Herts computer chip manufacturer seeks Risc-V business

Lucy Neave

Imagination Technologies has reignited its UK rivalry with Arm Holdings in the market for computing chips, with plans to exploit an alternative architecture making headway since Arm’s planned sale to Nvidia.

The Hertfordshire-based chip designer has now completed a strategic review, launched last year after the UK government intervened to stop Imagination’s plan to install four directors linked to Chinese state-controlled fund China Reform Holdings.

Simon Beresford-Wylie, the former Nokia executive who now leads the company, argues the semiconductor market has been shaken by Nvidia’s move, which still needs regulatory approval, with Arm’s neutrality as a supplier of designs to the industry seen as under threat. Arm launched Armv9, its first new architecture in a decade, in March and said it would underpin the next 300bn chips bearing its designs. But the Nvidia sale has also triggered more interest in the Risc-V open architecture.

“The momentum is behind it. There is a strong customer pull for it because of the strong Arm position. They are desperate to have an alternative to Arm,” said Beresford-Wylie. Imagination expects to invest up to $150m over the next two years to target a fresh push into the processor design market.

The now profitable company, based in the old Ovaltine factory in Kings Langley, had $60m in cash at the end of 2020, having grown its revenue over the year by 44 per cent to $125m. It attempted to crack the CPU market once before when it acquired US chip designer MIPS in 2013, but the move proved unsuccessful and the unit was sold in 2017 when US fund Canyon Bridge took control.

The emergence of Risc-V has reopened the door for companies to compete in the CPU market. Imagination is aiming at the automotive and audiovisual markets this year, aiming to generate royalties over a five-to-ten year horizon. “I haven’t seen growth potential like this since Nokia in the 1990s,” said Beresford-Wylie.