Bristol chip designer Graphcore has raised another $200m of funding, valuing the company at $1.7bn and joining the ranks of ‘unicorns’ around the world.

Billion dollar tech companies are rare, especially for chip companies and even more so in the UK, hence the unicorn name. The company has raised $312m over the last two years for a new kind of processor chip that can handle machine learning and artificial intelligence software more efficiently.

“We are excited to be building a global technology company here in the UK from our Bristol headquarters,” said co-founder and chief executive Nigel Toon. “We have doubled in size this year, with the majority of new staff in our Bristol engineering team and we will continue to grow significantly next year in the city.”

The funding round was led by Robert Bosch Venture Capital (RBVC), one of the earliest backers alongside computer maker Dell, but also includes car maker BMW and software giant Microsoft.

Graphcore has been shipping first chips and systems to early customers, and high volume production is now ramping up to meet customer demand for its Intelligent Processing Unit (IPU) PCIe processor cards. The IPU systems have also been used in racks to provide 0.5 EFLOPS (exaflops) of performance as a route to next generation ‘exa-scale’ computers.

“The versatility of Graphcore’s IPU – which supports multiple machine learning techniques with high efficiency – is well-suited for a wide variety of applications from intelligent voice assistants to self-driving vehicles,” said Tobias Jahn, at BMW i Ventures. “With the flexibility to use the same processor in both a data centre and a vehicle, Graphcore’s IPU also presents the possibility of reduction in development times and complexity.”

“Graphcore is changing the paradigm of AI computing in the cloud and at the edge. The highly efficient and massively parallel IPU technology can significantly improve AI driven products in many categories such as autonomous driving and security”, said Dr Hongquan Jiang, Investment Partner at RBVC and board member of Graphcore.

The company will continue to grow in size and is designing its next generation of processor on 7nm process technology that will make the chips smaller, faster and cheaper. This is a similar process that Intel is using for its data centre chips.

“Machine intelligence marks the start of a new age of computing which needs a radically different type of processor and software tools,” said Toon. “This new fast growing market creates the opportunity for Graphcore to build a major global technology company that can help innovators in AI achieve important breakthroughs.”

Nick Flaherty