Today Qualcomm has announced they will be acquiring NUVIA for $1.4bn – acquiring the start-up company consisting of industry veterans which originally were behind the creation of Apple’s high-performance CPU cores. The transaction has important ramifications for Qualcomm’s future in high-performance computing both in mobile, as well as laptop segment, with a possible re-entry into the server market.

NUVIA was originally founded in February 2019 and coming out of stealth-mode in November of that year. The start-up was founded by industry veterans Gerard Williams III, John Bruno and Manu Gulati, having extensive industry experience at Google, Apple, Arm, Broadcom and AMD.

Gerard Williams III in particular was the chief architect for over a decade at Apple, having been the lead architect on all of Apple’s CPU designs up to the Lightning core in the A13 – with the newer Apple A14 and Apple M1 Firestorm cores possibly also having been in the pipeline under his direction.

NUVIA had been able to recruit a lot of top industry talent from various CPU design teams across the industry, and had planned to enter the high-performance computing and enterprise market with a new server SoC with a new CPU core dubbed “Phoenix”.

NUVIA particularly had made aggressive claims about how their design would be able to significantly outperform the competition both in raw performance and power efficiency once it came to market – usually such claims are always to be taken with scepticism, however due to the members of the design team and talent having proven themselves in the form of Apple’s very successful CPU microarchitectures, there’s a lot more weight and credibility to them compared to other start-ups.

As a new entity in the industry, the company always had an uphill battle against the established giants, so even though they could have had talent and the technology, it’s not a guarantee that they would have been successful in business. I admit that the during the initial company announcement back in 2019 I did think to myself that it would have been possible that the team is looking to get acquired by another big player, which ended up happening today.

Qualcomm’s Gain and Possibilities

Qualcomm’s purchase of the whole company for 1.4bn USD can very much be seen as an endorsement to NUVIA’s talent and claims, and could mark an important shift in the industry, vastly expanding the possibilities of the combined entities compared to as if they were separate entities.

From Qualcomm’s perspective, it’s a bit of a bitter-sweet deal that follows the company’s failed Centriq business which back in 2018 had taken critical blows and cancellations as the company had to cut costs and lay off significant amount of people amongst their data-center unit.

At the time, Qualcomm was still maintaining a custom CPU microarchitecture team for server SoCs, having a few years earlier abandoned their efforts at custom CPUs for mobile, given Arm’s more power efficient and better PPA (Performance, Power, Area) advantages of licensable Cortex cores. Eventually the design teams fizzled out with the years, leaving Qualcomm no longer having the capability to design custom CPU microarchitectures, on top of them also never being all that competitive.

Qualcomm now acquiring NUVIA gives them the possibility to take advantage of the start-up’s early work in the server space, possibly reinvigorating the company’s ambitions in the server space, and giving them a second shot at the market. It’s to be noted however that in today’s press release about the acquisition there had been no mention of server or enterprise plans.

Furthermore, the move also has larger repercussions in the consumer space, with Qualcomm claiming that NUVIA CPU designs are expected to be deployed in flagship mobile SoCs and next generation laptops, as well as other industrial applications such as digital cockpits and ADAS.

In essence, Qualcomm is looking to leverage NUVIA’s CPUs to replace Arm’s current Cortex CPU IP and gain a competitive advantage in terms of performance. This is an important point of the transaction as it means that Qualcomm has confidence that NUVIA’s CPU designs and roadmap would be competitive or exceed that of Arm’s offerings, and put forth the money and investment towards those goals.

There’s also two more aspects in Qualcomm’s consideration for the purchase: With Nvidia’s plans to acquire Arm Holdings announced last September, this would give Qualcomm an important level of independence and safety in regards to their future product roadmaps – just in case Nvidia would make substantial changes to the CPU IP licensing model.

Secondly, Apple’s recent move to ditch x86 in favour of their own Arm-based Apple Silicon SoCs, starting with the new Apple M1 and planning to make a complete product transition in the coming 2 years has greatly pushed the Arm ecosystem forward. While Qualcomm to date has released laptop-specific Snapdragon designs, they still rely on Arm’s Cortex CPU IP and currently cannot compete with Apple’s silicon. In essence, Qualcomm could be viewing this as a large long-term bet at an attempt to establish themselves as the de facto Arm silicon supplier in this market segment, and alternative to Apple Silicon products. NUVIA in the past had commented that this would have been a possible long-term goal beyond their server space focus, however the acquisition by Qualcomm now vastly accelerate any such plans.

Press release:

SAN DIEGO, Jan. 13, 2021 /PRNewswire/ -- Qualcomm Incorporated (NASDAQ: QCOM) today announced that its subsidiary, Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire NUVIA for approximately $1.4 billion before working capital and other adjustments. The transaction is subject to customary closing conditions, including regulatory approval under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act of 1976, as amended. 

NUVIA comprises a proven world-class CPU and technology design team, with industry-leading expertise in high performance processors, Systems on a Chip (SoC) and power management for compute-intensive devices and applications. The addition of NUVIA CPUs to Qualcomm Technologies' already leading mobile graphics processing unit (GPU), AI engine, DSP and dedicated multimedia accelerators will further extend the leadership of Qualcomm Snapdragon platforms, and positions Snapdragon as the preferred platform for the future of connected computing.

...

NUVIA CPUs are expected to be integrated across Qualcomm Technologies' broad portfolio of products, powering flagship smartphones, next-generation laptops, and digital cockpits, as well as Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, extended reality and infrastructure networking solutions.

...

As part of the transaction, NUVIA founders Gerard Williams III, Manu Gulati and John Bruno, and their employees will be joining Qualcomm.

"CPU performance leadership will be critical in defining and delivering on the next era of computing innovation," said Gerard Williams CEO of NUVIA. "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. We couldn't be more excited for the opportunities ahead."

In essence, the acquisition of NUVIA greatly increases Qualcomm’s future prospective in the mobile and consumer laptop market, with possible long-term positive repercussions for the company’s product’s competitiveness. We’re looking forward to see how this plays out over the next coming years.

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  • nico_mach - Thursday, January 14, 2021 - link

    Interestingly, however, while they don't sell their CPU designs to third parties, they allowed this key contributor to be acquired by a rival, I wonder why? Is Quallcomm so bad and monopoly status so close that they decided to throw Quallcomm a bone? It's certainly not for lack of money. And they've always been careful defending their IP advantages until now.

    While it looks like a great move for Quallcomm, they should wonder why Apple let it happen.
    Reply
  • mode_13h - Thursday, January 14, 2021 - link

    > they allowed this key contributor to be acquired by a rival, I wonder why?

    They didn't "allow" this to happen. Apple is not God. They had two options: either play into extortion by their ex-employee and pay $Billions to buy back what they believe is rightfully theirs, or seek a remedy through the courts, which has been ongoing for many months. I suppose there's also a possibility that Apple will seek an injunction to block the acquisition from completing, while their current legal challenge plays out.

    Anyone who bought Nuvia clearly knew they were going to have to fight off Apple's legal challenges, or broker some kind of licensing arrangement with them. It makes sense that Qualcomm would step up to the challenge, since their lawyers must know Apple's lawyer so well, by now.
    Reply
  • Spunjji - Friday, January 15, 2021 - link

    "since their lawyers must know Apple's lawyer so well, by now"
    They're practically co-workers at this stage. Competing legal design teams 😅
    Reply
  • Tams80 - Friday, January 15, 2021 - link

    They don't own employees. Reply
  • mode_13h - Friday, January 15, 2021 - link

    > They don't own employees.

    That's too simplistic. In most states, employees are under a non-compete agreement, preventing you from going to a competitor for usually about 2 years after you leave, although California doesn't allow them. Also, I think his defense is that it wasn't a competitor, since Apple didn't want to build server CPUs.

    The next issue is the potential theft of IP. Most companies assert ownership of relevant IP you devise, while under their employment. Even if Apple didn't use it in a CPU, if they can prove that he used some IP he devised while at Apple, they can lay claim to it. This is what I understand they're suing him for.

    Finally, companies tend to place their employees under non-solicit agreements, where you can't leave and then lure your ex-colleagues to join you. I don't know if he brought any of his team with him, but that would be another potential point of exposure.
    Reply
  • mode_13h - Friday, January 15, 2021 - link

    > In most states, employees are under a non-compete agreement

    Oops, I didn't mean to imply it's automatic. It's something employers usually do. It's one of the documents they typically have you sign, when you're hired.
    Reply
  • prisonerX - Saturday, January 16, 2021 - link

    Everything you described relating to restricting ex-employees is illegal in CA. Apple's claims are merely an attempt to work around those laws. A key group of people left Apple and went to compete against them, and Apple is upset. Filing a suit was just a way of trying sabotage and punish them. Qualcomm paid so much because they know the legal claims are trash and the team is pure gold. Reply
  • mode_13h - Saturday, January 16, 2021 - link

    > Everything you described relating to restricting ex-employees is illegal in CA.

    Thanks for letting me know about non-solicit agreements, but I do find it a little hard to believe that a company couldn't assert ownership of CPU IP that a CPU designer originated while working for them. As long as they could prove that he devised it under their employment (which is probably the hard part), it seems like common sense that it would be theirs.

    Now, I've heard of companies trying to assert ownership of all IP generated by employees, whether or not it was related to their business, and that would seem like a clear overreach.
    Reply
  • eastcoast_pete - Wednesday, January 13, 2021 - link

    Potentially good news! The more players in the CPU space, the merrier. The next big question is when QC/Nuvia will be able to show an actual in-silicon sample of their offering. Also, a key reason why there is even enough space for another ARM-derived server CPU is that Apple has, so far, not shown any interest in designing and selling large, many-core CPUs for third parties. That being said, does anyone here know what Apple runs its iCloud anything on? What OS and which CPUs do they use? Reply
  • aryonoco - Wednesday, January 13, 2021 - link

    I think Qualcomm actually got this done on the cheap. 1.4B to acquire this team seems very smart to me. But we don't know if NUVIA was running out of funding, and perhaps selling right now was better than doing another round of capital raising.

    I just now hope Qualcomm sticks to the plan, gives this team the resources that they need to bring their product to market. And I do hope they eventually use this to get back to the server and enterprise space.
    Reply

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