Gerry Hayes 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.
January 29, 2015
Inside the Wireless Research Center (and IoT Startup Incubator) of North Carolina
Devices are shipped from around the world to be tested, designed and developed by engineers at this Wake Forest nonprofit facility. It's also incubating 12 local startups.
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 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.
MiPayWay has used the center to help file patents and develop prototypes for its beacon technology that senses a mobile device in close proximity and identifies the owner of that device. Eventually, it hopes to transact small payments or tips using the device.
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.