Motivo raises $12M Series A to speed up chip design with AI

Chip design is a long slog of trial and error, taking years to bring a design to market. Motivo, a five-year-old startup from a chip industry veteran, is creating software to speed up chip design from years to months using AI. Today the company announced a $12 million Series A.

Intel Capital led the round along with new investors Storm Ventures and Seraph Group, as well as participation from Inventus Capital. The company reports it has now raised a total of $20 million with its previous seed funding.

Motivo co-founder and CEO Bharath Rangarajan has worked in the chip industry for 30 years, and he saw a few fundamental trends and issues. For starters, the chip design process is highly time-intensive, taking years to come up with a successful candidate, and typically the first to market wins.

What’s more, Moore’s Law, where you fit more and more electronics onto an increasingly powerful chip, increases the complexity of these designs, and once in production, there is a lot of waste producing them. Rangarajan started the company to put artificial intelligence to work on the design process and bring chips to market faster with more accuracy in the production cycle.

“We can train an AI engine to bring about human judgment, and do a lot of design for manufacturability on the design without causing any other issue. So we avoid all these iteration loops [and we can also] design code and validation and timing and again we’re going from weeks and months to days,” he said.

The company’s ultimate goal is to take the chip design process and distill it down using software and intelligence from three years to three months, and while they are not there yet, they have started to attack the problem, and have a working product that looks at chip layout, the underlying RTL code that runs the chip and the netlist, which describes how the various pieces and electronics on the chip connect together.

One other differentiator is that the company is trying to make its AI transparent to explain why it made the decisions it did. “A lot of AI is just a black box. I don’t know why the self-driving car suddenly decided to swerve here. Our AI is understandable. We built the solution so that we can tell you why the AI is saying change the chip this way, or why it’s saying change it that way,” Rangarajan explained.

The company has paying customers. Although it can’t name them, there is probably a limited market for this kind of software, so you could make an educated guess that it’s the chip companies, especially with Intel Capital a lead investor on this round. At this point, the company has 15 employees, 12 of them being full-time, with plans to double or even triple over the next year, depending on how things go.

Hiring is always challenging for a company with a specific engineering focus like this one, but Rangarajan says that the team is already fairly diverse, and he is definitely looking at keeping that going as he builds the company. “We have to find the right people to join the company and you’re looking for any and all sorts of great people or backgrounds. […] In fact, the more the merrier as far as we’re concerned. We’ve got very experienced people who’ve grown up in the industry and we’ve still built up a fairly diverse team here,” he said.

For now, he plans to keep the office hybrid, where people who want to come in can come in, but people who don’t want to, like those with younger kids who aren’t vaccinated yet, can continue to work from home, he said. And that flexibility should continue even after offices open more completely.