This series features companies chosen to showcase at next week's CED Tech Venture Conference. The 18 startups were chosen because, according to CED's selection committee, they are "highly disruptive in their industries, demonstrating significant promise and traction by attracting high-profile customers and investors, and being led by founders with a compelling personal story and track record of previous entrepreneurial success."
Ryan Pratt didn’t initially set out to solve a problem that frustrates many in the tech industry and beyond.
The founder and CEO of Guerilla RF
simply wanted to keep his young family in the Triad area of North Carolina after his early 2013 lay off from Skyworks, a local semiconductor manufacturer.
Since his only job offers came from well outside the Triad, where Pratt grew up, he began to tinker in his chosen field of integrated circuit design, attempting to generate product ideas for his own business. Pratt brainstormed, bounced ideas off mentors and former colleagues, and pondered known issues that vexed the semiconductor industry.
One such issue lurked in low noise amplifiers (LNAs) for wifi devices. Think of LNAs as hearing aids for wifi access points that allow them to pick up signals from laptops and mobile devices that are not in close proximity. Current low noise amplifiers have an inherent design flaw: they are supposed to remain off when wifi access points transmit. But when transmitters must boost power to reach the more remote devices, the LNAs inadvertently turn on and corrupt the signal. If you’ve ever successfully reached the internet via a marginal wifi signal, only to become frustrated when the connection becomes spotty, then you’ve experienced this issue.
"I’d worked with this technology five years ago," Pratt told me when I visited his Greensboro office near PTI Airport. "When I returned to look at it while brainstorming ideas for products, I was surprised no one had solved the issue yet."
During his nearly 13 combined years at Skyworks and RF Micro Devices
, another local semiconductor manufacturer, Pratt witnessed numerous customer requests for parts to solve specific problems. He also watched those requests go unaddressed because the potential market for these specialized parts simply didn’t match the larger volume of their main businesses, which predominantly include integrated circuits for mobile devices. Pratt believes that the tendency for the enormous semiconductor industry to ignore these issues leaves plenty of opportunity for his company to thrive as it attempts to solve them. It's also a better path for a startup than trying to directly compete with the semiconductor giants.
"We are not going to take these companies head on by making chips for cell phones, which is the biggest single part of the market," Pratt says. "The companies are too big, too strong. But this wifi access issue and other unaddressed problems, are the soft underbelly of the market."
This insight not only gave Pratt his strategy for his business model, it also sparked inspiration for the company’s name. Pratt may not have aspirations to immediately become an 800-pound gorilla in the semiconductor marketplace, but he does want to be the guerrilla fighter within.
Even though Pratt wants to expose the chinks in the armor of a semiconductor heavyweight like RF Micro Devices, he still has a great appreciation for that particular company. The fondness goes beyond his eight years of employment and his old colleagues there—some who have now joined him at Guerrilla. Pratt’s father, Bill Pratt, was one of the co-founders of RF Micro Devices over 20 years ago.
"When I was laid off and reluctant to take jobs outside the Triad, my father asked if I had any product ideas," Pratt says. This triggered the brainstorming and tinkering that eventually led to the wifi access issue. Once Pratt’s father saw his son’s determination to solve the issue, the senior Pratt contributed seed money to help Guerrilla RF launch in April 2013. The younger Pratt then raised $1 million from the Piedmont Angel Network
and other area investors.
Pratt is pleased that he was able to keep the initial funding local. He's also happy that Guerrilla made its first design win in little over a year after the company’s launch.
"The design win means an equipment manufacturer has looked at the part and says they want to use it in a future product," Pratt says.
The manufacturer that awarded Guerrilla RF its first design win is currently qualifying the part in its own equipment. Once the process is complete, the company will include Pratt’s chip in the mass production of its devices early next year. For Guerrilla RF, that is a significant milestone and the first step toward revenue.
But Guerrilla RF is not waiting around for the revenue to start. Pratt and his seven-person shop, all former co-workers, are reviewing other challenges to solve. Pratt is optimistic about his startup’s chances for long-term success not only because of his business model of solving unaddressed needs in his chosen industry, but also due to the rich pool of semiconductor talent in the Triad, a pool Pratt’s father helped entrench in the area with his own startup.