u-blox develops some of the world’s leading IoT communication and GNSS modules, chips and services supporting the industrial, automotive and consumer markets. Recently Andreas Thiel, Head of Product Centers, Co‑founder, u‑blox, was in India for the first time to overlook and expand the business and gauge the opportunities in this part of the world. During his stay in Delhi, ELE Times got the opportunity to have a candid conversation with Andreas Thiel, encompassing the u-blox establishment as a company, its business and opportunities in India, R&D and patents and the like. Excerpts.
ELE Times: How did you conceive the idea of establishing u-blox?
Andreas Thiel: It’s quite an interesting story. u-blox is actually a spinoff from the Technical University of Zurich, officially known as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich. Switzerland may be a small country compared to India, but it is home to two renowned technical universities – one in Zurich and the other in Lausanne (that’s the EPFL). These institutions hold international recognition and rank on a similar level as MIT in the United States. At the university as PhD students we founded u-blox, and our focus at the time was on miniaturizing electronics.
This was in 1997 when making electronics smaller was a challenge. We were primarily working with multichip modules and exploring packaging technologies. It just so happened that one of our research projects involved miniaturizing a GPS receiver to fit into a mobile phone. At that time, it was quite unimaginable to have GPS integrated into a mobile phone. However, as a research group, we successfully enabled the first GPS receiver in a mobile phone.
Unfortunately, the customer who had the idea of integrating GPS into a phone was probably ahead of the market. The phones turned out to be very expensive, and the commercial success was limited. Although, they did manage to sell a few hundred thousand units at that time. Nonetheless, this experience taught us a great deal about GPS technology, and we were determined to further develop it. Since the university couldn’t help us turn it into a business, we made the decision to establish our own company, which meant putting our PhD pursuits on hold. Fortunately, the university was incredibly supportive of startups, allowing us to stay in their offices for two years, providing equipment and resources.
From there, our focus on GPS evolved into a broader interest in GNSS (global navigation satellite systems), including systems like Galileo and BeiDou. Initially, we started from the software side, fully owning the software and using third-party chips. However, as time went on, we realized the potential to design our own chipsets and delve into silicon creation. So, u-blox transitioned into a satellite-based positioning company, specializing in GPS. In 2007, we took the company public on the Swiss stock exchange, SIX, using the funds raised to expand into adjacent businesses.
We noticed that many of our customers required tracking applications with communication capabilities, and that’s when we found a perfect fit in cellular modems. This allowed us to sell more to the same customers and significantly grow our business. The core idea behind u-blox has always been to explore new business opportunities using module-based solutions with third-party chips. As we gained a deeper understanding of the technology, we gradually took ownership of more components to deliver superior products to our customers. Initially, we prioritize software development, but as our expertise grew, we ventured into silicon design.
For instance, we developed our own chip for the Cat M standard (LTE-M and NB-IoT) in cellular technology. However, we are selective about where we invest in silicon, focusing on high-volume markets to ensure a viable return on investment. While we offer numerous cellular modules based on third-party chips, we believe in providing our customers with choices from different suppliers, fostering a diverse supply chain.
Overall, u-blox’s journey started with the miniaturization of GPS receivers for mobile phones. Since then, we have expanded our focus to encompass GNSS technologies, developed our own chipsets, and explored adjacent business opportunities such as Services (Communication-as-a-Service and Location-as-a-Service). We strive to deliver innovative solutions by leveraging our expertise in software and silicon design. As we continue to grow, our commitment remains the same – to provide exceptional products to our customers and explore new frontiers in the field of positioning and wireless communication.
ELE Times: You have been associated with R&D Departments and worked in various other capacities, please enumerate the achievements in R&D and the patents filed in your company’s name.
Andreas Thiel: Thanks to our expanding research sites, we now have a global presence, ranging from San Diego in the United States to Espoo in Finland. While we have acquired intellectual property (IP) and patents through acquisitions, our focus is not solely on maximizing the number of patents. Instead, we prioritize protecting ideas we deem valuable. As a result, we generate an average of 10 patent families per year. Our patents hold substantial value, particularly in the field of positioning technology. We cover the entire stack, including not only global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), that is outdoor positioning, but also indoor positioning.
In IC design, we have notable expertise in circuit design, particularly in the mix-signal domain, encompassing power management and RF design. Recently, we have seen increased patent activity in IoT, where the challenge lies in achieving low power and data rates while maintaining strong security without excessive overhead. We prioritize developing methods that ensure high security with minimal overhead, especially for transmitting small amounts of data in IoT applications. This necessitates efficient key management systems, an area where we have invested significant effort.
ELE Times: What plan do you have for the Indian market in terms of technology provider and market expansion?
Andreas Thiel: Major global automotive companies have operations in India, working on both domestic and international projects for customers. This presence has been established for approximately a decade. Additionally, we are involved in railway projects, particularly in tracking passenger wagons and related infrastructure. Our products are utilized by telecom companies worldwide for network synchronization and timing references, including customers in India.
It’s really the global tier ones that have design and produce in India. And we work with them and they export into different markets and also to Indian OEMs.
On that note, we just launched our newest positioning module, the ZED-F9L, which stands temperatures up to 105 °C and delivers sub-meter accuracy for advanced automotive applications. It is an L1/L5 GNSS receiver module, ideal for telematics (TCU), V2X, and navigation applications. It leverages six satellite constellations simultaneously, including NavIC. We have more modules in the pipeline for the coming months.
ELE Times: India is an emerging manufacturing spot. What is your take on the same? What opportunity do you see in the Indian market
Andreas Thiel: India is an emerging manufacturing spot and our growth rates in India are remarkable. It is important to note that our current scale of operations remains relatively small. Therefore, achieving high growth rates is relatively easy. It took us some time to comprehend the key factors for success in the Indian market. We experimented with various approaches, including distributors and our own sales personnel. However, we are now establishing a setup that is gaining significant momentum. Initially, it was challenging for us to establish a foothold in India, but we are now making progress.
ELE Times: What technological advancement do you foresee in 3 to 4 years down the line in the areas of IoT Communication, Reliable, fast location and accurate assistance services and IoT Security i.e. End-to-end protection for business-critical data?
Andreas Thiel: We recognize the increasing importance of seamless indoor-outdoor positioning, especially in the supply chain domain. This capability is crucial for tracking goods both on the road and within factory premises. We are actively engaged in this area, leveraging technologies like angular arrival and departure in Bluetooth. Standard access points, such as Wi-Fi, are also serving as anchor points for indoor positioning. We believe we are well-positioned to integrate these technologies effectively. The demand for such positioning solutions is expected to rise significantly across various use cases.
In terms of communication, standardization has played a pivotal role, as evident from the transition to 5G in mobile phones. While the IoT space is currently dominated by LTE-M and NB-IoT, we anticipate a shift towards 5G, particularly for applications like container tracking, trailer tracking, and railway wagon tracking. We are observing the emergence of 5G, specifically the reduced capability version known as 5G RedCap, which holds promise for IoT applications. Although currently limited to high-end devices, we anticipate a gradual integration of 5G into the IoT space, presenting intriguing opportunities.