Conversation with Carles Puente
Good day, and welcome to edition 135 of our Digital Industry Leadership Series. Today I’m pleased to host Dr. Carles Puente, co-founder and Vice President of Innovation for Ignion, a world leader in chip-level wireless antennas. Dr. Puente was most recently the co-founder of Fractus and Fractus and Ignion where he was co-inventor of the Virtual Antenna, the technology that enables IoT and mobile devices to embed a tiny chip antenna component to deliver full mobile connectivity. Carles was nominated to the European Inventor Award in 2014, named Technology Pioneers by the World Economic Forum in 2005, and awarded the IST Grand Prize by the European Commission in 1998. He is a proliferate inventor with over 145 patents, has co-authored 150 scientific papers, and is a professor at Barcelona Tech where he earned his Ph.D. He has taught graduate-level courses on technology and patent management at Penn-Wharton ESADE Business School and CEITI.
Carles, welcome to our Digital Industry Leadership Podcast today.
Good day Ken, many-many thanks for inviting me to this talk. I’m very happy to be here with you.
Yes, very happy to have you as well. Just kind of rewinding, I think all of this came about when you named Jaap Groot as a CEO of the company several months ago, and of course, we interviewed him coming out of Semtech at the time, so it’s nice to have that connection of the ecosystem all coming together. And I know, you and I have had a few opportunities to get to know each other a bit, and I tell you I came away just extremely impressed with your background and your knowledge of the space. So, I’m very happy that we have the opportunity to do this.
So, let’s start off with your professional leadership journey, over what I like to call the Digital Industry Leadership Journey; what would you consider to be the red thread or common elements that make up that journey?
Well, that’s a very good question, Ken, because looking back and putting things into perspective sometimes you think how I did end up doing this founding Ignion Fractus, and all of that. And it’s probably two common themes that have been there forever in my life, one is curiosity, and the second probably is a passion for innovation. As for curiosity I always had a strong motivation to understand how things work, and this is probably how I became a scientist and I became very intrigued and very attracted by understanding the laws of Physics, and the laws of electromagnetics, in particular, this is how I became into the antenna space, and into the electromagnetic and RF world, and later to understand how humans, and how people and how society works, and probably this is why I came into the area of business as well.
Again, in addition to curiosity the interest is a passion for innovation, so really being attracted to discovering and creating new things, and finding problems that have always been there, and that people have been trying to solve before, and making something useful with them. So that’s probably the curiosity and this passion for innovation that turned me into a scientist and then an entrepreneur as well.
Coming out of your electrical engineering studies in Catalonia and the US, you did your post-graduate work in the mid-nineties in areas of Fractal Antennas, which I love the topic, ‘Laser and Photonics’, and recall whilst all of us know these terms these days because of autonomous vehicles and such technologies, at the time this was pretty novel stuff, and maybe a bit esoteric one might say. What inspired you to go in this direction at that time?
Well as you said, all of that was not that known, this didn’t exist, and like everything, every innovation, every invention, someone needs to find it. Everything had started because I had a very inspiring professor at the UPC Barcelona Tech when I was a telecom engineering student in the nineties in Barcelona. This antenna professor was explaining to me as a student sitting there in class, how difficult it was to make multiband or multi-wavelength antennas, and how difficult it was to shrink the size of an antenna as a matter of physics. This is how, whilst sitting there in class, I had the idea of using fractus to solve this problem. Fractals is just a class of geometry, a mathematical concept that I was exposed to during my studies, and which has been used in science for many applications. I thought well, maybe by using fractals I could solve this problem.
This just became an idea, and later when I finished my degree at Barcelona Tech, and I joined the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign to do a Master of Science program in the field of Telecom Engineering as well, particularly in the field of photonics, I thought that photonics was going to be the future with lasers, optical communications, fiber optics and so on. But somehow in the middle of that I decided to keep the antenna research just for fun, and this is how I met Professor Paul Mayes at the University of Illinois who was a well-known scientist in the antenna field, and I had the chance to share my ideas of using Fractals to make antennas. He became enthusiastic about the idea and he encouraged me a lot to do research in that field, and this is how I started to do that at the beginning, just for fun, just for scientific curiosity as a student there. And later that thing that I started doing research about just for fun, turned into some of my first publications in the scientific field and that became all of a sudden, a trending topic in the science world. Many scientists in the antenna field all over the world started to do research in the field of fractal antennas.
And that became the seed of Fractus, the first company we founded back in 1999, and also the seed of what Ignion is today in the IoT world.
Very good, I love the story, starting from sitting in a classroom coming up with a big idea, and then evolving this over time, really based in science which is great. So, as you mentioned you co-founded Fractus in 1999, what problem were you really trying to solve, and for whom?
Well, that’s interesting because I was explaining before everything started with non-mission research. There wasn’t a purpose in making research in fractal antennas, it was just a curiosity and a challenge that was there waiting for someone to solve it. When I started making the research at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, and later at the UPC when I came back to join the Faculty of Barcelona Tech in the nineties, that technology didn’t have any particular application beyond solving a technical challenge, making small antennas and making multi-band antennas.
However, it happened that by the time also in the mid-nineties mobile telephony started to boom, and that happened in Europe, in the US, with the first digital generation of mobile phones, 2G, and that was at the times of GSM and CDMA, while many people will not remember that because it was a long time ago, but this is how mobile phones started becoming popular. The mobile telephony market was growing so fast that carriers and phone-makers had a huge problem because there was no spectrum in the single-band system they had deployed with 2G, they had no spectrum to allocate the new subscribers. This is how they realized that they had to open a second frequency band for all new subscribers. But there were many problems around that, and one of them was the antenna; at that time remember people would have a pull-out antenna in the external part of the phone, and you had to pull out the antenna just to speak, and those were singl-band antennas.
So, the question became are we going to put two antennas over the phone, and having to pull up those two every time we speak, to find the first frequency band, or the second frequency band, with one antenna or the other? Of course, that was not a solution and the same problem was there for base stations: people were scared to see so many base stations around and having those antennas radiating all over the cities in one frequency band. So, people were not willing to see more antennas in the landscape.
This is how this problem of helping the digital world, the mobile communications to grow through new frequency bands became a market problem, and in parallel, we had this technology that started as an unmissioned research and as a curiosity, that all of a sudden had the solution for that problem. This is how we realized that creating Fractus back in 1999 was a great opportunity, a great opportunity to address this market need with this new technology.
So, classic – being prepared and being in the right place at the right time! It is a classic entrepreneur story, not easy to do mind you, but you really seemed to hit that timing well. What were some of your wins at Fractus at the time?
When we started Fractus it was the time where the mobile telephony world was starting to turn from 2G to 3G, and new frequency bands were going to be rolled out and were going to be licensed. That was the time where first Spain, then Germany, the UK, European countries, and the US became crazy about licensing and having those bids for newer spectrum for the new generation of mobile telephony. Our first main success was to get a contract from Telefónica one of the leading carriers around the world, and the leading carrier in Spain at that time, Telefónica was the first carrier to deploy a major 3G network in Europe, and they had to have these antennas that would combine in a single mast, in a single antenna unit, both in the frequency bands of 2G and 3G. So, they found in us the right antenna products, and this is how we rolled out the first major 3G network in Europe with thousands of our antennas based on the technology we had created in the company.
But then, we went for cell phones as well, because again the cell phones also needed multiband antennas, and in addition, they needed multiband antennas that had to be small enough to fit inside the phone and getting away from the external part of the phone which was inconvenient for many reasons. This is how we started to apply our technology to cellphones as well, and it happened to be that within the period of 2002-2015 about over 90 percent of mobile phones and smartphones worldwide used fractal-based antennas that had the grounds of our technology, the technology that we had created and patented. This is how the company licensed its technology to most of the cellphone makers around the world, including companies like Samsung, LG, Motorola, HTC, Blackberry, Sanyo, Kyocera, Sharp, and many many others. About every phone maker would use a fractus licensed antenna component in their phones.
So, no small impact. And for most of the rest of us, that would have been enough to button up a professional career and retire in Barcelona somewhere. But you went on to I’d say to make an equally large leap when you co-founded Fractus Antenna in 2015, focused on Virtual Antennas. Tell us a bit about this technology.
Well, it’s again about this passion for innovation and by facing challenges, technical challenges but also market needs, and this is how once we had a license to the entire industry with fractal antenna related technology, we realized that there were still problems to address. There was a very clear inconvenience on the previous generation of fractal related technologies which was, that technology was optimal from the antenna perspective, but you had to make a custom design, a very specific design for every phone model, for every smartphone that came out there, and that meant that you had to make a very substantial investment in R&D for every product that came out into the market, and that also meant that you cannot benefit from economies of a scale because the product was designed for one model which could not be reused for the next phone model.
This was a pain, and actually, this is how Fractus became a licensing company, a company that mostly licensed the technology and let the phone makers do their antennas without technology in their phones. But at the same time whilst trying to face that problem we came out with a new generation, the Virtual Antenna, and the aim after this Virtual Antenna was to find an antenna component that was off the shelf, so like a chip, and it could be so small that it could fit in about any device without any kind of customization. This is exactly what virtual antenna became, and the challenge was that apparently, this was against the Laws of Physics because people would believe that making antennas so small, and at the same time making multiband and capable of covering all communication standards was just not feasible as a matter of physics. But we did it, and we did it because if you interpret the laws of physics correctly, you realize that with this new technology you can ignite the radiation coming out from the device itself and get connectivity as you need with all the communication standards that you need as one.
I think you’ve already done a great lead-in to the next question because I’m pleased to be probably one of the first to discuss your new branding, which by the time this air will already be out in the market. But all of this is culminated with this rebranding of Ignion just a few weeks ago, well actually just now, and will be a few weeks now. But what does the new brand mean to your company and mission?
The Ignion word connects to the physics of these virtual antenna chips, and again the trick beyond this technology, the reason why we can make our chips 10 times more than any previous generation of antennas, including Fractus, is because these chip antenna components are responsible for igniting the radiation process from actually the entire device. So, it’s the entire device with all its size that produces the radiation – all the radiation that the device needs, and its connectivity, and this is a completely different principle and a completely different technology that has no relation to the previous technology. And then we had to find a name, and Ignion somehow reflects that.
In addition to this Ignion also has a connection to the explosion of market verticals, applications, solutions, that are joining the IoT revolution and that is making and will make everything connected to the cloud, and this connection always needs an antenna, because it’s quite curious that sometimes people forget that there is no wireless if there isn’t an antenna, the antenna is an essential component in every wireless connectivity application. And this is how these tiny chips from Ignion help in this explosion of application and communications as standards, and that is going to happen and is happening today in the IoT world.
Yeah, where one main measure cellphones in the millions per se, when you talk about IoT devices it always begins in the billions, and so again being in the right place, at the right time, with the right preparation has positioned you well for this. As you know, we’re big fans of low power—wide area networks, particularly the unlicensed spectrum like LoRaWAN and license like 5G NB-IOT if you will, and so it’s no wonder that you’d hire somebody with the caliber of Jaap Groot coming from Semtech and Sigfox who clearly has a background in that space, and that probably says an awful lot about where you guys see as the greatest growth challenges.
You mentioned the explosion I guess of – I’ll call it wireless connectivity, what would your own forecast be for the next decade in terms of key trends to watch for, and ones maybe you’re preparing for?
Well, it’s always difficult to predict what will happen, and analysts and scientists sometimes are trying very much to do that okay. Well, it looks quite clear, and everyone concerned says that by 2025 there will be about 25 billion connected smart devices to the cloud, and it’s quite clear that the vast majority of them will be connected wirelessly, and that means again an antenna. It’s quite uncertain what kind of connectivity standards they will be using. It’s quite probably, it will probably be the case that actually it’s a combination of them, so it will be of course the unlicensed spectrum for low-power — wide-area network like LoRa, Sigfox and so on, and also Wi-Fi, and this is how Japp wast enthusiastic with the growth and again decided to join us.
But of course, there are also a lot of applications that would be based on cellular connectivity, and that means 4G today, but 5G and 'whatever G' you might mention we might think in the future. The nice thing is that from the Ignion perspective we don’t care, our antennas will be there because a tiny chip can be used to connect any of those. So, you can use a chip to have connectivity at LoRa, but you can have connectivity at LTE-M-Cat 1 or any other 5G standards. The same component can make the connectivity of the two, and it's small enough to be inside any device. So, this is how we foresee the future; billions and billions of devices connected, all of them using an antenna, multiband and small antenna to connect to the cloud.
So, multi-spectrum, multi-model. I know you sit on top of software-defined radio, but I guess it would be fair to call you a software-defined antenna, or connectivity!
Right, well that’s interesting because that’s clearly in our vision, and we believe that through these flexible and versatile components at the end the engineers and solution suppliers will be capable of connecting everything through any standard, and just something that you configure through the software, that’s perfectly great.
I noted your company of course have been sponsored by the use specifically Horizon 2020 Programme, and actually as of this week and as we’re recording this, the EU have just announced a new — what they’re calling European Investment Council Programme, driving direct investment, and interestingly enough acceleration programs now for the next wave of European technology startups. What has your experience been working with the EU, and what would you advise startups consider in taking early investment perhaps from this new program?
The experience has been fantastic. As we have been discussing, all this research, all this innovation comes from ideas that happen years ahead from the problem, the problem comes later, or let’s say the real-life problem, there is the technical challenge, there is the scientific challenge out there, but sometimes there is no real-life application to that. This promising technology, these promising start-ups needs some funding to cross what is called the Valley of Death and making for instance now with quantum computing and many other technologies, there needs to be a huge investment in R&D, to bring that technology and take that technology from the labs to the market.
And the European Programme, particularly Horizon 2020 as you mentioned has been extremely useful because it not only funded basic research, but I funded really the whole process of bringing that fundamental research from the lab to the markets, so the complete journey. And this has been extremely useful for a company like us, and it should be extremely useful for a start-up company based in Europe. I would strongly recommend entrepreneurs and business leaders in that space, in that innovative space, to take a close look at the European Union Programme and apply to a program that they will find useful for their companies.
And of course, a second recommendation I would give to these companies is to file patents, because as it happens to be in our company if you need to survive and succeed in a highly competitive technology market, patents play a key role, and the European Union is very much encouraging companies to also move into that direction.
Clearly, you’re a believer, having filed the 145 yourself!
I’d say that is a definite believer. So, you left out your third recommendation though, and that is being headquartered in Barcelona and the advantages of living both in that wonderful region and country. What makes Barcelona a great place for start-ups?
Well, that’s a good question, which is difficult for me, because for me it’s so obvious because I’ve always been living here. Well, I’ve actually been living in the US as well which is an amazing place for entrepreneurs, creators, and inventors, and is a very inspiring area. But in a way, Barcelona also is a place that has influence from many cultures and has always had influence from many cultures and civilizations and hosting people from all over the world. And yes, some of them come because of the great weather and the great food, that always helps but it’s not that, it’s actually, in the end, the people; the people here but also the people coming from all over the world that will find here a place that is open and respectful, and welcoming to the ideas of others, and encouraging people to start their projects here and let the projects flourish. This is probably why surveys made by the Financial Times, the Economist, and many other sources rank Barcelona amongst the top 10, top 20 take ups all over the world, and amongst the top five in Europe.
So, I would say to the entrepreneurs and to the creators all over the world that they are very welcome to come to Barcelona, and they will have fun, they will have the time of their life, and they will have all the tools they need to start in their ventures.
Well said. Of course, the region is famous for having been explorers, to quote/unquote the ‘New World’ and you certainly continue that explorer mindset and culture there in the new world of technology.
When you’re not busy creating the next big thing in terms of technologies, what do you do that personally inspires you, thinking of books, people or events, or things like that?
Well, everything that relates to solving problems, creating new things, and helping to make in a way contributing to making a better world, not only in the field of science but in terms of society; I’m a professor and I love teaching and engaging with the students, challenging them and being challenged by them as well, so that keeps me always fresh and active and exposed to new ideas and new trends. My kids do that, my kids are in their twenties now and I learn a lot from them, and it’s great to be close with family and friends. In the end entrepreneurs and scientists, we are normal people, we enjoy being with family, we enjoy being with friends, we enjoy being on vacations which is hard these days with the pandemic, being close to friends and family, and that’s painful but there is hope. And there is hope because there are some believers out there that someday started to research in an area where nobody was looking and they came out with these great technologies that today enables these wonderful vaccines that will make our lives hopefully, our lives much easier, and we can all have a normal life with our friends and family as usual.
And I second that and hopefully as we’re heading this recording together it looks like the light clearly is at the end of the tunnel here, thank God.
Dr. Puente, thank you so much for this insightful interview today.
Thank you very much Ken for interviewing us, for helping us to explain our story and our company, and we are very happy to be part of this podcast and this program that you are running. Thank you very much, Ken.
Oh, and thank you. It’s a pleasure to feature one of the invisible guiding hands behind the market, and I clearly believe you guys have already made a large impact and are prepared to make a greater one going forward, so we’re pleased to be part of your ecosystem.
This has been Dr. Carles Puente, co-founder, and vice president of Innovation at Ignion, and if I may say, a lifelong practitioner in curiosity and passion. Thank you for listening and please join us next week for the next episode of our digital industry leadership series. Thank you and have a great day.
Thank you, Ken.