Nearly three years after her surprise exit as Intel's president, Renee James is back in the chip industry with a heavily capitalized new company focused on cloud computing.
The business, Ampere Computing, makes chips for data centers based on technology from Intel rival ARM Holdings. Its headquarters is in Silicon Valley, just two miles from Intel's, but Ampere will have an office in downtown Portland, too, and outposts in Vietnam and India.
Ampere starts out with more than 300 employees, most of them hired last year when the Carlyle Group, the private equity firm where James has been working, acquired the computer chip division of MACOM Technology Solutions. Ampere has been operating in stealthy mode since then.
James, a University of Oregon graduate who spent 26 years at Intel, is the new company's chairwoman and chief executive and will split her time between the Bay Area and Portland, as she did while she worked at Intel. She has hired a number of her former colleagues to help run the business and lead its research.
Though James plays down potential competition with her longtime employer, she allows there will be areas of overlap and says her new company will bring a fresh take to the industry.
"There aren't that many people in the world who build high-performance microprocessors," said James, 53. "And I do think we need new views on what's next."
A protege of legendary Intel CEO Andy Grove, James was a finalist for the chipmaker's top job in 2013. Ultimately, Intel picked another insider, Brian Krzanich, and he made James his top lieutenant.
The partnership didn't last, though -- Krzanich has replaced many of the insiders in Intel's top executive ranks. When James left in 2015, she said she would seek a position as CEO elsewhere.
Many assumed she would take over an established company. In an interview, though, James said she had a particular technology in mind and doubted a larger company would make the commitment she felt it needed.
So she decided to start fresh.
"It's very risky, it's very hard, but it's incredibly rewarding," James said. "Every day you can come in with the idea you're inventing something nobody's done yet."
Ampere is focused on memory-intensive tasks in data centers. Its technology is designed for hyperscaling, quickly accelerating to large computing needs for databases, web servers, web applications and big data analytics.
"Those are the workloads that have the most benefit from the first product," James said. It's a specialized market, but James said Ampere doesn't consider itself a niche company.
"It's meant to be a general purpose compute product," she said, "not a specialty product."
The Carlyle Group hasn't said what it paid to acquire MACOM's technology or how much it's investing in the business, but MACOM said it received a $36.5 million stake in the company that became Ampere, representing less than 20 percent of the new business. That suggests a value of more than $180 million.
Ampere's Portland staff includes three other Intel alumni:
--Atiq Bajwa, chief architect (formerly vice president of product architecture at Intel)
--Rohit Vidwans, VP of hardware engineering (formerly VP of hardware engineering at Intel)
--Chi Miller, chief financial officer (formerly vice president of finance at Intel, and later a director of finance for Apple)
In the 1970s and '80s, chip startups were commonplace in both the Silicon Valley and Silicon Forest as engineers and investors sought to capitalize on rapidly evolving computer technology. The pace of new startups fell off considerably over the last 15 years, though, as the cost of developing new chip technologies ballooned and big chip companies like Intel took commanding leads in the most lucrative technologies.
Recently, however, chip startups have returned to focus on artificial intelligence and other new applications. And the costs have come down, thanks to customizable designs from ARM and advanced contract manufacturers like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., which will make Ampere's chips.
Big computer companies are experimenting with a variety of chip designs from established businesses like NVIDIA and upstarts like Ampere. But Intel still has a dominant position in the data center market, and the resources to spend heavily to maintain that lead.
James, though, insisted the market is hungry for new, innovative ideas.
"The world needs a different point of view on what's possible for the data center," she said.