Cambridge is experiencing a cascade of new communications ventures that may well plant the seeds for a world-leading mobile phone cluster, providing some of the latest advances in post-3GSM technology.
At source is the abundant brainpower and technology of the old TTPCom set-up that is now in the final stages of closure following Motorola’s decision to pull the plug on its entire Cambridge operation.
Five new hi-tech operations have already been established from the chips and protocol division Motorola closed at the beginning of the year, driven by a growing appetite from Taiwanese manufacturers to increase their involvement in the sector together with the world class expertise that the TTPCom operation has been developing for over 20 years.
Several former TTPCom and Motorola employees also expect further ventures to spring from the mobile operating systems division – AJAR – which is on course to completely shut down by September this year.
Itself a venture spun out from leading tech consultancy, The Technology Partnership (TTP), TTPCom already spun out ip.access and 7Layers, the former backed by Qualcomm, the latter acquired by SGS Group.
Camitri Technologies and Qasara are Cambridge-based companies founded and staffed by former TTPCom employees, while Taiwanese firms Sunplus and MediaTek have established development centres in Melbourn and Histon respectively, both also manned by former TTPCom employees.
TTPCom founder and former chief executive, Tony Milbourn – now the head of Camitri – believes the Taiwanese connection is a powerful and healthy one that has been gradually established by TTPCom over the years and which has held true through the Motorola experience.
“In many ways it is a very positive mixture, the creativity of well-educated European engineers with the focused manufacturing expertise of the Taiwanese,” said Milbourn.
A third, unnamed Taiwanese fabless semiconductor is also understood to be in the process of setting up a development centre in the region with the help of TTPCom employees and a fourth has provided the seed funding Qasara has used to get off the ground.
Qasara CEO, Michael Barkway, intends to raise further seed funding towards the end of the year and will look to Taiwan again as well as the UK.
“Taiwanese chip vendors are targeting the cellular chip market and as it matures they’ll look to invest there rather than pioneering new markets,” said Barkway, a former TTPCom/Motorola product manager.
The financing will allow the firm to accelerate its technology development, which sits predominantly in the LTE sector, the next generation of cellular beyond 3G, designed to deal with high rate mobile broadband and improve all the services coming through from 3GSM.
The company launched at the start of April with former TTPCom employees at its core. Barkway, believes this sets the company apart from competitors and will enable it to carve out a prominent part of a sector he believes should be shipping significant volumes within four years.
“The team we have here has come in from Motorola Cambridge and is absolutely world class, doing some things that other companies just can’t do,” said Barkway.
“Once we have secured the next funding we hope to really start expanding, which should be next year. Ultimately we will be a product company, but right now we’re also providing technology services in LTE. We are also growing the core technology and in the future we’ll look at a different model to advance this.”
It is not a product company, but a licensing business that intends to tap the very niche communications innovation created in academic laboratories around the UK, which wouldn’t necessarily get a commercial chance.
“There’s latent value in technology development in universities,” said Milbourn. “We may not find technologies where we can build complete companies, but instead provide a solution for a particular problem, so it might be a bit of maths for example. Sometimes the technology is not in the right shape for other companies.”
Camitri intends to work with universities and their technology transfer groups: “Cambridge has very smart outfit in Cambridge Enterprise,” said Milbourn.
“Our focus is very narrow, just communications and licensing and we are working with CE in partnership.”
Milbourn is talking to potential investors to raise around £5 million, after which the plan is to be fully funded. “Ideally, within four years we’ll be generating £10-15 million, with a commercial percentage going to the universities.”
Milbourn believes that if AJAR does shut down completely, it will also be a rich source for further spin-outs and inward investment.
Barkway concurs: “In Cambridge it is possible to recruit the calibre of people needed; it is a great strength and the technology always generates interest worldwide.”
The long term future of all of these new ventures remains to be seen, though if successful and with Cambridge’s history, their eventual purchase seems an even bet.
Whether this is healthy for the long term sustainability of the region and any such cluster is unclear and maybe a moot point. However, there is precedent: Ink-jet has managed to thrive in the region despite the majority of companies being hoovered up by overseas (mainly American) acquirers.
“Frankly, TTPCom took 19 years of my life – from four people to 700 people and £62m a year turnover,” said Milbourn. “We took it public – which is a great place to raise money, but a tough taskmaster.
“We got bought. Neither I nor management wanted to sell to Motorola, but given that we convinced them to pay three times the prevailing share price we had no choice. Free market economy!”
Wireless / Business Weekly