Data center AI chip and system company SambaNova has announced an enormous Series D funding round of $676 million, pushing the company’s valuation above $5 billion.
SambaNova is one of several AI chip companies that have become unicorns in the last few years – the others include British startup Graphcore and Chinese companies Cambricon and Horizon Robotics. But the SambaNova announcement propels the company into another league – the company is now one of the best-funded AI chip companies in the world with more than $1.1 billion raised.
“We’re here to revolutionize the AI market, and this round greatly accelerates that mission,” said Rodrigo Liang, SambaNova co-founder and CEO, in a statement. “Traditional CPU and GPU architectures have reached their computational limits. To truly unleash AI’s potential to solve humanity’s greatest technology challenges, a new approach is needed. We’ve figured out that approach, and it’s exciting to see a wealth of prudent investors validate that.”
The company said in a statement that it would use the funding to “aggressively challenge legacy competitors,” presumably referring to Intel and Nvidia who hold market-leading positions in data center CPUs and GPUs, respectively, for AI processing at scale.
Investors recognize that taking on these companies will need a huge amount of resources. The AI chip industry attracts a huge amount of investment compared to other sectors of the semiconductor industry.
SambaNova’s closest AI startup competitor in terms of funding is Chinese startup Horizon Robotics. Horizon Robotics, which unlike SambaNova focuses on AI chips for self-driving vehicles, closed a Series C in February 2021 having raised $700m. Horizon Robotics’ total funding is reportedly above SambaNova’s total at around $1.6 billion.
Data center AI competitor Graphcore’s last funding round, a series E completed at the end of 2020, raised $222 million bringing the British startup’s total raised to $710 million with a valuation around $2.77 billion. At the time, this was similar to SambaNova’s valuation, but today’s announcement has propelled SambaNova ahead.
Meanwhile, Cambricon listed on China’s new Star Market stock exchange for tech startups in an IPO last summer that raised $367 million. At the time of IPO, Cambricon’s valuation was around $3.65 billion.
SambaNova’s Series D was led by SoftBank Vision Fund 2 with additional new investors Temasek and GIC. Some of the funding came from existing investors, which include BlackRock, Intel Capital, GV (Google Ventures), Walden International and WRVI.
Founded in 2017 by Rodrigo Liang along with Stanford Professors Kunle Olukoton and Chris Ré, SambaNova came out of stealth in December 2020. The company’s product is a system-level AI accelerator for data center and HPC applications called DataScale. DataScale is based on the company’s Cardinal SN10 reconfigurable dataflow unit chip and its scale allows for the biggest networks such as natural language processing (NLP) models to be run with high accuracy. Alongside the rack-based DataScale product, SambaNova rents its hardware for a monthly fee, a business model the company calls “Dataflow-as-a-service”.