The Irish high kings of the internet of things

22 Jan 2016

Taoglas co-founder and president of Taoglas USA Dermot O'Shea

One of the hidden gems – until now – of the Irish tech industry, a company that is driving the internet of things opportunity for some of the biggest tech firms in the world, is a homegrown business that came out of Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, called Taoglas.

In Ireland, we are used to US tech companies announcing jobs and investments almost on a daily basis these days. While Irish companies invest regularly in ramping up their presence in the US, also, the $2m investment by Taoglas in an internet of things (IoT) centre in San Diego is of such a scale that it will make many pause for thought.

“We’re quite modest and tend to fly below the radar locally,” explains Dermot O’Shea, who founded the company with Ronan Quinlan in 2004.

The “modest” company actually makes an annual turnover of around €32m and has ploughed its profits back into the company. The San Diego expansion is just one of a number of expansions that include investments in Taiwan and German, with plans to invest in a facility in France this year.

‘While Silicon Valley is where the internet and software giants are, San Diego is the hardware hub of the US and companies like Qualcomm have a base there’

Taoglas employs 37 people in Wexford and a further 130 people worldwide

The Taoglas IoTx Centre is the first-ever facility of its kind in North America, a kind of walk-in facility that is designed to enable product creators for some of the biggest tech and automotive brands comfortably design and create IoT and machine-to-machine (M2M) products.

The lab includes two 3D anechoic test chambers, a team of antenna, radio frequency (RF) and mechanical engineers that will bring product ideas to life and make them ready for manufacture.

Local heroes with a global vision for IoT

O’Shea is a local man in Enniscorthy and he met Quinlan, a Dubliner, while the two of them were working in the electronics industry in Taiwan.

“I was over there to scope out work opportunities and we met while playing Gaelic football with other ex-pats. We struck up a friendship and decided to go into business for ourselves.

“We started out selling technologies on behalf of manufacturers, we registered a factory in Ireland and we were able to fund product development and hire engineers. We are now at 130 staff at four locations worldwide and it has grown strongly. That growth has picked up a pace because the IoT market is exploding,” explains O’Shea.

IoT – the internet of machines – involves all kinds of devices with internet-connected sensors and transmitters that will turn the world as we know it into a living, breathing world of data. IoT is expected to see everything from kitchen appliances like kettles and fridges to self-driving cars join the internet to augment and transform life as we know it.

The next five-to-ten years will see exponential growth in the sector and, because of the presence of companies from Apple to Cisco, Intel, Dell and Vodafone, Ireland finds itself in the vanguard of the IoT revolution.

The global value of the IoT sector is predicted to exceed £25bn a year (€34.2bn) by 2020, with an expectation that 25bn devices will be connected by 2025.

And that’s where Taoglas comes in. It designs and creates the wireless antennae that connects machines to machines (M2M). Taoglas was working on the internet of things long before IoT became a catchphrase dreamed up by a marketer.

“At first, the area we targeted was vehicle-tracking. Our first customer in the UK was building a stolen vehicle system for Jaguar. This evolved into more sophisticated fleet management systems and engine diagnostics systems. A large proportion of our business is still in serving the transportation sector. M2M was previously referred to as telematics and now everyone is jumping on the buzzword.

“Our focus, ultimately, is on the industrial internet of things, more commercial and enterprise-focused than consumers.”

In Ireland, Taoglas would work with Dell in designing IoT gateways and one of its customers in the west of Ireland, Celtrak, was recently acquired by transport refrigeration giant ThermoKing for an undisclosed sum.

Customers in the US include Big Belly Solar, which makes solar-powered trash compactors that use GPS and M2M to help councils save money by only emptying compactors when bins need emptying.

“We make the antenna and help people design their products with full wireless design capabilities and test equipment. Apple and Google, for example, might have that technology in-house but other companies that want to compete in IoT but don’t have these design and test facilities would come to us.”

As such, Taoglas works with brands who are leaders in fields like medical devices and see the IoT revolution as an opportunity to create new services and new revenue models.

“Wireless antenna design is quite complicated and testing is crucial. You need to ensure there is no noise coming from the device so it won’t fail carrier certification in the US, for example. On one hand, it is easy enough to add Wi-Fi to a product, but when you talk about adding cellular it gets way more complicated.

“We found a way to help companies to get to market quickly, ensure their product performs well and we work with them from the start as a design partner. A lot of our revenues would come from selling antennae to global contract manufacturers like Foxconn, who in turn would manufacture devices for some of the biggest brand names in technology.

“For example, we are seeing a growing business emerge in building in cellular capabilities in electricity meters in the US. We specialize purely in the antenna and RF design and most of our employees are RF engineers.”

Unleashing a world of talent

While it may be news to many that one of the hottest tech firms all along in this country was steaming along quietly in a corner of Wexford, O’Shea says it has been mostly advantageous for the company, but it has its challenges.

“You can set up at a much lower cost than Dublin or Cork – pretty much at half the cost – but when it comes to hiring the engineering talent that’s where you start to struggle. For young engineers, Enniscorthy can be a little quiet for them. But, on the other side of the coin, some of the young people who would have started in Enniscorthy are now leading the charge in Taiwan. It’s very exciting for them. We recently opened a facility in Munich because that’s where global car giants like Audi have facilities. While Silicon Valley is where the internet and software giants are, San Diego is the hardware hub of the US and companies like Qualcomm have a base there.

“Our $2m investment is a response to the growth opportunities we see there and we’ve designed it so they can drop in, engage in design and also bring in and impress their customers. It has testing equipment, a customer lounge and work and relaxation areas. Some designers from customers can drop by and stay for days or weeks on projects.”

O’Shea says that Taoglas has been growing at an average rate of 50pc per year since it started. The company ploughs most of its expenditure back into R&D and test equipment.

“It can be a capital-intensive business. When 4G came along we had to replace all of our test equipment and now we are conducting research into 5G and we work with places like Maynooth University, which has just established a 5G lab.”

In fact, Taoglas spans all the various wireless platforms from cellular to Wi-Fi and satellite and recently started working on Li-Fi, which enables line-of-sight wireless connectivity at speeds 100 times faster than Wi-Fi. Another burgeoning area is radar and LiDAR technologies for autonomous, self-driving vehicles.

Another little-known fact about the company is its technology is used by Google’s Street View cars and trekkers. “Our technology has gone everywhere with them, even to the Grand Canyon and mapping trails all over the world. That requires accurate GPS sensitivity to work seamlessly.”

Taoglas is a homegrown, self-funded success story and, according to O’Shea, the company has never taken on venture capital or grants.

“We’re modest and because we’re from a small town we prefer to be under the radar.”

Looking beyond 2016, O’Shea sees Ireland developing a strong base to be a leader in IoT and he says companies like U-Blox, also a partner, are doing incredible things here.

“We’re focused on all the emerging opportunities, from healthcare in the home to new categories of drones and UAVs and autonomous vehicles,” he concludes. “The self-driving cars area is particularly fascinating and, in the US, President Obama has just approved $4bn in funding to put self-driving cars on US streets.”

It is good to know that it is a small but growing Irish tech company from a regional corner of Ireland that is in the driving seat for the biggest revolution in technology since the internet became a thing.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years