How Kickstarter helped save a chipmaker that puts a supercomputer inside a cell phone

Chip startup Adapteva just raised $3.6 million in Series B funding from Ericsson and Carmel Ventures, but there’s no way it would have gotten funded — or even lasted this long — without a Kickstarter campaign that helped it prove its market and bridge a funding gap between its Series A and B rounds.

Adapteva launched in May 2011 with a design (and also the actual chip) for a 64-core accelerator that will sit inside a tablet or smartphone to help offload work from the application processor or graphics engine. The idea was that with this chip you could do more computing on the device as opposed to sending it over a cellular or Wi-Fi network.

Adapteva may have been early, but the concept is sound. Apple last year with the iPhone 5s launched a dedicated component with the M7 that takes the work of computing motion away from the primary application processor. The M7 is taking a tiny load away, but Adapteva’s plan was to take on much larger computing jobs inside the phone and to do it while running at only one watt.

It had scored funding from a client that planned to use it for military goods, with both the investor and Adapteva CEO and founder Andreas Olofsson thinking that the market would love an existing, low-power processor for helping reduce a phone’s battery life while boosting performance. But there were few takers.

“I think the market came back and said we don’t care how energy efficient you are. You need to have the developer ecosystem,” said Olofsson. Facing no takers for his chip and a high cost of production, Olafsson couldn’t find backers to help the company get off the ground. As I wrote in my story about the Kickstarter campaign:

Andreas Olofsson, the founder and CEO of Adapteva, had a problem. He had built a computer chip that could deliver the horsepower of a supercomputer on a smartphone or a tablet. His Epiphany chip design was manufactured and then placed on circuit boards used by the military, but at $10,000 for a board, most businesses and the consumer electronics market wouldn’t touch them.

So Olofsson turned to Kickstarter to get the money to produce his boards and build out the developer ecosystem. He offered a processor on a stripped-down board in two sizes, as well as the open source software that will be needed to operate and program the chip. Called the Parallella project, it offered the 16-core board to those who paid $99 with the goal of raising $750,000. The team had a stretch goal of $3 million to make and build a 64-core version of its chip for $199.

The Kickstarter closed in Oct. 2012, after raising $898,921. The 16-core version of the board shipped in July of last year, and has gained a following among hobbyists who are building applications and showing off cool designs — although those are more in the supercomputer space than inside tablets.

But this growing community, plus the promise of really low-power processing, is what tempted Ericsson and Carmel Ventures to invest in Adapteva. As Olofsson told me, this wouldn’t have happened without the Kickstarter campaign and its supporters. And given how hard it can be to build a chip company can be, plus the growing number of challenges that are leading people to try out new silicon designs, it’s possible we’ll see more hardware-heavy projects try to fill the gap between initial funds and proving themselves in the market.