It’s 3.30am in California and Jensen Huang, the outspoken chief executive of $300bn (£232bn) chip maker Nvidia is sitting in his spacious kitchen wearing one of his trademark leather jackets.
On a Zoom video call with journalists, the multi-billionaire seems genuinely puzzled by the concern being expressed in the UK over his announcement 11 hours earlier that he plans to buy Cambridge-headquartered chip design business Arm for $40bn.
“We would like to invest in the UK,” he says, frustration evident in his voice. “I have a hard time understanding how that would be viewed as anything short of a wonderful thing.”
Huang – whose own stake in Nvidia is now worth nearly $12bn – is used to having things go his way. After all, his business has experienced explosive growth in recent years as it successfully transitioned from a focus on cutting edge hardware for gaming computers to producing chips for applications in artificial intelligence (AI).
Nvidia’s value has jumped tenfold since 2016, when the firm was worth about $30bn. Now Huang stands on the threshold of his biggest and boldest acquisition to date – but it’s unlikely to be plain sailing. He faces a battle to win over sceptics in the UK Government and in industry who remain suspicious of his grand plans for Arm, sometimes called the “crown jewel” in the UK’s technology scene.
Huang has never lacked ambition. Born in Taiwan in 1963, his family moved to the US in 1973. He spent part of his childhood scrubbing toilets in his school’s dorm rooms before graduating with a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1992.
Before co-founding Nvidia on his 30th birthday in 1993, Huang had spent years learning the ropes of the arcane world of microprocessors.
Nvidia’s co-founders had correctly predicted a rise in demand for video games with improved graphics which would need more powerful processors.
They initially referred to their new company as “NV” – shorthand for “next version”. Huang and his co-founders decided to keep the acronym, searching for a word which included it when they came to incorporate the business. They settled on a version of “invidia” – the Latin word for “envy.”
Nvidia began life at the beginning of the 3D graphics boom in video games, with customers beginning to shell out thousands of dollars for Nvidia graphics cards that gave them access to the latest titles.
Unsurprisingly, the business forged close links with the video games world. One advert for Nvidia’s products from 2000 produced in collaboration with Halo developer Bungie featured an in-game soldier calling the latest Nvidia processor “one mean piece of alien-busting hardware!”
A focus on video games worked, with the business floating in 1999. Huang told employees he’d get a tattoo of Nvidia’s eye logo if the company’s share price hit $100. He delivered, crying in front of his children as the tattoo was inked on his left arm.
Staying in the world of video games would have limited Nvidia’s prospects, however. So the business expanded to start producing processors for high-end computers, the sort of machines used by academics to crunch through large amounts of information.
In 2019, Nvidia forked out $6.9bn to buy Mellanox Technologies, an Israeli provider of computer hardware to data centres used by technology giants.