On-Ramp Wireless, Learning From the Past, Says Its System Is Ready

3/28/12Follow @bvbigelow

San Diego’s On-Ramp Wireless was founded in 2008 to develop low-power, low data rate wireless networking technology. The idea was that such technology could be used to provide low-cost monitoring of electric power grids and similar infrastructure that extends across thousands of square miles.

Now the company is ready to roll out its technology, including a wireless application designed to monitor buried pipelines and critical underground utility infrastructure. “It’s a different flavor of the same technology,” says Joaquin Silva, On-Ramp’s founding CEO. “The core communication is identical. You still need low power. You still need to go a long way. You just need to reach below ground, even into a sealed room.”

On-Ramp has raised $37 million since it was founded, and now Silva says he’s preparing to raise between $20 million to $30 million as part of a Series C round of venture funding to help fuel On-Ramp’s next stage of expansion. The goal is no longer to just develop the technology. Now it’s also about increasing revenue and getting the business to become cash-flow positive. As Silva explained to Xconomy a couple of years ago, On-Ramp initially conceived of its technology as a wireless communications network for smart grid systems. Utilities could operate their grids more effectively by using On-Ramp’s wireless sensor capabilities to guide load management and improve their overall energy efficiencies. In South Korea, the company has been working with partners to demonstrate the capabilities of its advanced meter data collection system in what Silva calls “a challenging environment with a very dense population and [wireless] output restrictions.”

“Our claim to fame is our purpose-built wireless system for sensing and metering, based on an innovation in signal processing,” Silva says. On-Ramp’s signal processing technology is integrated into the network “access points” that collect sensor data from the field and in the  company’s semiconductor-based radios that go into sensors and smart meters. Silva says On-Ramp’s receiver can detect signals as faint as 1/10,000 those of conventional “free spectrum” radios, such as WiFi or Bluetooth, which are also short-range and subject to radio interference.

Joaquin Silva

The company also sees opportunities for its technology in helping utilities monitor grid reliability and in pinpointing and even predicting outages, using analytics software to identify the telltale signals that precede a local breakdown in the power distribution system. Silva says On-Ramp’s pervasive wide area network could have issued an early warning signal last Sept. 8 (had the system been deployed throughout Arizona and Southern California) when a widespread power outage left some 7 million people without electricity for nearly 12 hours in San Diego, Orange, and Imperial counties, as well as parts of Arizona and Baja California.

The concept applies to underground infrastructure as well. Silva says On-Ramp’s sensors could have alerted Pacific Gas & Electric to leaks in the 30-inch diameter natural gas pipeline that exploded in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno in 2010. On-Ramp has developed sensors to monitor underground pipelines for leaks and corrosion. Silva says On-Ramp’s “Ultra-Link Processing” wireless point-to-multipoint network (which is deployed above-ground) is sensitive enough to receive the underground signal, even from miles away, and can run on batteries for several years.

Silva says On-Ramp already is working with a major oil & gas company to monitor pipeline integrity, which represents a promising new market sector in addition to its utility customer base. When On-Ramp was working with San Diego Gas & Electric in a 2010 field study of smart grid technologies, the utility’s team noted that On-Ramp’s wireless network could also be used to monitor utility equipment in underground vaults. The idea was promising enough for On-Ramp to win a $2.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to demonstrate the first wireless grid sensor capable of centralized monitoring underground utility equipment vaults.

“To isolate and repair a system fault below ground,” Silva explains, “utility crews must sometimes block off traffic and open the lid [manhole covers] on two, three, or four different vaults to find the problem.” So a wireless network that could accurately monitor underground sensors would help utilities save time and money on underground equipment repairs.

Silva contends that On-Ramp’s technology represents a strong business case, because of the relatively low cost of installing the “access points” (wireless base stations) needed to create its wide area network. “One of our access points can cover 30 to 300 square miles of area—depending on antenna elevation,” Silva says. “We have this receiver sensitivity that allows us to have this pervasive wide area coverage at the lowest cost and do it at low power.”

Silva adds that after more than three years of development, On-Ramp has arrived at a point where it can now provide what he calls an “end-to-end solution”—a pervasive wireless network with the capability of monitoring underground pipelines for leaks and corrosion, collect electric utility billing and power data, as well as identify power line faults and provide an early warning of grid reliability issues. Silva says the same technology could even be used to provide an early warning of radiation or environmental contaminants.

In many ways, the technology that On-Ramp Wireless is now bringing to market is reminiscent of the unfulfilled potential of sensor networking technology that was proposed by graviton, a San Diego startup that shut down in 2003 after burning through $66 million in venture capital. Graviton’s backers included a Who’s Who of venture capital: Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Merrill Lynch Capital Partners, Earlybird Venture Capital, SI Ventures, and Shell Internet Ventures, and In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm backed by the Central Intelligence Agency. Corporate investors included Qualcomm Ventures, Motorola Ventures, Global Crossing Ventures, Siemens Venture Capital, and Sun Microsystems.

“They had a very good vision,” says Silva, who was working as an investment banker with Montgomery & Co. when graviton closed its doors.

The $37 million that On-Ramp has raised so far represents a comparable stake for a startup with similar goals. The investors include Beverly Hills, CA-based Third Wave Ventures, some prominent angel investors (including Qualcomm co-founder Andrew Viterbi), and Gemtek, a Taiwanese radio module maker and strategic partner.

Yet Silva says, “We’ve been far more disciplined about how we’ve spent our money. We’ve done our own chips, we’ve done our own networks, production hardware, software, and we have revenues. I think graviton did a lot of things right. But the timing was early and I don’t think they had the right structure for solving the problem that really mattered.”

To Silva, the problem that really mattered is the wireless link. He contends that On-Ramp has changed the way spread spectrum technology is implemented for low data and low power networks in the same way that Qualcomm figured out how to implement spread spectrum and CDMA technology.

The background of graviton’s founders also was more focused around sensors and automation, Silva says. On-Ramp’s founders are innovators with experience at companies like Qualcomm, NextWave, Motorola, Freescale—”with tried and true wireless core and wireless systems expertise.”

Nearly a decade after graviton, Silva acknowledges that On-Ramp also has benefitted from a broad advance in supporting technology.

“Sensors have matured,” Silva says. “The Internet has given us all this commoditized connectivity and hosting structure. So what we do is we solve that link in the middle—getting to that device, that sensor data—and we take advantage of all the technology, all the back office work, and all the silicon the industry has done” over the past 10 years.

In other words, Silva says On-Ramp wireless embodies an idea whose time has come.

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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