World Economic Forum Helps Burnish San Diego’s On-Ramp Wireless, a Specialist in Low-Power, Low Data Rate Technology
San Diego’s On-Ramp Wireless already seemed to have plenty of momentum before the World Economic Forum of Geneva, Switzerland, included the San Diego wireless startup on its list of 31 companies designated as 2011 “technology pioneers.”
The startup was founded in 2008 to develop a specialized, end-to-end wireless system for low data rate communication across very wide areas—the sort of network needed to monitor electric utility grids, aqueducts, and irrigation systems that extend over thousands of square miles. “The way we frame it is, ‘Many devices talking small amounts of information with low power,’ ” says Joaquin Silva, On-Ramp’s Founding CEO.
Silva says On-Ramp’s proprietary Ultra-Link Processing (ULP) system already is in production in Taiwan—and shipping to customers—and the startup is initially focused on markets in the United States and Asia. “Asia is a really important strategic market for us,” Silva says. “They’ve got a lot of energy problems, their utility infrastructure is being outstripped through growth, and they tend to be early adopters of wireless technologies in general.”
On-Ramp disclosed in a June 14 regulatory filing that it had raised $4.5 million in a combination of equity, rights, and securities out of a planned $18 million in new financing. Silva says On-Ramp has not identified its investors, although Babak Razi and Barak Bussel of Beverly Hills, CA-based Third Wave Ventures have joined the company’s board. (On-Ramp’s board also includes Don Telage of Boston’s Frontier Capital and former Texas Instruments executive Douglas Rasor, who now heads Rasor Advisors in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.) In its initial round of venture capital, Silva says On-Ramp raised $12 million in venture funding from an unnamed angel investor and Gemtek, a wireless semiconductor manufacturer in Taiwan.
When The World Economic Forum identified its 31 technology pioneers for 2011, the Swiss non-profit foundation said the pioneering companies “represent some of the most cutting edge start-ups from around the globe whose innovations will have a critical impact on the future of business and society.” The forum identified On-Ramp as a cleantech pioneer that “is expected to play a significant role in making the ‘Internet of things’ a reality, helping new technologies like smart grids bridge the gap between the growing demand for energy and a need to significantly reduce CO2 emissions.”
While On-Ramp is Silva’s third startup, he says he saw the opportunity for such technology after working for seven years as an investment banker focused on wireless semiconductors and systems at Santa Monica, CA-based Montgomery & Co. In a sector then known as industrial sensors and telemetry, Silva says he saw a lot of shortcomings. “I saw that there were a lot of challenges in scaling the networks. Everybody was going for broadband, from 2G, 3G to LTE. So basically I said why don’t we get the smartest guys we know and go after the low data rate, the extreme opposite problem.
Silva says the smartest people he knew included On-Ramp co-founder Ted Myers, who started San Diego-based CommASIC in 2001 (acquired by Austin, TX-based Freescale Semiconductor in 2005), and Robert Boesel, a former Qualcomm director of engineering and CommASIC veteran who now serves as On-Ramp’s vice president of engineering. “We started the company about 2-1/2 years ago with the idea of being able to do wide-area, low-power machine-to-machine networking,” Silva says. “This was before the smart grid, smart water, smart energy stuff had become a household phrase.” The startup currently has 53 employees.
Silva says a key insight that led to the formation of On-Ramp was in realizing that ZigBee, a short-range wireless mesh networking standard, would provide only a small sliver of the capabilities needed for very large, low-power wireless networks.
“Basically [ZigBee] works well for a different application space,” Silva says. “The space we’re targeting is low-energy, low-power, wide-area, critical infrastructure. If you look at ZigBee, it has a decent foothold in areas such as home automation systems and building area networks—but not ‘How do I monitor something three miles away on a distribution grid line?'”
Silva adds, “You’d have to deploy a lot of repeater infrastructure [to deploy ZigBee in a power grid] and for most customers that’s not really viable. To cover San Diego, you’d need like 10,000 repeaters and cell relays. Picking away at that a bit, I said, ‘OK let’s take the best cellular techniques of wide area communications and use it to solve that problem.'”
In doing a lot of research in 2008 on what was going on with asset tagging and tracking in the utility industry and other sectors, Silva says he realized it might be possible to reduce the wireless network infrastructure and still let a signal propagate a very long distance without using repeaters. If it could work, he says he saw “There are a whole set of applications that are underserved, from leak detection systems, to distribution grid sensors and irrigation sensors that cover a large geographic area.”
On-Ramp says its wireless system operates in unlicensed spectrum. In mesh networks, On-Ramp says, “a substantial amount of capacity is consumed by ‘housekeeping’ the network configuration. On-Ramp says its Ultra-Link Processing network is configured in a “simple star topology” that simplifies the networking protocol and enhances network capacity. A ULP network also can take advantage of favorable antenna placement, such as a high elevation, due to its high capacity, multiple access scheme.
A key advantage of On-Ramp’s system, according to The World Economic Forum, is its ability to pick up even the weakest signals—despite ambient radio frequency background noise. “On-Ramp’s ULP System can reach over 97 percent of utility end points, such as [customer] meters, sensors and fault indicators with as little as 30 access points covering an area of 10,000 kilometers,” the Forum says in its report on technology pioneers. “The deployment cost of such a systems is $1 million, several orders of magnitude lower than competing systems.” Silva says the speed of the industry uptake of On-Ramp technology—especially among electric utilities—has taken him a little by surprise.
“We always thought it was going to be a very compelling technology,” Silva says. “But there’s just a lot of money and attention being dumped into that sector. Our biggest challenge early on has been educating the market on why our system is different, and why it’s needed versus the alphabet soup of other [wireless] protocols out there.”
On-Ramp video of CEO Joaquin Silva: