Impinj Navigates Nascent RFID Market with Unique Technology, Strategy—and Patience

2/24/09Follow @gthuang

What’s the most exciting company in Seattle? I recently put the question to Patrick Ennis, the global head of technology for Bellevue, WA-based Intellectual Ventures, and his answer surprised me: Impinj. The firm in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood has been around since 2000, and is well-known for its focus on radio-frequency identification (RFID) technologies—not exactly the sexiest field in an era of Web 2.0, mobile software, and alternative energy startups.

But dig a little deeper, and the story of Impinj will grab you. Like most successful companies, Impinj has been forced to change its strategy at crucial moments. It has had to navigate tricky technology standards—eventually winning out in a major fight between standards bodies—and adapt to major challenges in the marketplace. Through it all, it has amassed an impressive network of customers, partners, and investors—to the tune of $110 million in funding from the likes of Arch Venture Partners, Madrona Venture Group, Polaris Venture Partners, and Mobius Venture Capital.

So how is it doing now? After Ennis mentioned Impinj—he led an investment in the firm back when he was a managing director at Arch—I was eager to hear its story, and why its technology and business model are still so promising. I recently had a chance to visit with Impinj’s CEO, William Colleran, and Evan Fein, vice president of finance and administration. What they told me amounted to quite a compelling case study of how to navigate a nascent market.

Impinj was founded in 2000 by a University of Washington professor of computer science and engineering, Chris Diorio, who was a student of microelectronics pioneer Carver Mead at Caltech. Diorio serves as Impinj’s chairman and chief technology officer. “He’s a fantastic professor and entrepreneur,” Ennis says. “Usually, professors just want to be professors. When you do find an entrepreneur professor, it’s heaven. The world needs more people like that.”

As Fein relates, Impinj originally focused on hardware for cell phones and base stations. Diorio had developed a technology called “self-adaptive silicon” that allowed an electronic circuit on a chip to adapt its characteristics after being fabricated. The company released a cellular product in 2001—right as the telecom industry was melting down. “We decided, ‘This isn’t going to work,’” says Fein, who was employee No. 8.

So the search was on for broader applications of integrated circuit technology. In late 2003, Impinj settled on RFID as its new focus, over other promising candidates like ultrasound and GPS. The idea of cheap, tiny chips that could be used to “tag” any product or shipment and improve companies’ supply-chain management was getting a lot of play in commercial circles. What Impinj brought to the table was a … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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