Pop quiz: What is the common 10,000-mile thread tying a British company, Imagination Technologies to the former president and CEO at Chinese fabless Answer: Li is Imagination’s brand-new CEO, picked by Canyon Bridge, the Chinese government-backed buyout fund that acquired the U.K. company last year.

Given Imagination’s minuscule market share in the Chinese smartphone market, the assumption might be that Li’s job is to expand its graphic IP core business in China. Imagination told us that the company's revenue in China was only about $11 million (excluding MIPS) in 2017.

This, however, is decidedly a short-sighted view.

The real line connecting the dots between Imagination, Leo Li and China is artificial intelligence. The long game Canyon Bridge expects Li and Imagination to play is AI and neural network technologies — for which China has a huge appetite and the U.K.-based IP company has big ambitions.

Leo Li, Imagination CEO
Leo Li, Imagination CEO (right) with Ray Bingham, founding partner at Canyon Bridge Capital Partners Inc. and Imagination’s executive chairman (left)

(Photo: Imagination)

Last year, Imagination unveiled a complete, standalone hardware IP neural network accelerator, called PowerVR Series2NX. The company claimed that its accelerator offers twice the performance and half the bandwidth of the nearest competitor. Imagination said this will serve vendors who are building SoCs for mobile, surveillance, automotive and consumer systems, enabling them to integrate the PowerVR Series2NX Neural Network Accelerator “for high-performance computation of neural networks at very low power consumption in minimal silicon area.”

AI acquisitions to come
Ray Bingham, founding partner at Canyon Bridge Capital Partners Inc., serving as Imagination’s executive chairman, said that he expects Li to expand Imagination’s business organically. But in parallel, he sees Canyon Bridge’s role as offering resources and helping Li “accelerate” AI technology development through mergers and acquisitions.

 

“There are different pieces of AI and neural network infrastructure technologies that we hope to buy, rather than building solutions on our own,” said Bingham. “We don’t see AI as a one-dimensional technology.”

Bingham hinted that Canyon Bridge has “a couple of significant transactions in the pipeline," but added, “it would be too premature to talk about it now.”

Pressed to discuss specific AI technologies sought by the Chinese, he said, “When it comes to the who, what and where [of Imagination’s AI strategies], I should leave it to Leo to discuss.”

Tuesday (April 3) was Li’s first day as Imagination’s CEO. Asked if it is rare to see a Chinese executive chosen to head up a Western company, Bingham made it clear that Li is a U.S. citizen, with many years of experience at U.S. firms. Prior to joining Spreadtrum, Li worked at several U.S. companies including Broadcom and Rockwell. He owns homes in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Bingham stressed, “Leo is an ideal CEO for Imagination. You couldn’t find anyone better qualified than him.”

In addition to his track record as a technologist and management executive, what appealed to Canyon Bridge was Li’s personality, the way he deals with customers, fellow executives and employees in whichever country he operates. Bingham said, “I watched him hanging out with English engineers in Kings Langley last week. Everyone was enjoying Leo. His open and warm personality is a fabulous asset.”

Last year, we asked Bingham if the investment in Imagination by Canyon Bridge, a fund with ties to the Chinese government, means knotting a strong tie between the U.K. company and China. At that time, Bingham responded carefully, saying, “That doesn’t mean Canyon Bridge is going to box up people [in the U.K. at Imagination] and move them to China.”  Instead, it’s Li now moving from Shanghai to head up the show in Kings Langley.

Late last fall, Li resigned as CEO at Spreadtrum. He became co-president of Tsinghua Unigroup last November. Sources in China told EE Times that, by earlier this year, Li was job-hunting again, with an eye toward the next step in his career.

— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times