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31 October, 2023 - 20:45 By Tony Quested

Cambridge Angels leads $5m pre-seed round for US silicon startup

Cambridge Angels has led a $5 million pre-seed round in zeroRISC, a startup based in Boston Massachusetts.

Business Weekly believes it to be the first time the Cambridge investment vehicle has been lead investor in a US company’s funding round. Chaired by Pam Garside, Cambridge Angels is a group of more than 60 high-net-worth investors who have proven experience as successful entrepreneurs.

Pete Hutton – former Arm President of Product Groups and Rajat Malhotra of Wren Capital co-steered the deal on behalf of Cambridge Angels with participation from numerous private investors including Hermann Hauser, co-founder of Amadeus Capital Partners, who was also influential in spinning out Advanced RISC Machines (ARM) from Acorn back in 1990.

zeroRISC plans to use the cash to deliver the first commercial OpenTitan®-based cloud security service for silicon. Nuvoton, a Taiwan-based semiconductor company, has become the first commercial integration partner as part of the project.

Founded in April 2023, and now officially out of stealth, zeroRISC features original OpenTitan project team members from Google – including founder and CEO Dominic Rizzo. Before launching zeroRISC, Rizzo launched and led Google’s OpenTitan Project, the first open-source project that built design and integration guidelines for silicon RoT.

Chair of the zeroRISC board, Dr Gavin Ferris is co-founder of Cambridge,UK-based lowRISC CIC, the non-profit host of the OpenTitan project, where he currently serves as pro bono CEO.

Founded in 2018 at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, lowRISC is a not-for-profit company/CIC that provides a neutral home for collaborative engineering to develop and maintain open source silicon designs and tools for the long term.

The lowRISC Community Interest Company board consists of Professor Sir Andy Hopper (Independent Chair, Treasurer and Vice President of the Royal Society), Will Drewry (Google), Professor Dr. Claudia Eckert (TUM), Dr Gavin Ferris (lowRISC), Professor Robert Mullins (University of Cambridge) and Cyrus Stoller (Google).

zeroRISC has pledged to provide a cloud security service for silicon that delivers transparency and trustworthiness for data centres and ICS/OT, IoT and edge devices.

The zeroRISC platform is described by the business as the only all-in-one, drop-in silicon, software and services solution that delivers trustworthy, cloud-based secure device management below the operating system while making secure ownership transfer straightforward. The company is working with multiple other commercial integration partners besides Nuvoton.

OpenTitan is the world’s first open-source digital design for silicon RoT to include commercial-grade design verification, top-level testing and continuous integration.

The silicon RoT ensures that the hardware infrastructure and the software that runs on it remain in their intended, trustworthy state by verifying that the critical system components boot securely using only authorised and verifiable code.

As the latest official member of the OpenTitan project, the zeroRISC team played a critical role in the first discreet silicon tape-out and is driving efforts to validate that first chip and bring it to commercial production.

Pete Hutton said: “With cybersecurity liability shifting from end users to manufacturers, truly trustworthy security leveraging the OpenTitan drop-in design represents a massive commercial opportunity.

“The team at zeroRISC is unmatched and we immediately recognised its potential to significantly disrupt a highly proprietary industry. We look forward to supporting the team in realising long-term success through commercial utility and broad adoption.”

Dominic Rizzo added: “No system can be secure at the operating system level. The safest and most secure systems start with open secure silicon and provide assurances upon that trustworthy foundation.

“Our mission is to advance the incredible work of the OpenTitan project by delivering a set of secure cloud-based services for device security and management built upon a transparent, trustworthy, secure silicon platform that makes secure transfer of ownership a reality. In doing so, we’re extending zero trust principles below the operating system and back into the supply chain.”

Hopper Studentship Fund

Independent chair at lowRISC, Professor Sir Andy Hopper has created the Hopper Studentship fund that will enable one recipient every year to study for their PhD at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Computer Science and Technology.

Professor Hopper was offered a funded place at Cambridge University 49 years ago to pursue a PhD in 'Local Area Computer Communication Networks' with pioneering Computer Scientist David Wheeler.

A serial entrepreneur, companies on Professor Hopper’s CV include Orbis, Acorn, Olivetti/AT&T Lab, Virata, Solarflare, Ubisense, RealVNC and lowRISC. He also combined working in the Computer Laboratory with co-founding and managing the Olivetti Research / AT&T Laboratories research lab.

He in turn is now gifting a fund to the Department that will enable other students to complete their PhDs here. The inaugural recipient is Wilf Offord.

"What's so important about PhD students is the way they inject fresh blood into the Department," Professor Hopper said. "A PhD programme is a structure for regularly bringing in new ideas – and that’s what keeps the Department in good intellectual heart."

His association with Cambridge began in 1974 after he completed his BSc in Computer Technology at the then University College of Swansea. He'd applied to do a PhD at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology but got no response. His Professor at Swansea suggested he approached Cambridge.

"I called them up and they said, 'Come up quickly'," Professor Hopper recalls. "So I did. When I walked in, Roger Needham and Maurice Wilkes were sitting there. They took one look at me and said, 'You're in'."

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