Graphcore co-founder Nigel Toon on how you can make your startup a success

Nigel Toon Graphcore

At Tech City News, we’re always keen to shine a light on those who make up the UK’s thriving technology community.

This week, we spoke with Nigel Toon, CEO and co-founder of Graphcore, an AI chip startup. 

He shared some advice on what tech startup founders should do to keep their companies afloat and make them a success.

Tech vertical: Machine learning / AI

Funding: $30m Series A

Staff count: 40

Location: Bristol

Founded: 2014

Q: Where did the idea for Graphcore come from?

At Graphcore, we make processors for innovators looking to expand human potential with machine learning and AI technology. Simon (CTO and co-founder) and I started thinking about the fundamental compute challenges of machine learning workloads, which are completely different to other types of computing, about five years ago. Over the last three years we built the best team capable of re-thinking processors and produced a completely different solution. We’ve created a new processor that’s the first to be specifically designed for machine learning workloads – an Intelligent Processing Unit (IPU) that will set a new pace of innovation. We emerged from stealth in October, but we started exploring the idea a long time before that.

Q: What’s your background? What were you doing before?

I was CEO of two VC-backed silicon companies before founding Graphcore; Picochip, which was sold to Mindspeed in 2012 and most recently, XMOS, in which Graphcore was incubated for two years before being established as a separate entity in 2016. Before that I was co-founder of Icera, a 3G cellular modem chip company which was sold to NVIDIA in 2011 for $435m.

Before that, I was Vice President at Altera for 13 years where I was responsible for establishing and building the European business that grew to over $400m annual revenues.

Q: Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.

I have spent over five years of my working life in Silicon Valley without ever living there. I hate to think how many years of my life I have spent on a plane.

Q: What has been the most challenging part about setting up your company?

We have built a team of around 40 of the best silicon and software engineers in the world over the last two years, mainly by recruiting people we have worked with before. We have also attracted a renowned set of investors, including Bosch, Samsung, Amadeus Capital, C4 Ventures, Draper Esprit, Foundation Capital & Pitango Ventures. None of this has been easy.

Q: Have you had any mentors along the way, if so, what have they helped with?

I have been fortunate to know Sir Robin Saxby for the last 20 years (Saxby grew ARM to the global giant it is today as its first CEO) and he has been a constant source of inspiration.

Q: What can we expect from Graphcore in the next 12 months?

Our IPU (Intelligent Processing Unit) Appliance will be in the market and we’ll have customers using our systems for machine learning.

Q: Name three things that every tech founder out there should do to guarantee his/her company’s success.

Surround yourself with the best and most intelligent team of people you can.

With startups when you should think differently about your company’s SWOT analysis – you’ll have way too many weaknesses and threats so focus relentlessly on your strengths and opportunities.

Finally, don’t let your company run out of cash.