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Former Intel President Renee James Is Back With New Chip Company, Ampere Computing

Jonathan Vanian

A new computer chip maker led by Intel's former president Ren?e James aims to make name for itself in corporate data centers.

The startup, Ampere Computing, is the first CEO position for James, who was the highest-ranking woman at Intel until she left the company in 2015 after nearly three decades. She was also a member of Fortune's Most Powerful Women list in 2014.

Although James has been quietly building Ampere Computing's business over the past few years, she didn't want to reveal the company to the public before its semiconductor chips were ready and being tested by a few customers like , , and Lenovo, James said.

"Monday is 'Hello world' for us at Ampere, because, of course, the product is here," James said of the company's public coming out.

The roughly 300-person startup is backed by private equity giant Carlyle Group, which James joined in 2016 as an operating executive. She declined to comment on Ampere's funding, but it's likely significant considering the startup has offices in Santa Clara, Calif. and Portland, Ore. as well as an office in Taiwan and multiple chip design centers in India and Vietnam.

Silicon Valley venture capitalists have generally avoided investing in new computer chip companies because of the high cost of developing and building processors. In recent years, however, investors have begun funding a new wave of startups that are focused on building custom chips that can handle the unique processing needs of artificial intelligence-related tasks like machine learning.

Ampere's computer chips, however, are unlike these startups' technology and are designed to power more conventional computing tasks typically found in corporate data centers. This makes them more akin to the kinds of chips sold by her former employer, Intel, which is the dominant data center chip manufacturer.

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James acknowledged the challenges facing new computer chip companies and said that one venture capitalist told her "you've clearly lost your mind." It can be incredibly difficult for an unknown smaller semiconductor startup with limited resources to compete against a giant like Intel.

However, she contends that "everything I ever worked on was risky--every single thing."

"This is part of the deal, innovation is a drug," she said.

Ampere's chips are based on designs from semiconductor company ARM Holdings, which has also recently licensed its computer chip designs to that could help the mobile chip giant create a data center processor competitor to Intel.

James claims Ampere's server chips are tailored to meet the needs of cloud computing giants like Microsoft that want more energy-efficient processors than what is currently available.

She said she recruited several computer chip veterans from Intel and its rival AMD to lead Ampere, and that her tenure at Intel has prepared her to start her own company. James’ final years at Intel involved dealing with shrinking sales in the company’s personal computer business as it shifted its focus to data center chips.

In 2010, James helped Intel purchase the security business McAfee for $7.7 billion in an attempt to bundle more security features in its chips. Two years after James left Intel, the company ended up spinning out the McAfee business to private equity firm TPG.

Regarding her thoughts on Intel CEO Bryan Krzanich and how he's been running the company since she left, James said "I am a shareholder so I can say nothing but, 'Outstanding job Bryan.'" Presumably, James is referring to Intel’s steadily rising stock price in recent years.

She declined to comment on how Intel is handling the fallout of the recent Spectre and Meltdown flaws found in its computer chips, which has upset some security researchers and computer scientists who want more transparency from the company. The flaws, which also affect AMD and others, could potentially be exploited by hackers, and companies like Google and Microsoft have been issuing software updates to prevent future problems.

As for another former high-profile Intel executive Diane Bryant, who recently joined Google's cloud computing unit as an executive, James said she's "super excited" for her former colleague of several decades. But she hasn't formally talked to about her company's computer chips.

"I think Google should be so lucky to have her, they have a lot of money and they know what they are doing," James said. "You just pray you get to partner with them."

As for her previous efforts bringing more women and minority workers into Intel, James said Ampere wants to build a corporate culture that includes people with diverse backgrounds.

"Look, it's hard. Technology is tough for women anyway," James said about the underrepresentation of women in the field. She said that she and AMD CEO Lisa Su "know each other well," implying a bond between the two as two powerful women in the semiconductor industry.

But sometimes James can be so focused on her job that she overlooks the fact that she is indeed a woman in a male-dominated tech industry.

“I sometimes feel like I crossed over and I somehow became gender neutral,” James said. “I don't even think about it so far.”

 

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