Artificial intelligence technology holds tremendous promise for enterprises — as a tool to process and understand their data more efficiently, as a way to leapfrog new kinds of services and products, and as a critical stepping stone into whatever the future might hold for their businesses. But the problem for many enterprises is that they are not tech businesses at their core, so bringing on and using AI will typically involve a lot of heavy lifting. Today, one of the AI services is announcing a big round of funding to help bridge that gap.
SambaNova — a startup building AI hardware and integrated systems that run on it that only officially came out of threeDecember — is announcing a massive round of funding today to take its business out into the world. The on $676 million in financing, a Series D that co-founder and CEO Rodrigo Liang has confirmed values the company at $5.1 billion.
The round is being led by SoftBank investing in2. Temasek and Singapore Investment Corp’s government (GIC), both new investors, are also participating, along with previous backers BlackRock, Intel Capital, GV (formerly Google Ventures), Walden International, and WRVI, among other unnamed investors. (Sidenote: BlackRock and Temasek separately kicked off an investment partnership yesterday, although it’s unclear if this into that remit.)
Co-founded by two Stanford professors, Kunle Olukotun and Chris Ré, and Liang, who had been an engineering executive at Oracle, SambaNova has been around since 2017 and has raised more than $1 billion to date — both to build out its AI-focused hardware, which it calls DataScale and to build out the system that runs on it. (The “Samba” in the name is a reference to Liang’s Brazilian heritage, he said, but also the Latino music and dance that speaks of constant movement and shifting, not unlike the journey AI data regularly needs to take that make it too complicated and too intensive to run on more traditional systems.)
SambaNova, on one level, competes for enterprise business against companies like Nvidia, Cerebral Systems, and Graphcore — another startup in the space that raised a significant round earlier this. However, SambaNova has a slightly different approach to the AI challenge.
In December, the startup launched Dataflow-as-a-Service as an on-demand, subscription-based way for enterprises to tap into SambaNova’s AI system, focusing on the applications that run on it without needing to focus on maintaining those systems themselves. It’s the latter that SambaNova will concentrate onand delivering with this latest tranche of funding, Liang said.
SambaNova’s opportunity, Liang believes, lies in selling software-based AI systems to enterprises that are keen to adopt more AI into their business but might lack the talent and other resources to do so if it requires running and maintaining large systems.
“The market right now has a lot of interest in AI. They are finding they have to transition to this way of competing, and it’s no longer acceptable not to consider it,” said Liang in an interview.
He said that most AI companies “want to talk chips,” yet many would-be customers will lack the teams and appetite to become technology companies to run those services essentially. “Rather than coming in and thinking about how to hire scientists and hire and then deploy an AI service, you can now subscribe and bring in that technology overnight. We’re very proud that our technology isin the industry.”
To be clear, a company will still need, just not the same number, and precisely not the same number dedicated to maintaining systems, updating code, and other more incremental work that comes with managing an end-to-end process.
SambaNova has not disclosed many customers so far in the work that it has done — the two reference names it provided to me are both research labs, the Argonne National Laboratory and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory — but Liang noted some typical use cases.
One was in imaging, such as in the healthcare industry, where the company’s technology is being used to help train systems based on high-resolution imagery and other healthcare-related work. The coincidentally-named Corona supercomputer at the Livermore Lab (it was named after the 2014 lunar eclipse, not the through) is using SambaNova’s technology to help run calculations related to some COVID-19 therapeutic and antiviral compound research, Marshall Choy, the company’s VP of product, told me.
Another set of applications involves building systems around custom language models, for example, in specific industries like finance, to process data quicker. And a third is in recommendation algorithms, which appear in most digital services and could work better than today. I’m guessing it will release more information about where and who uses its technology in the coming months.
Liang would not comment on whether Google and Intel were tapping SambaNova as a partner in their AI services. Still, he didn’t rule out the prospect of partnering to go to market. Indeed, both have strong enterprise businesses that span well beyond technology companies, and so working with athat is helping to make even their own AI cores more accessible could be an exciting prospect, and SambaNova’s DataScale (and the Dataflow-as-a-Service system) both work using input from frameworks like PyTorch and TensorFlow. Hence, there is a level of integration already there.
“We’re quite comfortable collaborating with others in this space,” Liang said. “We think the market will be large and will start segmenting. The promise of creating a more accessible AI for businesses has eluded quite a few companies to date, so the prospect of finally cracking that nut appeals to investors. The opportunity for us is to take hold of some of the hardest problems in a much simpler way on their behalf. That is a very valuable proposition.”
“SambaNova has created a leading systems architecture that is flexible, efficient, and scalable. This provides a holistic software and hardware solution for customers and alleviates the additional complexity driven by single technology component solutions,” said Deep Nishar, senior managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, in a statement. “We are excited to partner with Rodrigo and the SambaNovaAI solutions to organizations globally.”