An award winning company explains how its focus on exploiting technology niches has paid dividends

3 min read

Loughborough Sound Images was one of the UK’s rising stars during the 1990s, riding on the back of the boom in demand for digital signal processing in one form or another. In the late 1990s, the company merged with US based Mizar to form Blue Wave Systems, with ambitions to grow the combined entity significantly; not only through organic growth, but also through strategic acquisitions. But the dot com bubble burst, Blue Wave was acquired by Motorola and, by the mid 2000s, according to Edward Young, ‘things weren’t going well’. He left to form CommAgility.

Since then, CommAgility has enjoyed success in developing embedded signal processing and RF modules, as well as LTE PHY/stack software, for 4G and 5G mobile network and related applications. CommAgility received a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Innovation in 2016, on top of a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in International Trade in 2013. It has also featured in a 2015 list of the fastest growing technology companies, as well as the Deloitte UK Fast 50 in 2012 and 2013.

Young said: “We have found a niche in wireless communications, including test equipment. We are also involved in wireless research.”

True to its roots, CommAgility remains based in Loughborough. “We manufacture in the UK,” Young asserted, “and we find the location good in terms of local contacts, as well as the ability to recruit graduates from Loughborough University.”

The company unveiled its first RF product in 2011. “We were aiming for a high quality product which could tune from 600MHz to 4GHz,” Young explained. “It needed to be configurable and flexible.”

More recently, the company acquired German based MIMOon, a provider of LTE software solutions for mobile handsets and wireless infrastructure. Since being set up in 2006, MIMOon has pioneered and promoted the use of software defined radio.

“We have focused on LTE and grown with it,” Young said. “More recently, we have been taking combinations of hardware and software into new areas; for example, air to ground communications, satellite communications and surveillance.

“Our IP experience in both hardware and software is allowing us to get involved in complex projects where LTE is being modified,” he added. “While two to three years ago, we provided hardware with low level software, we are now providing technology for specialised applications.”

One thing which Young says CommAgility is not interested is competing with the likes of Ericsson. “We’re a technology company, but we’re exploiting niches. We address such areas as taking LTE technology into test equipment and do some work in the small cell market. Our technology development is guided by the markets we think we can compete in.”

One example provided by Young is an application where standards need to be customised. “For example, in surveillance, you might want a lot of parallel small channels and to listen to the base station and mobile sides.”

LTE development, he said, is moving ahead rapidly. “There are already companies out there with Release 10 based products, but there’s a lot of talk about LTE and IoT narrowband communications – Release 12 and 13. We’re having to work hard to keep up to date in those areas we want to do business in.”

So how has the wireless industry changed since the days of LSI and Blue Wave? “In those days, customers would program the hardware we developed,” he said. “Now, we have far more systems and software expertise, which allows us to get involved in testing of complete systems, for example. Customers today depend on us far more than in the past.

“When we were hardware only, we saw customers trying to do the kind of products we offered – and it took them a long time. We’re offering them a reduction in the investment needed; it’s classic outsourcing.”

One industry trend which CommAgility and similar companies have been able to take advantage of is the decline in expertise across industry. “Our approach gives customers a time to market advantage,” he said, “because we bring expertise in IP. We are seeing larger companies wanting to move to LTE, but which don’t have the knowledge in house, so they work with companies like CommAgility. However, we need to prove our worth.”

CommAgility has always based its hardware on a combination of FPGA and DSP. “If you want a good system,” Young stressed, “you need both.” More recently, the company has looked to use more DSP cores, as well as more ARM cores and more accelerators. “Everything can be done in a single chip, but some more complex applications will need multichip, even multiboard, solutions. But, in general, what used to take multiple chips has been condensed into one chip.

“This might make the hardware look easy,” he continued, “but that’s not the case and we have to get around that.”

This work has seen the company recognised in the Queen’s Awards. “We got our first one three years ago for our export achievement. It reflected the fact that we work in a global market and, while we were doing good technology, it was good to win one for export.”

Young says the award brought in good customers, including wireless test. “We could show commercial success and technical innovation. With the second award, it was good to be recognised for our technology.”

How hard is it for CommAgility to work in a global market? “It varies,” Young admitted. “Our advantage is that we specialise in particular technologies, so people looking for that technology will find us. But, because it’s a technical field, people are happy to interact with us,” Young concluded.

Edward Young

Edward Young is managing and sales director of CommAgility, an award winning developer of embedded signal processing and RF modules and LTE PHY/stack software for 4G and 5G mobile network and related applications. Prior to cofounding CommAgility in 2006, he served in a range of marketing, sales and engineering roles at Motorola, Loughborough Sound Images and Lucas Industries, in the areas of telecomms, digital signal processing and image processing. He holds a Masters and first class Honours degree in Electrical and Information Sciences from Cambridge University.