Amid a global semiconductor shortage, an upstart in the world of AI chips is announcing a big round of funding to meet a boom in demand for its technology. Hailo, which makes edge-device chips customized to work with AI workloads -- typical implementations include smart cities, retail environments, industrial settings and next-generation automotive systems -- has raised $136 million in a Series C round of funding, one of the biggest to date in the AI chip market. We've confirmed with sources close to Hailo that the investment values it at around $1 billion.
Poalim Equity and Gil Agmon co-led the round, with participation also from previous backers Hailo Chairman Zohar Zisapel, ABB Technology Ventures (ATV), Latitude Ventures and OurCrowd; and new investors Carasso Motors, Comasco, Shlomo Group, Talcar Corporation Ltd. and Automotive Equipment (AEV). The company has now raised some $224 million to date.
This latest round comes about 18 months after Hailo's Series B of $60 million, and about a year after the release of the company's most recent AI modules based on its Hailo 8 chip, intended to compete against the likes of Intel and Nvidia.
Orr Danon, the co-founder and CEO, said in an interview that in the interim the company has been seeing a huge surge of interest in the market -- in the last quarter alone, he said Hailo doubled the number of projects it's working on, to 100 -- so this latest round is about scaling to meet that demand, but also to continue customizing how and where its processors can be used.
"We are now in the market with the Hailo 8, and people are very excited because of its efficiency," he said. One unique aspect of Hailo's edge chips is that they are designed to adapt to existing resources to work with custom neural networks, so not only are they fast but need less energy to run than the equivalent amount of processing power that you might otherwise need in a data center computer to run a similar task. "However, we want to expand our offering. It's not a one size fits all, so we are also investing in software."
The funding is coming on the heels of a complicated year in the world of chips.
The pandemic has driven strong demand in some areas (for example in consumer environments, where users have been kickstarting the renewal cycle for better devices at a time when other activity has been limited), while leading to big drops in activity among others (e.g., ambitious projects in areas like autonomous vehicles) -- as well as a major slowdown in production overall.
For a company working in edge devices as Hailo is, that presents an opportunity to make the case for more efficient and cost effective systems, helped by the fact that it is able to integrate with users' own neural networks and preferred development frameworks such as TensorFlow or ONNX.
Danon said that Hailo has seen a softening in demand in some segments -- for example, automotive -- but the diversity of its business has meant that demand overall has continued to rise.
Even automotive is coming back after a particularly frothy period and some fallout as a result. So, for example, while the number of projects focused on fully autonomous vehicles may have gone down, there are still a number of efforts working on semi-autonomous systems, which he said still translate into business for Hailo.
"Companies are now starting to look for realistic deployments, and facing real challenges," he said. " Okay, maybe we do not need our self-driving cars to drive on the Autobahn, but we still need to learn new tasks."
Alongside this, he said the company is seeing a lot of strong interest from other corners. These include industrial customers, those in the retail industry (where edge devices are used for computer vision applications, such as those you might have in a security system, or in an automated check-out service, or for analytics), and in smart cities, where transportation will also continue to be a major driver of business.
It's for the opportunity ahead as much as for the current business that investors are backing the company.
“In the coming years, AI will become the defining feature for creating new business value and reshaping user experience as we know it. The ability to bring AI-based features to market will increasingly be the deciding factor over whether companies succeed or fail,” said Mooly Eden, who recently left Intel, where he worked for nearly 40 years and was most recently president of its operations in Israel, and is now on the board of Hailo. “Hailo’s innovative and hyper-efficient processor architecture addresses the growing demand for a new kind of chip to handle these new types of workloads, challenging traditional computing solutions.”