Intel courts China's hardware startups to popularize its mobile, IoT chips

Intel is funding a 'maker' accelerator program in China

Intel is holding a developer forum in Shenzhen, China.

Intel is holding a developer forum in Shenzhen, China.

Erwin Liu is the CEO of a fledgling Chinese startup, and he's been the happy recipient of free chips from Intel.

"Whenever I went to Intel's offices, they would always give us some free samples," he said.

Liu's company, CEIN Biotechnology, which develops finger vein scanners, is just one among the many Chinese tech startups Intel is courting.

In the battle for chip supremacy, the U.S. tech giant has been trying to dig deep into China's hardware industry, and ensure that not just big vendors use its technology, but small emerging players too.

On Wednesday, Intel held its annual developers conference in Shenzhen, China, at a time when rival ARM-based chips from Qualcomm and MediaTek have been all the rage.

Although Intel has dominated the PC and server markets, it has struggled to replicate that success in smartphones and tablets. ARM-based chips have long been favored in mobile devices, even as Intel tries to catch up and offer new, more battery-friendly processors with improved connectivity.

Intel isn't giving up, and in Shenzhen it has been promoting its upcoming mobile technology. The company has also been planting the seeds in China to keep its processors relevant in the long-term, through investment and partnerships.

On Wednesday, Intel announced a "Mass Makerspace Accelerator" program that seeks to fund Chinese startups and developers, with an investment that includes 120 million yuan (US$19.6 million.)

"Makers" can refer to tech hobbyists who enjoy building their own gadgets. But many of them are also establishing hardware startups that are selling wearables and smart home products, and seeking funding on Kickstarter. In Shenzhen, developers have come up with robots that can draw pictures, handheld air purifiers, and new phone charging accessories.

This all comes at a time when the Internet of Things space is starting to take off. Intel is expecting billions of new connected devices to be sold in the coming years for health monitoring, exercise, and smart furniture, among others.

However, it won't just be a few vendors offering these products, but a giant crowd made up of both big and small players, not all of whom are well-known.

During the PC era, Intel's route to chip-selling was defined and straight-forward. For example, in the laptop market, the company only had to work with six or so different notebook manufacturers out of neighboring Taiwan, said Bryan Ma, an analyst with research firm IDC.

That all changed with the arrival of tablets and smartphones. An army of Chinese vendors has stepped up, selling mobile devices across the world, although under brand names few may have heard of.

"Intel is being forced to work with a completely different set of supply chain folks that's doing things quite differently in much smaller quantities," Ma said.

This has involved finding partners that know the Chinese industry. Last year, it struck a deal with Rockchip, a local maker of ARM-based processors, to jointly develop an Intel-based Atom chip for tablets. The Atom X3 processor goes into production this month, and over 45 tablet, smartphone designs are already being developed around it.

"Mobile, we are coming," said Rockchip's CEO Min Li at Intel's developer conference.

A year ago, Intel also announced it would spend $100 million to fund Chinese product development in convertible laptops, tablets, smartphones and wearables. About $37 million of those funds have already been used, with some going to a Chinese Android ROM developer called Lewa, and iris-recognition developer EyeSmart Technology.

"We are not the only company that innovates," said Doug Fisher, an Intel senior vice president, in a press conference. "And so it's important for us to plant a lot of seeds, and let a thousand flowers bloom, and try and harvest the most precious of those."

Intel's efforts include its Edison development platform, which involves helping entrepreneurs build connected devices around its Edison chip.

Liu, the CEO of the finger vein scanner startup, became involved with the Edison platform through a competition Intel sponsored. Liu's company is developing finger vein recognition software that can be used in banks or hospitals to identify users.

The company, however, also wanted to come out with some consumer-facing hardware, so it developed a prototype finger vein reader with Intel's Edison chip.

"The Edison support has been timely, and fast. In two or three weeks we've been able to complete the concept, and move it to hardware," Liu said. To help his startup and others, Intel has also recruited manufacturers and Chinese Internet firms to potentially assemble and distribute the products.

Liu said he could have chosen chips from Qualcomm, but said Intel's Edison processor was better designed to run his finger-vein reading services. Intel has also been quick to answer any technical questions, through its website, over the phone and via messaging apps.

The support has helped promote Liu's company. "We were just established, our brand awareness and product still needs work, but Intel has been there to help us compensate," he said.

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