Redpine Signals Setting The Bar High in Wireless Industries

Date:   Friday , February 04, 2011

At an American football game in September last year, while a majority of the 75,000 fans at a New Jersey stadium could only watch replays on one of the stadium’s four, high-definition video boards, a small number of people had a more convenient way to watch the key moments of the game - along with their choice of replay angles. For they had FanVision, a smartphone-like dedicated device – a hybrid of Wi-Fi and locally broadcast UHF video technologies that has been revolutionizing the way football is enjoyed at the stadiums. A small hand held device, FanVision allows audiences to view the replays of the game during a break session, order food from the food court without having to go there and seeing a host of statistics related to the game. A device with such high end Wi-Fi connectivity requires strong wireless modules in it and this was powered by Redpine Signals.

Founded in 2001, San Jose, California, headquartered Redpine Signals is a wireless systems company with unique chipset and system level products for wireless networks and Smart Energy solutions. Over the past decade, Redpine has created advanced wireless technology that has gone into the creation of ultra low power and high performance products for the next generation wireless applications. One of the first in the industry to launch a single stream 802.11n chipset in late 2007, the company today has in its portfolio, several modules and sub-systems focusing on specific vertical market segments including industrial, wireless sensor, wireless audio & video, voice over Wi-Fi and high end consumer.

Made in India
2001 was a time of upheaval in the IT industry as it saw both tremendous boom and bust. But despite the instability, Venkat Mattela along with a few very experienced technocrats found immense opportunity in the VLSI especially Wireless segment and subsequently founded Redpine Signals. This downtime also gave the company the luxury of time to develop its technology while keeping a very few key people in. Also, despite being conceptualized in the U.S., the company 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,” explains Mattela, Chairman and CEO, Redpine Signals.

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. We started by developing expertise in that area. In parallel we also needed to develop core VSLI blocks, what is today called the System on a Chip,” explains Chandra Shekhar Abburi, VP – Systems and Software, Redpine Signals. The company initially used products sourced from its partners to do the analog and RF but going forward it had a wide range of product portfolio in place with expertise around each one of them, ensuring everything was home grown in the years that came by.

At the same time the company began indentifying key individuals who could kick start and grow a group organically by bringing in people. The majority of the talent that was brought in was handpicked fresh out of premier institutes like the IIT Madras, IIT Guwahati, BITS Pilani and others. The idea was to attract people with a technical bent of mind keen on working on high end, innovative and industry first products. Today, over the years, the company has grown substantially both in its product portfolio and skilled talent with some of the early employees today being the engineering, products and application managers.

A Vivid Product Portfolio with Industry firsts
Focusing on high end wireless technology from day one, the company began with development of wireless LAN systems, and started licensing its IP to a select few semiconductor companies (who were 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 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,” says Narasimhan Venkatesh, VP – Advanced Technologies, Redpine Signals. 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.

With its product being certified for industry standards, the company started targeting emerging embedded Wi-Fi markets like smart energy, industrial, building automation and medical markets. It was also 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 large established semiconductor vendors. Since in this segment, the volumes are very large, margins small, and competition intense, we decided to focus on new emerging areas, one of them being the “Internet of things,” says Venkatesh.

A lot of devices today are connected wirelessly. Till now, general devices like TV remote use IR system which was a one way communication but the advent of wireless technology has given way to convert these everyday devices into a two way interactive wireless device. Today one of the most premium home theatre manufacturing companies in Europe use Redpine’s Wi-Fi chip into its wireless remote control. Unlike the old remotes that need pointing it to the sensor, these can be kept it in any orientation one wants to. By incorporating a small screen in the remote, it can be used to make interactive choices like getting a playlist from media player.

Similarly, wireless security cameras and sensors can be hooked wirelessly. The cost of deploying a new wired network is very high and as wireless became prevalent, WLAN especially (if one goes to any office, industry or home, there is a wireless access point) it became increasingly easier to deploy a sensor in a remote corner.

The company is also targeting SmartGrids, wherein smart appliances such as Wi-Fi smart enabled electricity meter allow people to observe the consumption remotely. Going a mile further, it also created a circuit breaker with Wi-Fi that could be incorporated in everyday appliances to control or turn it off remotely, making them smart appliances.

Apart from the high end consumer segment, the company has also a very deep focus towards industrial segment. In manufacturing industry a lot of equipments are controlled by other pieces of controllers through wires which need to follow several interfaces like RS 232, RS 485 and others in order to connect industrial devices. To deploy this wired connectivity to huge instruments is very costly and a time consuming process. “Industrial market was also where we saw WLAN had good opportunity. So when we designed the chips, we also designed them for industrial operations. At a time when the world is looking at WLAN application in mainstream markets in consumer, mobile and networking markets, we created a technology called ‘Connect-io-n’ (pronounced “connection”). It is a 802.11n based module which can connect to any processing system with as little as 1.5KB memory. This is a highly differentiated product in today’s market place for ‘Internet of Things’,” explains Mattela.
By developing its expertise in the newly approved 802.11n much before others, the company also saw a huge traction for its products in medical instrumentations; a promising and fast growing sector. A medical instrumentations company that develops endoscope with wireless capability deploys Redpine’s chipsets. The endoscope which has a wireless controlling unit has connectivity to the hospital’s network and transmits data not only to the nearby monitoring machine for a doctor to see but also to the hospitals network for archiving purposes.

“The list of our customers is endless. Ascom, a well established Swedish company, makes connectivity solutions for hospitals. All doctors and nurses there need to carry a device which is essentially a phone — 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 chose our chips after a year long validation in all kinds of environments,” says Venkatesh.
Today, Redpine’s technology spans the complete end-to-end wireless solution and includes an extensive patent portfolio on OFDM, MIMO, embedded processor architectures, and low-power techniques. The company’s offerings include both the hardware and the software as differentiated sub-systems to provide flexibility and ease of integration to the system integrator. This single-stop approach enables Redpine to deliver an optimal wireless solution to meet customer’s requirements at an optimal price point.

The latest feather on its hat is the RTLS (Real Time Locationing System) developed by it and was certified for Cisco CCX. Just like RFID in retail sector, Redpine’s RTLS tags can track key assets in wireless enabled infrastructures like corporate, industrial ware houses and hospitals.

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 in RTLS, the company made the entire system device. Since Redpine’s 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 develop these high end modules, the company has partnered with two of the world’s largest developers of microcontrollers, Renesas Electronics and Freescale Semiconductor. In fact recently, Redpine, along with other sponsors, sponsored the design kits to over 1000 participants in the design contest held by Renesas. Redpine has also been a contributor to the ‘Wi-Fi Direct’ program – which enables wireless connections even where a traditional wireless network does not exist. And its product was certified for Wi-Fi Direct soon after the program was announced.

Culture of Innovation:
Road to Success

In just less than a decade, Redpine has developed a myriad innovative products, enabling it to compete neck to neck with several leading semiconductor players like Broadcom, Atheros and Marvell. “And the fundamental reason behind this success is the culture of innovation that we foster among our engineering team,” says Mattela. Unlike U.S. and Europe where one finds only highly experienced engineers working hands on intellectual property, the case is not the same here. Having hand picked its employees from premier engineering institutions across India, the company immediately puts them through a rigrous process to identify and develop their key strengths, technical skills and the ability to think out of box. Later based on their performance, gives them the required training and a free reign to explore.

To further leverage the quality of its R&D engineers, the company has established relationships with very reputed institutions like Stanford University wherein its employees seeking to do higher education can enroll into a distance education programme — called the Honors Cooperative Program – and study while continuing to work. This program has been going on for four years now and already a couple of engineers have taken up this course with the help of a sponsorship from the company itself,” beams Mattela. Hence, it comes as no surprise to see over 50 patents being filed by the company already, of which 20 have already been granted, and with over 100 in the works. “Many of these patents have been filed by the engineers in the India center and those involved in architecture and design in the U.S.,” adds he.

Today, with over 300 customers, a vivid councopia of technology prodcuts, 50 plus patents and a strong R&D team both in India and U.S., Redpine is confidently pushing the limits of wireless industry set by the exisitng bigwigs. Apart from the pathbreaking rollout of modules and subsystems that enable the wireless monitoring and control of utility metering systems in 2009, the company has announced the availability of multi stream 802.11n and Mobile WiMAX convergence product in 2008. The company is well underway to release very advanced single chip device based on its own technology in 40nm later this year.

“We are at a sweet spot today. The wireless market has been growing tremendously. With over 740 million wireless LAN devices being shipped globally last year, highlights the huge market that lies ahead of us. But at the same time, the wireless segment is also under going a consolidation. Atheros’ acquisition by Qualcomm for over $3 billion is a proof of what we can achieve in the coming years,” says Mattela. And with its innovative approach, out of the box thinking and zeal to excel, such a feat does not seem impossible for Mattela and his team.