Aiming at Constrained Bandwidth, Ortiva’s Technology Improves Video Streaming
[Updated 8/30/11, 1:25 pm. See below.] The way to think about San Diego’s Ortiva Wireless is that it serves as a kind of accelerator. The reason the company exists comes down to the fact that the world is going wireless, the mobile device is moving into the center of our lives, and bandwidth congestion is an increasing problem.
“It’s not a techy thing,” CEO Marc Zionts told me earlier this summer. “There’s just an insatiable demand for bandwidth on wireless networks, and we’re just one of the bullets for that pain.”
Bullets usually inflict pain, but you get the idea. Ortiva has developed server-based software that’s designed to make mobile video stream faster and better across a wireless network, and seamlessly deliver other multimedia content that’s transmitted to mobile subscribers. The company’s customers are mostly mobile network operators in North America and Europe (such as Sprint and Vodaphone), and other wireless service providers.
“The essence of what we do is video optimization,” Zionts says. “The value proposition for consumers is that they get a better experience with fewer stalls when we’re in the network.”
Where San Diego’s Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) is primarily concerned with the bandwidth problem from the perspective of mobile devices, Zionts says Ortiva is focused mostly on the core of the wireless network.
Ortiva was founded in late 2004 to develop a promising breakthrough that Sujit Dey, an electrical and computer engineering professor, had created at UC San Diego. Dey, who has remained at UCSD while serving as Ortiva’s chief technology officer, says his innovation dynamically adapts data for the type of network, device, and application being used. In 2005, Dey said: “Our pitch to wireless carriers is that our products can increase wireless data capacity and revenues by a very healthy margin, while reducing capital and operating expenditures. We also provide significant advantages to content providers and aggregators—allowing them to deliver rich content across any network and device, without the need to develop and maintain network and device-specific content versions.”
Since 2004, Ortiva has raised nearly $40 million from venture investors that include San Diego’s Mission Ventures and Avalon Ventures, along with Palo Alto, CA-based Artiman Ventures, Intel Capital, and Comcast Interactive Capital.
For the first few years, Ortiva was focused mostly on developing the technology. Zionts says he joined the company in 2008 to take the company into the commercial world, and today Ortiva has 70 employees around the world, with 40 or so at its San Diego headquarters. “The strategy already was in place,” Zionts says. “The plan since I walked in the door has been executing, building, and growing on that.”
[Updated to include Ortiva's business goals] Fueled by that steady growth, Ortiva should be profitable next year, Zionts says. “Our goals are to continuing growing business with current and additional customers and then to develop partnerships to expand our reach in sales in marketing.” Zionts adds that Ortiva already has partnered with Nokia Siemens Networks, which has a worldwide agreement to sell Ortiva’s technology to mobile network operators. Ortiva also has been working with HP to jointly sell to customers in Asia.
A longtime telecom industry executive, Zionts was previously the CEO of Fastmobile, a Chicago-area provider of integrated mobile services—and he continues to live there and commute to San Diego. He says his commute to San Diego actually takes less time than his commute to the Boston area, where he spent five years as the CEO of Cantata Technology before it was acquired by Dialogic. Somehow, Zionts also finds time for cycling, and trains daily so he can remain near the highest levels of competition. (He told me he knows most of the Americans who were in the 2011 Tour de France.)
If the value proposition for mobile consumers is a better video experience, Zionts says the value proposition that Ortiva offers wireless carriers is saving money. “We can deliver that video experience for consumers by using less bandwidth.” The company’s technology “saves data” (by reducing the amount of data that gets transmitted), improves the quality of a mobile user’s video-streaming or Web-browsing experience, and does it all cost-effectively. “Doing any one of those things is hard,” Zionts says. “Doing all three of those things is super hard.” He maintains that it is this capability at the heart of Ortiva’s intellectual property that differentiates the company from its competitors.
For example, Zionts explains that a streaming video consists of information within frames. “Instead of cutting off 30 percent of the frame, we have an algorithm that understands each and every frame, and the value of that frame to the human perception system. It’s like we have a scalpel to carve out what the viewer doesn’t see anyway.”
Zionts says Ortiva’s competition prefers a kind of brute-force approach that decodes the data in a video stream, compresses it, and then reincodes it for users—a process that requires a lot of hardware processing power.
Ortiva’s methods, in contrast, work in what Zionts calls “the compressed domain.” “We go into the video and remove what the human eye will not notice in order to make the video smaller when the network bandwidth is constrained,” Zionts says. This approach, along with other techniques, such as managing the buffer, allow for bandwidth savings without sacrificing quality.
So wouldn’t it make sense for Alcatel-Lucent, Nokia Siemens Networks, and other big network equipment suppliers to develop similar technology themselves?
“While some might try organic development to solve this problem,” Zionts says, “they often prefer to acquire the best technology in order to get to market faster and reduce their risk of development.”