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Microsoft, Amazon back a SoCal company making microchips specifically for voice-based apps

Microsoft’s venture capital fund, M12 Ventures has led a slew of strategic corporate investors backing a new chip developer out of Southern California called Syntiant, which makes semiconductors for voice recognition and speech-based applications.

“We started out to build a new type of processor for machine learning, and voice is our first application,” says Syntiant chief executive Kurt Busch. “We decided to build a chip for alwyas-on battery powered devices.”

Those chips need a different kind of processor than traditional chipsets, says Busch. Traditional compute is about logic, and deep learning is about memory access, traditional microchip designs also don’t perform as well when it comes to parallel processing of information.

Syntiant claims that its chips are two orders of magnitude more efficient, thanks to its data flow architecture that was built for deep learning, according to Busch.

It’s that efficiency that attracted investors including M12, Microsoft Corp.’s venture fund; the Amazon Alexa Fund; Applied Ventures, the investment arm of Applied Materials; Intel Capital, Motorola Solutions Venture Capital and Robert Bosch Venture Capital.

These investment firms represent some of the technology industry’s top chip makers and software developers, and they’re pooling their resources to support Syntiant’s Irvine, Calif.-based operations.

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch

“Syntiant aligns perfectly with our mission to support companies that fuel voice technology innovation,” said Paul Bernard, director of the Alexa Fund at Amazon. “Its technology has enormous potential to drive continued adoption of voice services like Alexa, especially in mobile scenarios that require devices to balance low power with continuous, high-accuracy voice recognition. We look forward to working with Syntiant to extend its speech technology to new devices and environments.” 

Syntiant’s first device measures 1.4 by 1.8 millimeters and draws 140 microwatts of power. In some applications, Syntiant’s chips can run for a year on a single coin cell.

“Syntiant’s neural network technology and its memory-centric architecture fits well with Applied Materials’ core expertise in materials engineering as we enable radical leaps in device performance and novel materials-enabled memory technologies,” said Michael Stewart, principal at Applied Ventures, the venture capital arm of Applied Materials, Inc. “Syntiant’s ultra-low-power neural decision processors have the potential to create growth in the chip marketplace and provide an effective solution for today’s demanding voice and video applications.” 

So far, 80 customers are working with Syntiant to integrate the company’s chips into their products. There are a few dozen companies in the design stage and the company has already notched design wins for products ranging from cell phones and smart speakers to remote controls, hearing aids, laptops and monitors. Already the company has shipped its first million units.  

“We expect to scale that by 10 x by the end of this year,” says Busch. 

Syntiant’s chipsets are designed specifically to handle wakes and commands, which means that users can add voice recognition features and commands unique to their particular voice, Busch says.

Initially backed by venture firms including Atlantic Bridge, Miramar and Alpha Edison, Syntiant raised its first round of funding in October 2017. The company has raised a total of $65 million to date, according to Busch.

“Syntiant’s architecture is well suited for the computational patterns and inherent parallelism of deep neural networks,” said Samir Kumar, an investor with M12 and new director on the Syntiant board. “We see great potential in its ability to enable breakthroughs in power performance for AI processing in IoT [Internet of things].” 

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Intel to invest $253.5 million in India’s Reliance Jio Platforms

Intel said on Friday it will invest $253.5 million in Jio Platforms, joining a roster of high-profile investors including Facebook, General Atlantic, and Silver Lake that have backed India’s top telecom operator in recent months.

The American chipmaker’s investment arm said it is acquiring a 0.39% stake in Jio Platforms, giving the Indian firm a valuation of $65 billion. Intel Capital is the 12th investor to buy a stake in Jio Platforms, which has raised more than $15.5 billion by selling a 25% stake since April this year.

“Jio Platforms’ focus on applying its impressive engineering capabilities to bring the power of low-cost digital services to India aligns with Intel’s purpose of delivering breakthrough technology that enriches lives. We believe digital access and data can transform business and society for the better,” said Wendell Brooks, Intel Capital President, in a statement.

The announcement today comes weeks after Mukesh Ambani, who controls Reliance Industries — the parent firm of Jio Platforms — suggested that Saudi Arabia’s PIF $1.5 billion investment on June 18 in his digital unit had marked the “end of Jio Platforms’ current phase of induction of financial partners.”

Ambani, who is India’s richest man, said on Friday that he was excited to “work together with Intel to advance India’s capabilities in cutting-edge technologies that will empower all sectors of our economy and improve the quality of life of 1.3 billion Indians.”

The new deal further illustrates the opportunities foreign investors see in Jio, a four-year-old subsidiary of Reliance Industries (India’s most valuable firm) that has upended the telecommunications market in India with cut-rate voice calls and mobile data tariffs. Jio has about 400 million subscribers.

Analysts at Bernstein said last month that they expect Jio Platforms to reach 500 million customers by 2023, and control half of the market by 2025. Jio Platforms competes with Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea, a joint venture between British giant Vodafone and Indian tycoon Kumar Mangalam Birla’s Aditya Birla Group.

Jio Platforms also operates a bevy of digital apps and services, including music streaming service JioSaavn (which it says it will take public), on-demand live television service JioTV and payments app JioMoney, as well as smartphones and broadband business. These services are available to Jio subscribers at no additional charge.

On Thursday evening, Jio Platforms launched JioMeet, a video-conferencing service that offers unlimited calls with “up to 24 hours” time limit on each session. The service, which currently has no paid plans, looks uncannily like Zoom.

Last month, Ambani said the funds in Jio Platforms had helped him clear oil-to-retail giant Reliance Industries’ net debt of about $21 billion. Ambani had originally pledged to clear Reliance’s debt due by early 2021.

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Joby Aviation raises $590 million led by Toyota to launch an electric air taxi service

Joby Aviation has raised a $590 million Series C round of funding, including $394 million from lead investor Toyota Motor Corporation, the company announced today. Joby is in the process of developing an electric air taxi service, which will make use of in-house developed electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that will in part benefit from strategic partner Toyota’s vehicle manufacturing experience.

This brings the total number of funding in Joby Aviation to $720 million, and its list of investors includes Intel Capital, JetBlue Technology Ventures, Toyota AI Ventures and more. Alongside this new round of funding, Joby gains a new board member: Toyota Motor Corporation EVP Shigeki Tomoyama.

Founded in 2009, Joby Aviation is based in Santa Cruz, California. The company was founded by JoeBen Bevirt, who also founded consumer photo and electronics accessory maker Joby. Its proprietary aircraft is a piloted eVTOL, which can fly at up to 200 miles per hour for a total distance of over 150 miles on a single charge. Because it uses an electric drivetrain and multi rotor design, Joby Aviation says it’s “100 times quieter than conventional aircraft during takeoff and landing, and near-silent when flying overhead.”

These benefits make eVTOL craft prime candidates for developing urban aerial transportation networks, and a number of companies, including Joby as well as China’s EHang, Airbus and more are all working on this type of craft for use in this kind of city-based short-hop transit for both people and cargo.

The sizeable investment made by Toyota in this round is a considerable bet for the automaker on the future of air transportation. In a press release detailing the round, Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda indicated that the company is serious about eVTOLs and air transport in general.

“Air transportation has been a long-term goal for Toyota, and while we continue our work in the automobile business, this agreement sets our sights to the sky,” Toyoda is quoted as saying. “As we take up the challenge of air transportation together with Joby, an innovator in the emerging eVTOL space, we tap the potential to revolutionize future transportation and life. Through this new and exciting endeavor, we hope to deliver freedom of movement and enjoyment to customers everywhere, on land, and now, in the sky.”

Joby Aviation believes that it can achieve significant cost benefits vs. traditional helicopters for short aerial flights, eventually lowering costs through maximizing utilization and fuel savings to the point where it can be “accessible to everyone.” To date, Joby has completed sub-scale testing on its aircraft design, and begun full flight tests of production prototypes, along with beginning the certification process for its aircraft with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at the end of 2018.

Source: TechCrunch