saw both challenge and opportunity in 2009, when his longtime employer Sony Ericsson began laying off workers and shutting down the RTP building where new mobile devices were researched and developed since the early 1990s.
Hayes left of his own free will to join a startup making antennae for the military. But many of his former colleagues had trouble finding work in town after their jobs were axed—also shrunken over the years were the operations of telecommunications behemoths like Alcatel Lucent, Nortel Networks and Cisco as well as smartphone manufacturers HTC and Research in Motion.
Hayes worried over what all that engineering talent would do and how it might deplete this region of an industry stronghold.
But he quickly noticed a real problem he could help solve, while also keeping those talented engineers around. At his new employer, Green Wave Scientific
, he spent tens of thousands of dollars and months of time shipping new devices and technologies to be tested in the types of facilities and chambers that Ericsson had on site. There had to be a better way for businesses—startup or multinational corporation—to more speedily innovate.
The seeds for the nonprofit Wireless Research Center of North Carolina were planted. Hayes began to plan a facility where devices made by Fortune 500 companies or startups could be tested and developed with help from experienced wireless engineers.
It would offer state of the art equipment found only in a handful of facilities around the world, and a team of experienced mentors to help young innovators form companies around their inventions. It wouldn’t require any intellectual property rights to be sacrificed, making it a truly neutral place for companies to come and innovate. See our short documentary of the facility below:
A year later, he incorporated and by 2011 had secured space in Wake Forest with help from the city, which viewed it as a way to bring jobs and technology innovation within its bounds. The center opened in 2012, and by 2014, was self-sustainable.
Growth of IoT
Helping its success has been the Internet of Things movement, which embeds wireless technology and radios in devices in almost every industry. While Silicon Valley has been a hotbed of connected device development and and some in Boston are calling it "the IoT Hub"
, local IoT innovators like wearable device sensor manufacturer Valencell
and unmanned aerial vehicle maker PrecisionHawk
have brought attention and capital to our region. The Wireless Research Center hopes to position itself as a hub of future innovation in the field.
In November 2014, the center secured its second grant from the statewide Golden LEAF Foundation
, funding the purchase of three portable radio towers to help design, develop and deploy fixed wireless networks that help expand rural broadband access, telemedicine, smart metering and support the efforts of commercial aviation and unmanned air systems (popularly known as drones).
And the center is throwing its support behind the NC Regional Internet of Things meetup
, a group with 400 members helping to catapult the state’s reputation in wireless (connected) device development.
“A lot of money is chasing the IoT space,” says Larry Steffann, the center’s general manager. “Will it live up to its promise? I don’t have a crystal ball, but we think we have a facility and ecosystem here to have these companies be successful and live up to their promise.”
Technology and business advice
Steffann is a smoking gun for the center. A longtime startup executive and product developer, he co-founded the now-defunct gaming accelerator Joystick Labs and most recently worked for venture-backed smart grid startup Consert Energy. He joined the center in April 2013 as its general manager and helped to establish its commercialization center and incubator, which now houses 12 young companies and has room for up to 10 more.
“Many startups chase the shiny object but don’t know how to commercialize it,” he says. He helps the companies secure intellectual property, develop business models, find early testers and customers and eventually launch a product.
Also signed on to help innovating companies in NC is Thingovation,
the global strategy and consulting firm started by former Sony Ericsson head of industry collaboration Chris Hare
(who keynoted last week’s RIoT, filmed here
). He's set up shop in the center.
"IoT in my opinion is a reason why (RTP verticals like telecom, energy, defense and medical) now have a reason to communicate and collaborate, and I think that shows tremendous promise for this area," Hare says.
The center also works closely with the universities—Hayes is an adjunct professor at NC State University, sitting on committees for students seeking PhDs in electrical engineering.
Steffann is a former executive-in-residence for NC State’s MBA program and maintains close ties there.
The WRC Innovators
Accelerators and incubators often feed into the program. Fokus Labs
is an example—the startup graduated from the Durham accelerator Groundwork Labs, won an NC IDEA grant and is working with the center to build a business around its wristband to help monitor the productivity of ADHD and autistic kids and help remind them when to refocus.
Word of the center has begun to spread thanks to the RIoT and more media attention for the Internet of Things. It was the natural place for startups Bright Wolf and MiPayWay to land in their early days.
Bright Wolf was the spinout of another company based in Boston, with software that helps Internet of Things companies quickly collect, analyze and display data from devices. It's since moved to permanent office space in downtown Durham, where it plans to quickly grow a team.
The center's goal is to fill up the rest of its incubator so it can provide more support to young companies and then spin them out into the community to create jobs and a vibrant IoT ecosystem that takes advantage of all this region's strengths.