Since founding SiMa.ai, I’ve experienced the most satisfying and exhilarating moments of my 30+ year career. It’s been an incredibly exciting journey with plenty of ups and downs. As we celebrate a major company (and industry) milestone of shipping the first software-centric MLSoC Platform, I’m reflecting on the last couple of years and all of the obstacles that we overcame. Despite facing many difficult challenges, we achieved what we set out to do.
We began SiMa.ai with lofty aspirations: to solve any computer vision application challenge with a minimum of 10x better performance per watt and deliver an overall push-button experience in minutes. I’ve been a student of the embedded edge and cloud for the past 20 years. I’ve seen tons of innovation in the cloud, but very little at the edge. So, we embarked on something no one had done before–deliver scalable Effortless ML for the embedded edge.
Truly Understanding Our Customer
Before starting on our design, it was important to understand our customers’ biggest challenges. However, getting them to spend time with an early-stage startup to draw meaningful and candid feedback was another challenge in itself. Luckily, the team and I were able to leverage our network from past relationships where we could solidify SiMa.ai’s vision with the right targeted companies.
We met with over 30 customers and asked two basic questions: “What are the biggest challenges scaling ML to the embedded edge?” and “How can we help?” After many discussions on how they wanted to reshape the industry and listening to their challenges to achieve it, we gained a deep understanding of their pain points and developed ideas on how to solve them. These include:
- Getting the benefits of ML without a steep learning curve.
- Preserving legacy applications along with future-proofing ML implementations.
- Working with a high-performance, low-power solution in a user-friendly environment.
Quickly, we realized that we needed to deliver a risk mitigated phased approach to help our customers. As a startup we had to bring something so compelling and differentiated from everyone else. No other company was addressing this clear need so this was the path we chose to take.
I am happy to say that after all the listening and meticulous feedback, our ANY, 10x, and Push-button strategy and messaging has remained unchanged since the founding of the company.
Funding and Building Our Dream Team
In order to make our vision a reality, we had to raise money and build a world class team. To attract key investors, employees, strategic customers and partners, it became increasingly clear that I needed concise and compelling messaging along with a business case to build an amazing team that is committed to make the impossible possible. I had to invoke excitement that this vision could be done with the right team members and that they should take a risk on an early-stage start-up.
I started to assemble a world class team which included a mix of functional expertise, SoC SW, ML, Embedded Silicon, Marketing and Applications architects. Over the next 6 months we debated and brainstormed the best ways to respond to our customers’ needs which drove our software and silicon choices. We had the idea of creating a software-centric purpose-built MLSoC platform with a new and radical architecture. With this we were able to solidify our idea with Amplify Partners and Wing Venture Capital who led our seed and power seed rounds, respectively. Many thanks to our early investors for taking a bet on SiMa.ai.
Now it was time to implement our MLSoC platform and further hire the necessary expertise which meant we needed additional funding. That challenge was met with an unexpected change of events. In early 2020, as we were raising our Series A investment, COVID flipped the world on its head. The investment climate completely changed overnight, and nearly all venture investments dried up.
Despite most VCs pulling back, our early investors – Amplify Partners, Wing Venture Capital and especially Dell Technologies Capital, who led our Series A, stepped up – to which I am still grateful to this day. They believed in our mission and allowed us to close our $30M Series A round of funding in May of 2020.
I felt honored to have the trust of our investors, employees, strategic customers, and partners who were betting on me and the team. SiMa.ai was becoming a real company and the nervousness and excitement of this journey is unmatched. I never experienced this type of emotion before. It was and still is important for me to do the right thing for all our team members.
As I reflect on building the core team, I see how vital it is to find key hires that are not only a functional fit but more importantly a cultural fit. Start-ups are not for everyone, as you need to have the right mindset, and be able to work with a great deal of uncertainty. I interviewed over 90 people before making a key hire for I wanted to build an all-star team to help set the right cultural tone of the organization. We needed to build a team that could take on big challenges head on without fear and work collectively in a harmonious fashion to maximize productivity, even during the forced remote working environment.
Managing the Emotional Rollercoaster
As with any start up, risks and uncertainties bring out the fear in many, including myself. The emotional rollercoaster can cause team members to argue, worry and even passive aggressively disengage from one another. This can be disastrous for any start-up for we have to build up tremendous momentum.
In the early development of the MLSoC platform, we were pushing the limits of technology and architecture. We were going all-in on a software centric platform, which was an entirely new approach, that went against the grain of all conventional wisdom. The journey in figuring it out and then implementing it was hard. This, coupled with COVID and remote work, created unprecedented obstacles for us to overcome. Scaling a company to 120+ people today where recruiting and managing was mainly done through Zoom conference calls, was a different experience. Everything had to be done remotely. Believe me, managing under these conditions made it exponentially harder.
Creating an environment (even for remote workers!) where it is safe to fail and adjust accordingly is key when pushing the innovation envelope. I set up daily, weekly, and bi-weekly meetings with key individuals and groups to get a pulse of the company. We have open forums where we can talk about any issues and no questions are off limits. It is important for everyone on the team to have access to my thoughts. With such close team collaboration, we can address issues early on to reduce the fear and stay focused on the task at hand.
At the end of the day, for breakthrough innovation to occur there must be a comfort that failing is OK and not get too emotional on the failure itself but adapt quickly towards the solution. Such a journey is expected to be bumpy. Overall, keep focus, keep calm, and carry on. The saying, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is entirely true. Trying times really help strengthen a culture and bring teams together.
First-Time Right Success
Fortunately, our team gutted through the early development phase and got our software working spectacularly well. We completed our $80 million Series B round led by Fidelity Management Research and Adage Capital, which allowed us to really scale the software team and the silicon development effort. I owe a tremendous thanks to those investors and all other insiders that participated in continuing to believe in and support our mission.
We taped out in February 2022 and received our first silicon in May of 2022, all thanks to our amazing partners. With zero bugs, we continued our march towards first-time-right success by going straight into production. In 6 weeks, we were working in our customers’ labs running their end-to-end application pipelines and knocking their socks off with the 10x advantage we promised to deliver.
In achieving our first-time-right milestone and shipping the first software-centric MLSoC Platform, I also owe a huge amount of gratitude to our partners – TSMC, Arm, Synopsys, Allegro, GUC and Arteris. They supported us like we were the largest public company in the world, helping us with every aspect of our business ranging from support to the best-in-class technology to the best-in-class people.
We wouldn’t be here without our spectacular customers that have partnered with us from day one and continue to be delighted by what we are enabling together. Additionally, the support of our board members and investors – not just capital, but their counsel, their advice, their encouragement, and keeping us steady and focused – has been invaluable.
Through all the ups and downs in this journey, I feel that the entire team (investors, employees, customers, and partners) has been with us the whole time. As with any strong family unit, we are there for each other. I am proud to call them my family, the SiMa.ai family.
Leading the Charge
Though there are more challenges ahead, I am convinced SiMa.ai is leading the charge of the multi-trillion-dollar embedded edge industry. I’ve been through previous successes where a new product becomes a multi-billion-dollar business. I feel like we are at the cusp of repeating that same success and I’m excited for the journey ahead as we build the next breakout company in semiconductors.
To anyone with a smart idea and the determination to work hard, I would encourage them to dream big. I had never done this before and even through those days of self-doubt, and difficult challenges that came along the way, there is no greater reward than seeing your dreams come true. The best chance of increasing success is to have total trust in yourself, your team, your investors, your customers, and your partners.
If you surround yourself with great people and build meaningful trustworthy relationships, then you are never truly alone and have nothing to fear as “fear and trust cannot go together” (Dalai Lama). The SiMa.ai dream of shipping the first software-centric MLSoC platform was made possible by our family of employees, partners, investors, and customers because of the trust we have in one another. I’m excited to be part of this family as we continue to build upon our foundation of success.
The journey continues…