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China’s ‘Little Nvidia’ Has a Big Secret: Its Homegrown AI Chip Isn’t

Art by Josh Brill
Art by Josh Brill
April 5, 2022 8:09 AM PDT

Chinese microchip startup Moore Threads has a short history many Silicon Valley counterparts would envy.

Within 100 days of its founding in October 2020, the Beijing-based company was worth more than $1 billion on paper after raising hundreds of millions of dollars from marquee investors including Sequoia Capital China and TikTok’s owner, ByteDance. Within 300 days, Moore Threads said it had developed its first graphics processing unit—the kind of chip Nvidia pioneered, which has become crucial for powering artificial intelligence—and has said it develops chips based on “original and independent intellectual property.” Local press has dubbed the startup “Little Nvidia,” framing it as a trailblazer in China’s quest to develop homegrown semiconductors in the broader race for technological supremacy against the West.

But Moore Threads, which investors now value at more than $2 billion, has omitted an important piece of information: Key pieces of its chip design come from U.K.-based Imagination Technologies, a major global licensor whose customers also include Apple, according to two people with direct knowledge of the matter.

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