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V FUND Family | Zhang Wen, Founder of BIREN TECH, a Crusader of Chip Making in China

Author: 2022.07.26 Pv( 566)

There is a real opportunity to change an industry, even if it costs whatever you give, try it.

 

If a non-industry startup tells you that he wants to make a GPU chip to catch up with Nvidia, but has only prepared a 5-page PPT so far, how would you, as an investor, choose?

Zhang Wen is one such non-industry entrepreneur. He has a JD from Harvard University and extensive management experience. In his early years, he was a senior investor in the Pan-Asian market on Wall Street; in 2011, Zhang Rujing, the founder of SMIC, set up Enraytek Optoelectronics Co., Ltd., and Zhang Wen was invited to be the CEO of the company; in 2018, Zhang Wen became the president of SENSETIME and led the process of setting up its headquarters in Shanghai. However, when he decided to found BIREN TECH in 2019, Zhang Wen still seemed to the outside world to be a layman in the GPU (graphics processor) field with no industry background.

On 16 May 2019, the United States included Huawei in its list of entities and several US chips were cut off to Huawei. As a result of this, the first small climax of chip startups was set off in the country. The hope for entrepreneurship was also lit in Zhang Wen's heart, who saw that there was a huge domestic market for AI chips, but more than 90% relied on foreign products. The AI chip has its own unique opportunities in China: firstly, because the theoretical architecture of AI chips is also being broken through; secondly, because of China's data advantage, AI chips need scenarios and data iteration the most.

GPUs refer to graphics processors, which are microprocessors that specialize in graphics-related work. In the post-Moore era, GPUs are increasingly used for applications beyond graphics rendering and are used in general-purpose computing. In particular, a number of startups specializing in GPUs have been created as artificial intelligence applications have become more popular.

 

However, the GPU is a tough nut to crack, even with the chance to survive in Nvidia's empire. All around him, people voted against Zhang Wen's new dream. From the standpoint of an investor, he himself was against it: Don’t vote.

 

"At that time in the big chip track, I was the only founder who didn't know anything about technology, and I didn't even know one of the big names in GPU making at that time." Zhang Wen told early investors afterwards, "If I were you guys back then, I wouldn't dare to invest in Zhang Wen."

 

Things always turn out unexpectedly, and not only has BIREN TECH raised money, it has set a record. From its incorporation on 9 September 2019 to the completion of its Series B round of funding in March 2021, in just 18 months, BIREN TECH raised more than RMB 4.7 billion. Investors have made BIREN TECH to set a funding record for a domestic chip startup.

Zhou Zhifeng, a partner at early stage investor QiMing Venture Partners, was certain: when we met Zhang Wen and the founding team of BIREN TECH, they had the right people, the right ideas, and the right market needs to capture.

 

 

On the evening of March 31, 2022, BIREN TECH proved Zhou Zhifeng's judgment: its first general-purpose GPU chip, the BR100 series, lit up successfully. Due to Shanghai's quarantine, Zhang Wen and nearly 100 core employees, who spent more than 60 days together at the company, witnessed the first milestone for BIREN TECH.

For Zhang Wen, this is just a new starting point for BIREN TECH: "From lighting up the flow to entering mass production, the team went all out in just two to three months, and our co-CEO Li Xinrong, who was previously the global vice president of AMD, told me that in his 35-year-long experience in the chip industry, a general-purpose GPU chip with such a large arithmetic power and such a high degree of difficulty was lit up and smoothly produced in one-go mass production, this speed is very rare in the entire chip industry."

In an industry with wide tracks, high barriers and long cycles, there is so much uncertainty. In the vast process of technological development, there are big technology rising stars whose myths break and fall; there are also startups that survive the winter and revived.

"One investor once told me, 'I absolutely believe you are doing this with extreme passion, even if you lose all your money this time, I will invest in you next time. 'This is a very important statement to me. There is only one path to the mountain, so I have to make this work." Zhang Wen is ambitious.

"An entrepreneur is someone who dares to dream the dreams, "he writes on his WeChat signature file. With Zhang Wen, BIREN TECH is embarking on a daring dream journey.

 

No.1 headhunter       

Although he doesn't understand the specific technical details, Zhang Wen knows where his strengths lie: "My previous experience in entrepreneurship is a good testament to my ability to integrate capital, talent and resources." Since he didn't understand it, he hired someone to do it. He approached a friend at Harvard, who gave him a list of GPU Big Names. The friend dictated that he would be successful if he could bring together half of them; after all, it was hard to find the right talent from China.

Of the two major international GPU companies, Nvidia has no core R&D team in China, and AMD has only a small R&D team in Shanghai. The only ones who have started from the GPU architecture level in China are the original Zhaoxin team and the current Hisilicon team. The first "Big Name" that Zhang Wen targeted was Hong Zhou, who was responsible for the self-research GPU team from Hisilicon.

Hongzhou and Zhang Wen first met at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference 2019 in Shanghai, perhaps due to a subtle change in the general environment, and Hongzhou was looking to try something different, so the two hit it off immediately. After meeting him twice, Hong Zhou agreed to take on the role of CTO of BIREN TECH.

Zhang Wen said: "Startups can't afford to pay an annual salary of ten million, if you want to leave then go early, do not do it halfway and leave." Hongzhou replied, "For money, I probably wouldn't go into business that way, I just want to make this work."

At the end of 2019, Hongzhou said goodbye to his family and took his last flight back to China before the pandemic outbreak. To prevent the spread of the epidemic, he consciously wore two extra plastic bags on his body. For two years, the CTO arrived at the office at 7:30 am and left at 10:00 pm, day after day.

In addition to Hong Zhou, BIREN TECH quickly gathered a group of technical talents, including Jiao Guofang, who founded Qualcomm's Snapdragon GPU team and led the development of the 5th generation Adreno GPU architecture; Xu Lingjie, former head of AI infrastructure at Aliyun; Zhang Linglan, former VP of overseas GPU division at HYGON;

Tang Shan, former head of AI Lab at EDA software giant Synopsys; Li Xinrong, former global VP and GM of China R&D Center at AMD; and Yang Chaoyuan, former GM of Shanghai at Nvidia.

When it comes to the speed of finding talent, Zhang Wen is satisfied with his achievement: "They all call me No.1 headhunter in China."

Not only do we have the core technology Big Names, but more importantly, we have built a "complete" team. "Most of the team are former directors and vice presidents of large factories, and the team is formed by the master with apprentices, confined to a small circle, especially prone to shortcomings. But to do 'big chip', from architecture design to hardware, SoC, to engineering, software ecology, to financing, recruitment, etc., there can be no shortcomings, and at that time we saw that the team formed by Zhang Wen was the most complete." Zhou Zhifeng said.

Once the team was ready, it was followed by the second task: funding.

The investors asked Zhang Wen if 100 million dollars was enough. But when Zhang Wen opened his mouth, he said an astronomical figure - 10 times higher: 1 billion dollars. He calculated that the starting price of a chip company is about 200 million dollars, and after the flow of chips is done, a software team of thousands of people will be needed, which is also an expense measured in billions of dollars. If they want to make the ecology complete, 1 billion dollars is only a small amount.

Zhou Zhifeng was not shocked by this figure, instead he agreed with Zhang Wen's idea: the ratio of hardware and software engineers in "big chip" companies is usually 1:3, or even 1:5, but the ratio of hardware and software engineers in most other chip companies is 1:0.5, or even 1:0.2.

"Chips require three elements: capital-intensive, talent-intensive, plus resource-intensive, is a very expensive industry; second, from the product landing to slowly generate cash flow, at least two to three years; finally, from my past experience in entrepreneurship, startups must allow trial and error, trial and error also requires costs." These three points make Zhang Wen clearly aware that BIREN TECH has to "accumulate as much as possible".

It was a big gamble, and Zhang Wen had his moments of hesitation: should we make a modest product and go from there, or should we gamble big and go for a product that would really change the industry? Despite the fact that the latter option might be a faliure, the investors and Zhang Wen were on the same page: there was a real chance to change an industry, even if it costs whatever you give, so they had to try.

A Highly Dedicated Entrepreneur     

 

With more money comes controversy. The outside world has labelled Zhang Wen as a capital maniac, and there have been criticisms of the "sky-high" financing of BIREN TECH.

Indeed, the overheated GPU track has seen new startups opening their mouths with valuations of multi-ten billion dollars at every turn. This is somewhat similar to the controversy surrounding the development of BOE, which has been expanding at a breakneck pace since it entered the panel industry in 2002 with debt-based operations and leveraged financing for mergers and acquisitions, raising over 70 billion yuan to date, almost the largest financing an industrial company can do in the capital markets. Some media have commented that it is extremely skillful in "capturing money" and that its overall level of capital operation is "excellent" in the industry.

"Being open within yourself may give you more power. Because I had a lot of people who didn't understand from the first day I started the business." At BIREN TECH, Zhang Wen insists on being paid just one dollar, and he doesn't want to entangle his personal interests with those of the company during the start-up process. In the early days he would look at the reviews, and now he doesn't care about the misconceptions. He is clear that whether the reviews are complimentary or questionable, the most important thing is to get the product made.

On October 8, 2021, BIREN TECH gave an advance warning that the BR100 series will be "available to the market next year". The BR100 series of general-purpose computing products will focus on a wide range of computing application scenarios, including artificial intelligence training and reasoning, and general-purpose computing.

Promises were fulfilled.On 28 March 2022, during the closure of the company due to the epidemic, Zhang Wen and nearly 100 core employees chose to stay together at the company to usher in the most critical point of the company. Three days later, on the evening of 31 March, the BR100 series, the first general-purpose GPU chip from BIREN TECH, was successfully lit up. In the monumental group photo, the engineers could not hide their excitement.

The BR100 series of chips, according to BIREN TECH are based on their original chip architecture, using a 7nm process and incorporating a number of cutting-edge chip design, manufacturing and packaging technologies, including Chiplet (core particle technology). The BR100 series will be the representative of the domestic chip industry at HOT CHIPS in August this year, where it will compete with Nvidia, AMD and Intel, the three international giants of the chip industry, and is a key benchmark for the global high-performance chip industry, especially for original chip architectures.

Zhang Wen is somewhat paranoid, he is extremely demanding of this chip and wants it to be in the same league as the top manufacturers. This is perhaps a habit that has been cultivated since childhood.

"When I was a child, my mother once said to me, 'Do everything carefully and to the best of your ability, even wipe the table to get it the cleanest, or you don't do it'." Zhang Wen said. Since then, he feels that to do something either don't do it, or do it to the best of his ability.

After returning to China in 2011, Zhang Wen stayed in the deserted Shanghai Lingang district for four years in order to raise the yield of LED chips from 70% to over 95%. Before joining the company, Zhang Rujing asked him if he had any requirements. He said that it was enough for him to just drink Starbucks. Until he left Lingang, this wish did not come true.

"People who can succeed in entrepreneurship are basically a bit paranoid." Zhang Wen doesn't shy away from this statement, "I have a logical mindset that is different from others, if 90% of people agree with something and say to do it, I won't do it, if it's 90% of people who are against it and say don't do it, I will do it instead." The choice of GPU track also followed this logic.

However, Zhang Wen's choice stirred up a thousand waves. 2020, former Nvidia global vice president Zhang Jianzhong founded Moore Threads, which raised multi-billion dollars in 100 days; almost at the same time, Metax-tech was established, with founder Chen Weiliang as a former AMD director, and Metax-tech also received four rounds of funding within a year.

There is a growing consensus that there is more space in this track. According to IDC data, the global chip market will reach 35.2 billion dollars in 2022, with GPUs accounting for the most rapid growth and expected to account for 57% by 2025. In addition, IDC expects the Chinese market to reach 525.2 million server shipments in 2025, with a market size of 35 billion dollars.

"This is a market of multi-hundred billion dollars, in fact all our current friends are not considered competitors, we should love this industry together and not get in ‘involution’" .Zhang Wen said that at present, BIREN TECH has already got many orders from important customers.

On November 15, 1971, Intel wrote the bold words for a chip the size of a fingernail cap: to start a new era of integrated circuits. That year, Intel defined the CPU, and in 1999, Nvidia defined the GPU. now, the story of Chinese chip companies has just begun.