PCN Technology Translates Industrial “Tower of Babel” Networks Into Language of the Internet

9/24/10Follow @bvbigelow

The key to the formation of San Diego’s PCN Technology came almost a decade ago, while co-founders Daniel Drolet and David Stumpf were working in a corner of the information technology sector that the Internet had seemingly left in the 20th century dust.

In the world of industrial computer networks and embedded systems, Drolet tells me, they were dealing with many different types of wired and wireless systems known generally as SCADA networks (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition). Most SCADA networks were installed long before the Internet came along with its standardized protocols known as TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). Yet these legacy networks are often mission-critical systems that are used to monitor processes and control equipment throughout refineries, power plants, chemical plants, water treatment plants, and other industrial facilities.

The way Drolet talks, however, SCADA technology embodies a Tower of Babel of industrial proportions—with many different types of communications protocols, different systems, and many different types of hardware.

PCN co-founder Dan Drolet

PCN co-founder Dan Drolet

By 2002, Drolet says, two themes were obvious: “There was a lot of wire [in commercial and industrial settings]—whether it was data wire or power wire—and the rest of the world was moving toward TCP/IP. So you had on the one side all this Internet connectivity for the consumer, consumer applications, and many smart devices coming out. But then you saw [outdated telecommunications technology] in the industrial, mission-critical world.”

Joining the Internet revolution, however, was not simply a matter of stringing some Ethernet cable across a factory floor.

As an example, Drolet says a gasoline service station built before the Internet era typically uses a legacy network installed under the concrete slab to control its gas pumps. A station owner who wants to install an encrypted payment system at the pump island, or add display screens with multimedia advertising, is often discouraged by the cost and time required to break the concrete slab and retrofit the pumps with Ethernet cable. Installing a wireless network poses a different set of problems, according to Drolet, including potential interference from trucks and competing sources of wireless signals that can reduce network reliability.

Drolet, who says he identified and researched the market need for two years, turned to Stumpf to develop the combination of hardware and software that converts standard conductive wire commonly used in SCADA networks into a TCP/IP communications system. Drolet says PCN’s technology enables 20th century industries “to repurpose and recycle their existing, mission-critical copper [wire] infrastructure” for Internet connectivity. PCN’s proprietary technology can be used with a wide variety of conductive wire, including energized AC power lines (below 600 volts), and the technology is “self-managing, self-adapting, and self-healing,” according to Drolet.

“Our goal is to merge the worlds of commercial, heavy commercial, industrial, and utility industries with our product, which provides a new network solution or server strategy,” Drolet says. He adds that the technology addresses such questions as “How do you get a technical solution using what’s already out there and that makes business sense? How do you merge these worlds to enable these mission-critical industrial markets to catch up, and take advantage of the technology available on the consumer side?”

PCN’s technology uses a “dynamic adaptive algorithm” to clean up signal noise on the line, and divide the copper line into independent sub-channels. Drolet says this enables PCN to move multiple types of data, whether it’s on a single-purpose copper wire or a power wire, between PCN modules that act as nodes on the line. “What that allows to happen,” Drolet says, “is to put multiple types of communications infrastructure on old wire, or existing wire.”

Drolet adds, “By the nature of what we do, we’re a cleantech, or green IT company because we’re recycling and repurposing existing wire.”

The markets the company is targeting include utility “smart grids,” oil and gas pipelines and related facilities, automotive assembly plants, lighting systems, and building and plant automation and control systems. Drolet says PCN’s technology makes it possible to use more than one communications protocol on a line, enabling the wire to be used for both its original purpose, such as monitoring pressure and temperature readings and controlling equipment, and as an intranet running standard Internet communications protocols.

The company says its technology works on just about any type of wire. PCN has even demonstrated that it can convert barbed wire into an Internet-ready communications network.

One of the most interesting applications that Drolet described is converting the wire used in closed circuit TV systems—enabling users to access security surveillance video on the Internet. “Most of our applications are not heavy media applications,” Drolet says. But PCN’s technology can provide what he calls “DVD-quality video” at Internet speeds that range from roughly 8 to 40 megabytes per second—depending on signal noise on the line and the distances involved.

Drolet and Stumpf founded the company in 2004, and it operated mostly as a virtual company with employees in the Midwest, Southeast, and Santa Clara, CA. The company filed for its first patent in 2005 (which was issued in 2007), and hired Venkat Shastri as CEO in 2006, recruiting him from Palomar Technologies, a Carlsbad, CA-based specialist in precision microelectronic automation packaging and assembly systems.

PCN closed on $8 million in a Series A round of funding led by EnerTech Capital of Conshohoken, PA, in 2008, and consolidated its operations in San Diego that same year. Other investors include Joe Kasputys, who was the founding chairman and CEO of Global Insight and a former chairman and CEO of Primark, and Jerre Stead, the former chairman and CEO of Ingram Micro and a former CEO of Square D. Stead is a member of PCN’s board of directors while Kasputys sits on the company’s advisory board, which includes Bill Roper, the former Verisign CEO and longtime SAIC CFO, and Jim Bixby, the former chairman and CEO of San Diego’s SeQual Technologies and Brooktree.

The company now has about 13 employees and seven contract workers, and is preparing to raise its Series B round, which Drolet expects will close sometime during the first quarter of next year. The company also is already generating sales (which Drolet declined to quantify) from its first product.

“We have interest coming in from all over the place,” Drolet says. “We’re pushing some customers away because we can’t serve everybody, so we’re also managing that part” of the company’s growth. To Drolet, PCN is on its way to doing for existing conductive wire what Qualcomm did in the wireless space.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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