Broadcom. Williams in particular was Apple’s chief architect for over a decade, acting as the company’s lead designer on all of its CPUs up to the A13


NUVIA’s leadership

NUVIA’s leadership: CEO Gerard Williams III (left), Manu Gulati (middle), and John Bruno (right). Image used courtesy of NUVIA


Initially, the startup made bold claims that the design of its “Phoenix” IP—a new server system-on-chip (SoC) with a new CPU core—would be able to massively outperform big-name competitors in terms of both performance and power efficiency

While claims of this nature would usually be met with a healthy dose of cynicism from industry commentators, the big names at the core of NUVIA’s design team—names which have also enabled the company to recruit additional top talent from across the industry—gave these claims far more credibility.

Between them, the trio has driven system engineering and design for more than 20 chips and is behind more than 100 patents. 


What Will Qualcomm Gain?

According to Qualcomm’s announcement, NUVIA’s technology will be used across the company’s entire line of chips with a particular focus on its 5G Snapdragon architecture. NUVIA’s leadership and employees are also expected to join NUVIA. The wide application of Qualcomm’s chip portfolio will likely mean that NUVIA CPUs may soon end up in smartphones, autonomous vehicles, data centers, and infrastructure networking systems. 

The acquisition will mark the second time that Qualcomm has embarked on designing its own Arm-based CPUs. While the company has built these previously, more recent years have seen the chipmaker use CPUs that are closer to the Arm Cortex A-series, including in the prominent Snapdragon line-up. 


Performance per watt of NUVIA's Phoenix

Performance per watt of NUVIA's Phoenix compared to similar devices from Apple, Intel, AMD, and Qualcomm. Image used courtesy of NUVIA

“Creating high performance, low-power processors and highly integrated, complex SoCs are part of our DNA,” said Qualcomm’s CTO, Jim Thompson. 

“Adding NUVIA’s deep understanding of the high-performance design and integrating NUVIA CPUs with Snapdragon—together with our industry-leading graphics and AI—will take computing performance to a new level and drive new capabilities for products that serve multiple industries,” he added. 


How NUVIA May Help Qualcomm Level Up Its CPUs

With NUVIA on board, Qualcomm may now have the IP to compete with the likes of Apple and AMD when it comes to CPU design. Developing its own CPUs will also mean that Qualcomm will no longer be reliant on NVIDIA-controlled Arm.

Indeed, despite promises from NVIDIA not to compete unfairly as Arm’s owner, it would make sense for Qualcomm to diverge from Arm-based CPUs given that the company is now up against NVIDIA in the data center and automotive industries with its own SoCs. 


NUVIA's testing methodologies

NUVIA's testing methodologies of their CPUs against competitors include isolating the CPU complex’s power and shrinking the amount of power consumption from the outside. Image used courtesy of NUVIA

While the acquisition represents an opportunity for Qualcomm to have greater control over its future, what it will mean in terms of technology remains to be seen. And given the length of CPU design cycles, it’ll be quite some time until we see how things pan out.

On the other hand, the acquisition is a glowing endorsement of NUVIA from one of the industry’s leading innovators and will provide access to a rich bank of IP and engineering resources. The deal is currently pending approval by U.S. regulators.