She Was No. 2 at Intel. Now She’s Taking Aim at the Chipmaker.
Posted February 5, 2018 9:02 a.m. EST
SAN FRANCISCO — Over 28 years at Intel, Renée James climbed to the No. 2 position at the giant computer chipmaker, becoming one of Silicon Valley’s prominent female leaders.
Now she is taking aim at Intel’s most lucrative business, one that she helped build.
James, who announced in 2015 that she would resign from Intel, on Monday revealed a startup backed by the private equity firm Carlyle Group to sell chips to handle calculations in servers. Those computers run most internet services and corporate back-office operations.
Intel dominates that market, accounting for 98 percent of the microprocessor chips sold for the most popular variety of server, the research firm IDC estimates. The group that sells such chips generated about $19 billion in revenue last year and nearly half of Intel’s operating profit.
James emphasized her respect for her former employer and played down potential competition. She said her new company, Ampere, was designing chips for new, specialized jobs at cloud services that aren’t Intel’s primary focus.
“I think they’re the best in the world at what they do,” James said of Intel. “I just don’t think they’re doing what comes next.”
An Intel spokesman declined to comment. Analysts said the company had developed a variety of products to serve the kinds of companies that Ampere is courting.
Intel, whose chips helped drive the personal computer revolution, was once the underdog in the data center. In the 1990s, the company gradually increased the power of its chips and added features needed for servers. The rising performance and much lower price of such machines eventually supplanted hardware from companies like IBM.
James, 53, who received business degrees from the University of Oregon and started in marketing jobs at Intel, aided the server push by encouraging development of software needed to thrive in the market, among other efforts.
“She’s known as the person who put software on the map at Intel,” said Patrick Moorhead, an industry analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy.
James later spearheaded major Intel software acquisitions, including a $7.68 billion purchase of the security specialist McAfee in 2010. Six years later, Intel agreed to sell a majority stake of that business to the investment firm TPG.
James was considered a candidate to succeed Paul Otellini, who stepped down as Intel chief executive in May 2013. Instead, she and Brian Krzanich successfully pitched Intel directors on a joint plan to run the company.
She was named president, the highest-ranking job ever held by a woman at the company, and Krzanich became chief executive. James later decided to seek a chief executive spot elsewhere, opting in early 2016 to first become an operating executive at Carlyle.
James learned management skills from Andrew Grove, the acclaimed former Intel chief. Before he died in 2016, she said, Grove encouraged her to follow her dream of a chip startup — a plan with parallels to the 1968 founding of Intel as a breakaway from a chip pioneer, Fairchild Semiconductor.
“He said, ‘I just want you to know, this is a really hard job,'” James recalled. “I said: ‘I know. But it’s so much fun.'”
Her venture is the latest in a series of largely unsuccessful attempts, dating back more than seven years, to shake up the server market with technology licensed by ARM Holdings that is used as a mainstay of smartphones. One selling point is reduced power consumption, a hot topic in data centers.
Ampere’s underlying technology originated at Applied Micro Circuits, which built three generations of ARM-based server chips. The Silicon Valley company was acquired in early 2017 by Macom Technology Solutions, which in October agreed to sell the business to what is now Ampere. Essentially all of Applied Micro’s 300-person development team joined the new venture, James said.
She declined to disclose how much Carlyle was investing but said Ampere was amply funded. It has recruited Intel veterans and other engineers and completed its first chip, which is available in sample quantities, she said. The startup is based not far from Intel’s headquarters.
Ampere won’t lack for competition. Besides Intel, a longtime rival, Advanced Micro Devices, has a new line of server chips that have landed some customers. Qualcomm, the biggest mobile chip maker, unveiled an ARM-based server chip in November. Marvell Technology and Cavium, which have agreed to merge, also sell ARM server chips.
James sounds undaunted. She said Ampere’s chips topped rival products on price, speedy connections to retrieve data from memory and other features. More broadly, she said, the market has changed because of advances in software, manufacturing technology and renewed investor interest in startups pursuing specialties such as machine learning.
“There’s a lot of excitement around silicon again,” she said.