Stan Boland, recently-appointed CEO of television white-space spectrum pioneer Neul Ltd. (Cambridge, England), has a track record as startup CEO which, no doubt, is why Neul hired him a few months after he left his latest gig at Nvidia Corp.
More than a decade ago Boland hit a home run with Element 14 Ltd. (Cambridge, England), the company formed by the restructuring of Acorn Computers into a developer of ADSL technology in January 1999. Less than two years later, in October 2000, Boland negotiated the sale of the company to Broadcom Corp. (Irvine, Calif.) for about $600 million.
Doubles all round.
Boland's next venture – software-defined modem company Icera Inc. (Bristol, England) – was harder going. Icera was founded in April 2002, remained privately held for nine years and drew down more than $200 million in venture capital over that time. In May 2011 Nvidia Corp announced it would acquire the company for $367 million in cash.
Nonetheless Boland's experience as a company CEO able to grow young companies, able to procure funds and ultimately to sell a company on, makes him a good fit for Neul, which has been pioneering the reuse of television spectrum for machine-to-machine communications and rural broadband applications since 2010.
So how does Boland see the task that lies ahead at Neul?
"Since its formation Neul has maintained a lot of options as to where it makes its money. It's developed an air-interface, made FPGA chips, silicon chips, terminals, constructed databases and infrastructure. That's a lot for a little company to do – software, hardware, chips and services. I'll be helping to make decisions about how we position the company. There's a lot of shaping and prioritization to be done," Boland said.
Boland said that although Neul has achieved a lot in three years it is also working with fragmented or yet-to-be-deployed applications, making the process harder. "Trying to bootstrap a new technology in a new segment is a lot to do." Boland compared the task to that faced by Qualcomm in the 1980s when it had to advocate the use of CDMA [code division multiple access] as well as developing products and services around the technology.
But Boland's message was clear: if Neul can execute as well as Qualcomm has, then it could have a similar or even greater success because the machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and Internet of Things (IoT) that UHF spectrum could enable is likely to be a bigger opportunity and far more transformational of society than mobile personal communications.
Boland is still mulling the experience he gained at Icera and some of the public statements of Neul, which has indicated it wants other companies to manufacture chips to implement the air-interface standard it has helped to draft, called Weightless. "It would be nice to do the chip company thing without having the expense of being a fabless chip company," said Boland.
"Icera was a tricky company. Its mission kept on having to creep. I am very keen not to do that at Neul," Boland said. "We [at Neul] won't be doing anything like the fund raising we did in Icera."
The question remains; will Neul be following an intellectual property model in the manner of ARM Holdings plc, be a fabless chip company, or pursue a service model where it, perhaps with others, builds a complete application-specific infrastructure and service offering? Or must it begin by doing a bit of all three of these, to encourage others to jump into the M2M water alongside it?
Boland is non-committal but added. "Machine-to-machine communications has been quite difficult to get going because the ecosystems are so complicated. We are very keen to get into applications where we can simplify the ecosystem, make it plug and play, and get to significant volume. We will need to partner in some areas. Part of my job will be to work out what applications and what partners."
Related links and articles:
Serial startup CEO takes over at 'white-space' pioneer
Icera exit is good news for startups
Broadcom acquires Element 14 for $600 million