November - 2011 issue > Cover Story
Redpine Signals: Disrupting the Wireless Industry
Vimali Swamy
Thursday, November 3, 2011
Venkat Mattela is quite restless these days. Ten years after founding Redpine Signals, he is in a phase where he is going from a linear to a non linear approach. For he believes that it is when one goes non-linear in his approach, innovations and disruptions happen. In his case, it sure is true for early this year; Redpine brought out industry’s first simultaneous dual-band and high performance 450 Mbps 3x3 802.11n Chipset, to be used in Digital Home and Enterprise Applications. In layman’s terms, the 3x3 802.11n Chipset will allow everyday entertainment devices to connect to wi-fi, allow them to gain access to demanding video applications in crowded wireless environments, and significantly provide all this at zero cost and power overhead to the system.

“Consumers increasingly want to plug entertainment devices into their home Wi-Fi networks. This along with rapid adoption of Wi-Fi technology into the "Internet of Things" market, creates stringent QoS requirements, which are difficult to meet using single-band, or even switchable dual-band 802.11n solutions. Simultaneous dual-band provides the right answer to this problem and is the best approach to maintain high QoS for applications like wireless video distribution, while supporting regular web-browsing, email and FTP on the legacy 2.4GHz home Wi-Fi network,” says Flint Pulskamp, Research Director, Semiconductor Wireless and Consumer Programs, IDC, explaining the importance of Redpine’s achievement.

This is just one of the early steps in achieving Mattela’s vision of creating a thorough home grown wireless company that not only competes with the stalwarts like Broadcom and Qualcomm in the wireless arena but may also be a trendsetter in its own way. Some may think that Mattela is being too audacious with his dreams but people who know him can vouch there has never been anything audacious about any of his dreams.

In 2001, when he founded Redpine Signals, it was a time of upheaval in the IT industry as it saw both tremendous boom and bust. But despite the instability, Mattela along with a few very experienced technocrats, found immense opportunity in the VLSI, especially Wireless segment and subsequently founded the company. Apart from the instability, the market was also fiercely competitive, as there were about 100 other companies that got started to develop wireless chipset, specifically Wi-Fi. At that time, the opportunity was perceived very huge in the wireless space. Today looking back, sparing a few handfull, including Redpine, all others have vanished from the scenario. They either closed down or surrendered to large players, while Redpine is one of the few lone warriors going strong since its inception.

So what kept it going? According to Mattela, there are some important areas one needs to focus on when building a successful company; foremost being the underlying technology. Unlike the regular IT/ITeS space, in wireless industry one cannot survive in the market without having something new and unique to offer and developing this requires a strong technology as foundation. Redpine had its beginning during the 2001 dot com bust and the downturn gave it the luxury of time to develop its technology while keeping a very few key people in. Additionally, Mattela decided to carve a niche by developing high end wireless technology and came out with a portfolio of several industry firsts in low power chipsets.

Breaking Industry Norms and Setting New Standards

The company began by developing its technology in wireless LAN systems. In 2005, it developed industry’s first low power 802.11 b/g chipset which it licensed to a premier semiconductor company (which was selling several 100 million mobile chips per year), who would use it in their product or SoC as a wireless interface. This enabled Redpine to continue making R&D investment in advanced wireless technology developments in other wireless technologies like Mobile WiMAX and also enabled it to create its flagship 802.11n low power chip in late 2007. The low power 11n technology was again licensed to another big mobile player in 2007 for integrating in to a mobile combo chip. This gave Redpine immense insight into the combo chip market much ahead of current players. Furthermore, it enabled Redpine to create ultra low power 802.11ac technology for the same market earlier this year – maintaining a step ahead of its competition in the low power Wi-Fi space.

The 11n product — a chipset based on the new wireless standard 802.11n targeted at high throughput applications. “Spectrum is one of the most valuable commodities in the world, and those in the wireless industry are constantly trying hard to achieve maximum work done in limited spectrum. When the 802.11n project was started by IEEE, we also started working on it, to understand how to make efficient use of available spectrum,” adds Mattela. One of the means of doing achieving this efficiency was MIMO (multiple input/multiple output), a way of doubling or tripling the capacity of a given piece of spectrum. 802.11n MIMO modes use 2 or more antennas, while portable devices like mobile, MP3, notepad and other devices can not have more than one antenna - but would still like to take the benefit of 802.11n. Redpine was the first to see the potential in single antenna 11n and in 2008 it got its product certified for Wi-Fi 11n, one of the first in the industry to get certified for single stream 11n.

Additionally, the company has built its capacity not only in hardware but also software. Most wireless companies develop a capability in only one area i.e. hardware or software but Mattela with the vision to be the owner of platform for wireless solutions, developed chipsets, multi-threaded processor architectures with complete Software lifecycle. Despite the time and effort it took the company to gain expertise in this, today the company finds it rewarding for it is easier to go out and grab clients with its unified solution. With its product being certified for industry standards, the company has started targeting emerging embedded Wi-Fi markets such as smart energy, industrial, building automation and medical.

The Billion Dollar Market

The market for Wi-Fi is really humungous. There were over 800 million wireless units that were shipped in 2010. This number will be over one billion this year and expected to surpass over five billion in couple of years. In addition, the ‘The Internet of Things’ Market or the M2M market is expected to see tremendous growth ( 50 billion in 2020). In a market this big, there is enough ground for all to play and not step on each others toes,” says Mattela. Redpine established itself in the emerging Wi-Fi markets (Industrial, Medical, Building automation and Smart Energy) while developing the advanced technology for the main stream Wi-Fi markets (Networking, Computing and Mobile).

Redpine has a strong technology and product portfolio for the mainstream Wi-Fi which will hit the market in 2012, including the low power chip for the smartphone market. Redpine was among the first to get its product certified for a new Wi-Fi program called the Voice-Personal. “Initially we looked at targeting our chips into mobile phone market but found the market dominated by big players and integrating other wireless technologies on the same die was a critical item then. Since, in this segment, the volumes are very large, margins small, and competition intense, we decided to focus first on new emerging areas, one of them being the “Internet of things”. In simple terms, this market ‘inch deep and mile wide, taught us a lot of things which we didn’t know as a chipset company,” adds Mattela. While the company is making healthy revenue in the emerging Wi-Fi markets, it has not taken its sight off from the mainstream Wi-Fi research. Redpine today has the technology and roadmap on par with the tier-1 Wi-Fi players. Surprisingly enough, the company’s first two licenses were for clients who tried to win the contract for most popular smartphone platform in the industry. Though its client did not make the bid, Redpine had a proven solution with them which they decided to use to grab one of the largest enterprise VoWi-Fi communication device customer, Ascom.

Ascom is a well established Swedish company that makes connectivity solutions for hospitals. Doctors and nurses in hospitals there require carry a communication device that is robust and extremely fail proof. To ensure that the connectivity is uninterrupted in a mission critical environment, the device needs to have the best of the chipsets available. Ascom uses Redpine chips, for their handset now delivers longer battery life and enhances enterprise productivity, due to Redpine’s ultra-low power 802.11n 5GHz chipset.

Stefan Brämberg, Vice President of Technology for Ascom Wireless Solutions says, “Having seen the clear trend of wireless networks in enterprise based on the 802.11n protocol, we decided to equip our new generation phone with .11n capability. Redpine’s pioneering .11n chipset and their Wi-Fi expertise enabled us to solve a number of challenges involved in launching an 802.11n handset.” The company’s chipset allowed Ascom’s devices to deliver high wireless performance, robust connectivity, advanced enterprise wide roaming capability, with extremely low energy consumption among features.

Similarly, one of the recent clients of Redpine is Televic Conference, creator of high end conferencing solutions. It has adopted Wi-Fi technology from Redpine to develop the future generation of its Confidea Wireless conference system. The unique multi-band Confidea wireless conference system, includes a wireless access point (WCAP) and a variety of delegate and chairman units that provide voice connectivity in 40 language channels, with eight microphones simultaneously open for discussion along with general voting capabilities, which is a major upgrade over competing systems using digital infrared. The unique system is already used by parliaments and international European institutions. The requirements for the audio conferencing market include reliability and confidentiality in technology, along with the most robust and secure wireless connection; Redpine allows it to achieve this standard. “The use of 802.11n data rates and packet formats, dual-band 2.4 and 5 GHz operation, advanced encryption, long battery life, and the ability to customize the solution to our needs, were all important to us and Redpine’s chipsets allowed us to experience this,” says Bart Deschodt, General Manager of Televic Conference.

Apart from its chipsets, the company also focuses on designing modules that use these chips and can be directly incorporated in to a product. A majority of Redpine’s customers, the ODM and OEMs (original device/equipment manufacturer), prefer to buy an entire module rather than just a chipset. For example the Real Time Locationing System, it developed (and was certified for Cisco CCX), entire system device was made by Redpine. Since its modules are globally certified for industry standards; FCC certified in U.S., IC in Canada, CE in Europe and Telec in Japan; the ODM/OEM’s need not undergo certification again, making it one of the USPs of the company. “The advantage is that our modules are modular certified for FCC, they are self contained and many of the modules also have complete networking stack implemented in them,” explains Mattela.

To accelerate the wide spread adoption of its modules, the company has partnered with the world’s largest and highly successful developers of microcontrollers(Renesas Electronics, Atmel, Cypress and Freescale Semiconductor). It is in partnership with these MCU vendors that the company increases its market presence across different verticals.

Building a Home Grown Entity

Mattela often jokes saying with thirty years of industry experience behind him, he may not have learnt what to do but surely has learnt what not to do. Having had proven track record of successful executions of projects in his previous companies, Mattela decided to have a unique way while setting up base for Redpine. Despite being conceptualized in the U.S., he was keen on setting up its R&D center in India. “The off shoring model had really taken off in the IT services sector and we were keen on using the same for product development. So keeping in mind both the financial merit and the availability of technical skill, we started our engineering center in Hyderabad. The idea was to have best of both worlds — technology, execution and business expertise from U.S. and skilled talent from India,” he explains.

Unlike a software product, no two wireless products are the same and the key difference lies in the ability to extract the transmitted information from signals that are subject to significant degradation. Later, translating this into hardware is another huge challenge, since size of the hardware has to be limited. Developing such high level fail proof wireless products requires a high level of skill and domain knowledge and innovation and Redpine kick-started doing exactly the same.

To address all the different aspects of a chip is a matter of great innovation and the challenge lies in making an algorithm in a hardware using minimum resources required. It started by developing expertise in that area. In parallel, it also needed to develop core VSLI blocks, what is today called the System on a Chip. The company initially used products sourced from its partners to do the analog and RF but with many years of R&D Redpine succeeded to develop CMOS RF and CMOS power amplifier technology in house, ensuring a viable total solution.

This was possible, thanks to the effort the company’s core founding team put in handpicking talent fresh out of premier institutes like the IIT, BITS Pilani and others. In most large companies, the approach is hiring research scholars from top universities like Stanford and MIT but in case of Redpine it is rather the ante.

The idea was to attract people with a technical bent of mind, keen on working on high end, innovative and industry first products. After having them trained in-house by the senior teams, the company then identifies the potential talent and encourages them to go to Stanford and complete their M.S and carry out research work. Though Redpine has Engineering Managers with advanced degrees from Stanford, as Mattela often says, “We do not get sufficient number of people from Stanford to do the job that we do but rather create people who can go to Stanford and develop what we do.” One of the employees of the company has recently finished his MS from Stanford and has been actively heading the company’s research work in its next in line ultra low power chipset family. Additionally, the company works hand in hand with industry bodies like IEEE, where the team at Redpine gets an opportunity to learn and share ideas and knowledge with the researchers. There are several professors from Stanford who guide the R&D team on regular basis. It is with these academic and industry alliances that it has been able to come up with trend breaking products and help create standards. For example, Redpine has also been a contributor to the ‘Wi-Fi Direct™’ program – which enables wireless connections between two nodes without an Access Point; and its product was certified for Wi-Fi Direct™ soon after the program was announced.

It is the exciting opportunities like these that ties its people to the company. He is quite proud to tell that every single person from the core founding team is still with the company and have grown to various leadership capacities.

Looking back the ten years of Redpine has been quite a roller coaster ride for Mattela, but this has not deterred him from the vision he had while founding the company. He has successfully survived the fierce competition, set industry standards and rolled out a wide portfolio of industry first products in the wireless space, built a technically capable team that can compete with the best of the bests and all this without a single penny from institutional investors. “The company has been supporting itself from day one and running the company with our own product revenue is a sweet experience, ” says Mattela. From the sufficient funds that have been pouring in from the licensing, OEM/ODM partnerships and 500 plus customers, he is now planning to scale the company by decentralizing the operations of specific segment and doing advanced R&D in wireless, as part of company business going forward. When asked why, he is quick to point out that the last ten years have just been the learning phase. It is now that the time has come to spread its wings and conquer the sky.

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