Memories will be made of this – interview with NVMdurance CEO Pearse Coyle

19 Apr 2016

NVMdurance CEO Pearse Coyle with founders Joe Sullivan and Conor Ryan

Having developed a unique IP that enables a tenfold gain in endurance for NAND flash memory devices, Limerick’s NVMdurance could soon be a multi-million takeover target for the storage industry. CEO Pearse Coyle says Limerick is a hotbed of innovation in electronics.

If you think about the spiralling number of devices in the world that are used to store your most precious digital assets, from photos and videos to music and a whole lot more, it is hardly comforting to realise that these devices aren’t going to hold onto your memories forever.

“It is a problem that the global storage business is obsessed with and we have the solution for that,” Coyle said matter-of-factly.

Coyle will be a guest of honour at the forthcoming Bank of Ireland-sponsored Startup Grind in Limerick on Tuesday 26 April, where he will talk about the NVMdurance story and his observations as an adviser to entrepreneurs on making corporate spinouts.

‘Our software retunes the flash memory and makes it last 10-times longer and so we know we can have a fundamental impact on the economics of the tech industry’

“Flash memory has emerged as the absolutely hugely dominant form of non-volatile memory, to the extent that it is eating into the reserve of hard disks and is close to price parity – the rate at which it is overtaking the hard disk industry is accelerating.

“However, flash-based non-volatile memory has a problem, in that it isn’t really non-volatile, it actually wears out after a certain number of reads and writes. Most people don’t know that flash memory doesn’t last forever. The industry, however, does, and it is doubling down on the issue.”

Coyle said that this is impacting on the very economics of the storage business. “The cheapest flash memories goes into sticks and cameras while the higher value, crème de la crème is reserved for missiles and space launches.”

Coyle makes no secret of the fact that NVMdurance is likely to be an acquisition target of one of the handful of the world’s top storage manufacturing giants. He said the company has already turned down five acquisition attempts.

The origins of NVMdurance

NVMdurance, which recently raised €2.2m from existing investors New Venture Partners, ACT Venture Capital, Enterprise Ireland and NDRC, is one of the rare examples of what is possible when professionals from the multinational and academic fields unite.

The company owes its origins to work that Joe Sullivan, then working at Analog Devices in Limerick, was doing in the area in extending life in the area of NOR flash memory in 1999 by tweaking the parameters of memory at a nanoscale, and his work was published in prominent academic journals.

After being approached by flash memory manufacturers to see if similar work could be achieved in their field, Sullivan teamed up with Conor Ryan, a lecturer at the University of Limerick (UL), and they began initially as consultants with Evolvability.

The pair began building software models and established that, due to the higher complexity of NAND, substantial changes and highly-sophisticated software was required.

In 2008, they began patenting their technology and, by 2012, the NDRC came on board as an investor.

“We solved the problem in that our software retunes the flash memory and makes it last 10-times longer and so we know we can have a fundamental impact on the economics of the tech industry,” said Coyle.

The storage industry is scrambling to solve the very problem that NVMdurance has addressed and it is resulting in a spate of acquisitions. For example, SanDisk acquired SMART Modular for $645m in 2011. In recent months, SanDisk has entered into an acquisition agreement with Western Digital for $15bn.

Similarly, in 2011, Apple acquired Israeli company Anobit, a maker of flash memory controllers, for between $400m and $500m.

Coyle points out that there are at least six global storage giants that dominate the NAND storage business, while OEMs like Apple, Dell, HP and IBM also have a stake in the game.

“There are at least two or three companies that worked on a similar problem to the one we are addressing and they have all been acquired. As well as this, the storage companies are also ploughing resources into addressing the problem.”

As a result, NVMdurance has had to be defensive about its IP. “Because of the way we have built it, it is virtually impossible to replicate our technology. We have a black box that no one can see and there’s no reason to show the customer what’s inside it. This is really helpful because it is a savage, cutthroat space in terms of IP.”

Breaking free and starting up

Coyle, who previously ran a company called Corporate Spinouts, which focused on helping executives in multinationals spin out start-ups, came across NVMdurance during a pitching session with the NDRC. Because of previous work he had done in the storage space he understood the problem the founders were trying to address and this led to him becoming the CEO of the company.

His time in helping spinouts to occur from multinationals made him realise that starting up as an entrepreneur might sound romantic to many executives, but the reality is actually daunting.

‘All the time we are moving in the right direction. As time goes on our own perception of value increases. We are definitely an acquisition play’

“The historical reason is that the start-up climate wasn’t as benign as it is now. It’s massively easier to launch a start-up today than it was 10 years ago. The other reality is that if you are a tremendously successful electronics engineer, by the time you hit your 30s or 40s the chances of doing a start-up hugely diminish because you may be on a great salary but you have kids and a mortgage to consider. These actually create barriers and an immense risk in the mind of any would-be entrepreneur.”

Interestingly, both Sullivan and Ryan had already embarked on a venture as consultants and so had broken free of institutional mindsets and fear barriers. Both still lecture at Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT) and UL respectively.

“Joe had already left Analog and was working as a lecturer in LIT and Conor was something of a machine learning/artificial intelligence guru and they set up a consultancy to keep their work on IP distinct and separate from the corporate and academic worlds. They stuck at it and went down many different roads before arriving at the technology they have developed.

“By the time I met them at NDRC in 2011 I was aware of the macro-market realities of the storage business and I knew that there was a problem to be solved but also a massive market opportunity.”

Currently, NVMdurance works with storage players like Altera to help them solve the problem around the endurance capabilities of flash memory devices.

The overall estimated size of the storage market is $28bn and this is expected to top $49bn by 2019, according to ReportsnReports.

“The business wheels are turning and our market is the big six storage giants and the top 15 users, including Apple, Dell and IBM.”

Coyle is quite blunt about the fact that the overall exit for NVMdurance will be a takeover.

“All the time we are moving in the right direction. As time goes on our own perception of value increases. We are definitely an acquisition play. Our technology sits better in a flash manufacturing operation than anywhere else. We’ve had five approaches but no formal offers.”

Whatever happens, he is adamant that NVMdurance’s future is in Limerick. “In the long term, we have this ambition to develop a cluster around electronics and flash memory in the Limerick area. It’s a really hot space.”

Recently, marking Analog Devices’ 40th anniversary in Limerick, the US technology giant revealed that 20pc of all patents held by the company were filed by Irish-based engineers, a testament to the engineering talent in the Limerick region.

“I don’t think Limerick has any self-esteem issues and, if anything, I think Limerick is second only to Dublin in technology terms. Over the years, there have been some great tech ventures to emerge from Limerick and the other critical point is that it has Shannon Airport with regular flights to the US.”

Coyle also paid tribute to the quality team at NVMdurance, which he believes boasts some of the deepest experts in the NAND flash memory space.

“When companies in this space make acquisitions they tend to leave the teams in-situ. So, even if we are acquired, the jobs will stay in Limerick.”

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