The announcement of Qualcomm’s intent to acquire NUVIA for $1.4 billion plus company cash today represents the joining of two forces – a team of dream big disruptors and an innovative industry leader – who will together deliver a new class of processors for a mobile-first, cloud-native, hyperscale data-centric age. The under two year Mayfield journey with NUVIA from idea to a unicorn has been fast, furious, and immensely rewarding. We first partnered with Gerard Williams III, Manu Gulati, and John Bruno, co-founders of NUVIA at the seed stage in April 2019. I have known Manu since our college days at IIT Delhi and met him in the fall of 2018 – six months prior to the founding team coming together to brainstorm current and future opportunities in the semiconductor space. Today, the company has raised over $300 million in funding from top-tier investors, employs 250 world-class people, and is well on its way to creating the world’s highest performance processor. In fact, this journey sets a record in our recent history as a firm, marking the shortest time between serving as founding investor to creating significant financial value with a unicorn exit. As I reflect on our partnership, here are some lessons that come to mind that might apply to other first-time founders.
It is never too early to engage with investors
Manu reached out to me more than 6 months before NUVIA’s founding team came together. He knew that I was excited about the megatrend of the Renaissance of Silicon, and we talked about the industry dynamics, the timing of founding a silicon startup, and the influence of hyperscale data centers. It was Manu’s first serious exploratory investor discussion on the idea of NUVIA, and together with Gerard and John, who brought complementary skill sets and world-class leadership, they were extremely selective about their founding investors. They made sure to align with those who had a *founder-friendly* reputation, understood their target market, were seasoned enough to have seen ups and downs, and were well connected with key stakeholders. As a result, their seed-stage investors included Amarjit Gill, a semiconductor angel investor and prior serial entrepreneur (founder of SiByte and PA Semi), semiconductor legend Lip-Bu Tan, CEO of Cadence and managing partner at WRVI, and Mayfield, where our 51 year venture capital track record includes breakout silicon leaders such as Cypress, Inphi, LSI Logic, MIPS, S3, and Sandisk, along with Fungible more recently.
Vision and culture are key to a winning DNA
The team at NUVIA is united behind the vision of creating the world’s best ARM-based processor. NUVIA’s approach is unique, allowing them to focus on delivering industry-leading performance with best-in-class energy efficiency. In fact, their processor will lead the industry in all five primary metrics used in this space, namely performance, energy efficiency, scalability, compute density, and total cost of ownership.
NUVIA’s success has a lot to do with the work environment and company culture. The culture emphasizes performance, innovation, ownership, and transparency. They knew that their task was ambitious and audacious for a team of their size. Therefore, they made sure individuals have a lot of responsibility, autonomy and know-how to get their jobs done. The result was a work environment that engineers love – one where they have unique technical challenges to solve, while working with an incredible set of peers to lean on as needed.
In our experience, embedding vision and culture into the founding DNA, vs. bolting it on as a company evolves, is key as it serves to unite the team and helps start-ups remain focused on the outcome, while making the necessary changes and tradeoffs along the way.
Build your core team with a sense of purpose
It is easy to succumb to the pressure of hiring talent to meet your milestones, without the right screening. Most people who joined NUVIA in the first few months came from the immediate circle of contacts and acquaintances of the founders, to ensure that they had the right chemistry for the nucleus of their team. The result was that in a short time, they were able to assemble a world-class leadership team. Most of these people were hand-picked for their depth of expertise and experience in the core areas the company needed. With strong leadership in place, and a clear understanding of what they wanted to accomplish, they were able to scale the team and cast a wider net.
While these were unusual first-time founders with an established reputation and network, the general lesson of being intentional with key early hires holds for all founders, as moving quickly can result in costly mistakes.
Stay hungry, stay foolish
The NUVIA founders are silicon legends who have collectively driven silicon design and engineering on over 20 chips, including those that power the iPhone, with over 100 patents granted to date, and have held a diverse array of leadership engineering roles at Google, Apple, ARM, Broadcom, AMD and ATI Technologies. As we entered 2020, they had raised a $53 million Series A round in August 2019 from us, WRVI Capital, Dell Technologies Capital and Capricorn Investment Group, expanded beyond the founding team with blue-chip talent, and were well on their way to proving out their proof-of-concept.
However, they too, were impacted by the pause resulting from the COVID pandemic, in the midst of raising their Series B. The tech industry fell into a position of temporary paralysis. In an instant, conversations and resulting decisions were put on hold as everyone tried to anticipate the impact and gravity of the situation. Nonetheless, the team persevered and kept exploring every avenue, along with the support of their existing investors, whose experience and deal-making prowess coupled with the team’s continued and diligent efforts resulted in the successful closing of a $240 million Series B from additional investors including Mithril Capital, Sehat Sutardja and Weili Dai (founders of Marvell Technology Group), funds and accounts managed by BlackRock, Fidelity Management & Research Company, Temasek, Redline Capital and Atlantic Bridge.
There are many such unexpected developments in the lives of young start-ups, which test the resilience of the team. By following Steve Jobs’ advice in his famous 2005 commencement speech to *stay hungry, stay foolish*, the entrepreneurs who thrive never lose their drive or their ability to dream.
It’s always about people
It was not easy for a silicon company with employees in five locations – the Bay Area, Austin, Canada, UK and India – to pivot into a remote mode overnight. NUVIA was also still at the design stage, which required intense collaboration. In addition, there was the distraction of the fundraise. However, being guided by the founders’ unwavering vision that they were building the next generation of processors; surrounding themselves with a culture of mutual respect; and building a zone of trust with their investors and advisors, helped them navigate to a successful outcome.
Congratulations again to NUVIA and Qualcomm on joining forces – we’re honored to have partnered with Gerard, Manu, John and the entire team, and look forward to watching them deliver on their vision in the journey ahead. We are delighted to see our vision of the renaissance of silicon coming to fruition.