Qualcomm pays $1.4B for Nuvia, a server chip designer founded by ex-Apple execs

But Qualcomm won't just use Nuvia's high-performance and battery efficient technology for data centers. It plans to bring the innovations to its mobile, computer and auto processors.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
5 min read

Nuvia has been trying to change data centers by designing high-performance chips that are more power efficient like mobile processors.

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Qualcomm is betting big on a company designing powerful but power-efficient chips for data centers -- $1.4 billion big. The company on Wednesday said it has reached a deal to acquire Nuvia, a two-year-old startup run by former Apple chip executives. 

But Qualcomm won't just be aiming its newly acquired technology at servers. Instead, it plans to use Nuvia CPUs -- the brains of devices -- in everything from its smartphone chips to its laptop processors and automotive components. That could mean much more powerful and battery efficient Samsung Galaxy smartphones, Lenovo laptops and General Motors cars. 

While Nuvia and Qualcomm both use Arm technology for their processors, Qualcomm licenses the cores from Arm while Nuvia designs its own. It allows the startup to customize them for high performance and power efficiency better than Qualcomm is able, as well as makes it less reliant on Arm, which is being acquired by Nvidia for $40 billion. That's important as mobile-like chips expand to more areas, 5G becomes widespread and consumers and businesses demand more and more battery life from their devices. Apple also designs its own Arm-based processor cores. Qualcomm previously designed its own cores but moved away from that strategy.

Watch this: Apple unveils new Apple silicon M1 Mac chip

"5G, the convergence of computing and mobile architectures, and the expansion of mobile technologies into other industries are significant opportunities for Qualcomm," Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm's president who will take on the role of CEO this summer, said in a press release. "Together [with Nuvia], we are very well positioned to redefine computing and enable our ecosystem of partners to drive innovation and deliver a new class of products and experiences for the 5G era."

Qualcomm has long been known as the world's biggest wireless chipmaker, and it counts Samsung , Apple and virtually all major handset makers in the world as its customers. The aim with mobile chips has long been to be as powerful as possible while consuming low amounts of power. In recent years, Qualcomm also has pushed its components into computers, cars and various other products. It's likely that Samsung's new Galaxy S21 lineup, expected to launch Thursday at the company's first Unpacked of 2021, will use Qualcomm Snapdragon 88 processors. And future phones could benefit from Nuvia's high-performance, battery efficient cores. 

Qualcomm's acquisition of Nuvia also could give Arm PCs the boost they need. While Apple's first Arm-based computers have earned rave reviews, early Windows PCs that use Qualcomm chips have been described as under powered. That could change when the company incorporates Nuvia's technology into its processors. Already, companies like Samsung and Microsoft use Qualcomm processors in tablets and PCs instead of powerful but battery hungry chips from Intel.

"This acquisition and the pedigree of the team Qualcomm acquired now positions [it] to go back to fully custom-designed CPU cores and back to a proprietary CPU architecture, which I think is the right technical direction for Qualcomm," Creative Strategies analyst Ben Bajarin noted. 

Nuvia overall will help Qualcomm better compete against Apple, which has become a leader when it comes to chip performance. Apple's A Series chips have long powered its iPhones and iPads , and late last year, it introduced its first computers that use its own M1 processors instead of chips from Intel. The new computers have powerful performance, but also sip battery life, largely because of the innovations Apple has packed deep inside its chips. 

Nuvia's co-founders -- Gerard Williams III, Manu Gulati and John Bruno -- previously held roles in Apple's semiconductor design business before starting their own company. Williams, who serves as Nuvia's CEO, led the design of every Apple chip core from the A7 to the A12X before he left the company in March 2019. Before joining Apple in 2010, Williams for 12 years worked at Arm, the company whose designs are used in virtually all mobile processors. Gulati and Bruno also spent time at Google before co-founding Nuvia. The three, along with Nuvia's other employees, will be joining Qualcomm. 

"CPU performance leadership will be critical in defining and delivering on the next era of computing innovation," Williams said in a press release. "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."

Nuvia's buzz

Nuvia does not yet have a working product, but the company has captured the attention of many big players in the tech industry . In September, it raised $240 million from Peter Thiel's Mithril Capital, Dell's venture arm, Marvell's founders and various other firms. At the time Nuvia said it expected to have a product in customers' hands in 2022. In total, Nuvia raised just shy of $300 million before the acquisition, and it has over 200 employees.

"Nuvia was launched to reimagine silicon for a world creating exponentially more data than it can process," Mithril founder and managing general partner Ajay Royan said in a press release. After Mithril's $70 million investment in September, which gave it a 12.5% stake in Nuvia, Royan joined the startup's board. Its "unique approach overcomes false trade-offs between energy efficiency and chip performance," he added.

It also has been in Apple's crosshairs. The iPhone giant filed a lawsuit against Williams in December 2019 for breach of contract. It accused him of starting Nuvia while still at Apple and said he recruited his former colleagues. Williams countersued in February 2020, alleging Apple has been doing the same thing it accused him of -- trying to recruit his employees.

Despite Williams' legal troubles, Nuvia's efforts to design its own cores reduce its -- and now Qualcomm's --reliance on Arm at a time there's uncertainty surrounding the chip designer. Nvidia, which is in the process of buying Arm, directly competes with many of Arm's other customers, including Qualcomm. Longtime chip analyst Jim McGregor, of Tirias Research, noted in a blog post, that the announcement of the Nvidia-Arm deal "sent shockwaves through the Arm ecosystem."

"Having its own custom CPU could ... allow Qualcomm to transition to other processor instruction sets in the future if further concerns arose about Arm under Nvidia ownership," he noted. 

Qualcomm's press release about the acquisition contained quotes from its partners, applauding the purchase. They included Panos Panay, chief product officer of Microsoft; Hiroshi Lockheimer, senior vice president of platforms & ecosystems at Google; TM Roh, president and head of mobile communications at Samsung; Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun and executives from Acer, Asus, Bosch, Continental, General Motors, HMD, Honor, HP , Lenovo , LG , OnePlus, Oppo, Panasonic, Vivo, Renault, Sharp and Vivo. 

"Compute performance, connectivity and power efficiency are critical ingredients that make the billions of Android and Chrome OS devices shine," Google's Lockheimer said. "The addition of Nuvia extends Qualcomm's capabilities in these three areas, and we're excited to see the next generation of Snapdragon with Nuvia."