Good day everyone, this is Ed Maguire the Insights Partner at Momenta Partners with another episode of our Edge Podcast. Today we have Wienke Giezeman who is the initiator of The Things Network and CEO of The Things Industries. We’re going to be diving into some of his experience, he’s a real expert in low-power technologies for connectivity which are critical to connected industry. Wienke it’s great to have you.
Thanks for having me.
I’d like to just start with a bit of your background, can you share a bit of your experience and what has shaped your views of technology, and Connected Industry?
I started my career as a Dutch Telco operator. I did my first business in media, we created a Netflix for the Netherlands when Netflix was not yet there, then Netflix came to the Netherlands and so our business was obsolete quite quickly. After that I started a new business with my business partner Johan when we discovered a new technology called LoRaWAN, while it was still in its beta in summer of 2015, and there I got back into the connectivity business again.
Can you talk a bit about LoRaWAN, and what were some of the demands that were not being met with current technologies, or existing technologies at the time that led you to develop this? Can you provide a bit of an explanation of what LoRaWAN is, and some of the dimensions of the potential?
It was in the summer of 2015 when someone showed me a device that looked like a Wi-Fi router, it was a LoRaWAN gateway, and it’s only this device can connect up to 10,000 devices in a range of 10 kms, and he battery consumption of the devices themselves is very low; so, that means you can make all kinds of sensor in Internet of Things, and connect a device deployment, without the dependency on an active power source, or somebody replacing the batteries every month. This is a pure technology explanation of the LoRaWAN of course, but I was super-excited about it because it’s like Telco Grade capabilities with a long range, and with a large amount of devices its extremely cheap because at the time it cost around $1,000 and now, they’re going below $100.
So, this gave a sense and sensation of enablement because the idea was that we could build these networks ourselves, and the exciting stuff is that also multiple gateways can work together as one big network. So, our idea was to set up 10 of these gateways because the range is so long in Amsterdam, and it would cover the entire city of Amsterdam, and just let’s see what happens, create a little team of people, not even a company yet or an organization, and said, ‘Hey, let’s just do it!’ and we found 10 businesses in Amsterdam wanting to set up these gateways to experiment, and to build the kinds of proof concepts with it.
What’s interesting is, directly this abundance that we created in Amsterdam was in all kinds of use cases, it was all kinds of LoRaWAN used cases that we were able to make more efficient business processes. I think one of the most visual examples is the smart mousetrap where very-very early in this technology there was a company that sold mousetraps that would send a message when a mouse is caught, and by this way would be able to reduce the operational costs of checking on the mousetraps if they’re full, they could make a huge reduction with that. So, I think the exciting thing about it is, first of all the exciting technology enables you to do a lot more than you could do before. The business cases are pretty clear, and this mousetrap is just a small example. We’ll go through a lot of examples later.
I think the other exciting stuff is, it’s really bringing together the Internet to the Internet of Things, so what I’m trying to say with that is, because you can build it yourself, you can build these networks at very low marginal costs, so this gives this abundance idea of the internet. If you go to Starbucks you just assume the Internet is there, and you assume that you can just freely use it, and you assume its abundantly available; you can watch a YouTube video which is a lot of bandwidth, or you can check Facebook or your mail. I really feel this is disruptive, because it brings this abundant capacity of connectivity to the IoT market.
I love the example of the mousetrap, that is the classic idea of building the better mousetrap. I’d love to learn more about what goes into the LoRa technology. What is compatible with existing technologies; can you use existing components and processors? What is built on that is already broadly used and available, and what’s new?
If you want to build this smart mousetrap let’s take it as an example, then you have to build the smart mousetrap yourself, and you have to buy LoRa chips, and you have to build your electronic device, and they have to make a mechanism that detects that the mouse has been caught. The LoRa chip sends a signal over the air in open spectrums, a spectrum that you can use just like you can use Wi-Fi, and then it sends it to a gateway, it’s part of the infrastructure, and then that gateway sends it to an application or some kind of ERP application maybe, that builds the field force planning.
So, that’s the basic architecture of such a LoRaWAN device, but yes you have to build the LoRaWAN device, or you have to connect to LoRaWAN device to a thing, to make it talk back.
How does this fit in the landscape? If you could talk a bit about the current landscape of low power WAN technologies, where does it fit in the overall market?
The thing with Internet of Things is, you’ve seen that there’s always a demand to consolidate to let’s say lesser standards, because it makes everything a lot less complex. The reality is that for different segments and different types of used cases you need different technologies. So, where LoRaWAN is really good, is in situations for instance where there’s a need to build the network yourself, where there is a need for low-power, but the constraint is that you can send very-very little data, so it’s really about small signal that says the mousetrap has a mouse. So, that’s where the segment LoRa gets in. Then in the same issue our technologies, of course a variety of using Wi-Fi with cellular 3G-4G and have narrowband IoT coming up which is aiming to be also low-powered. This is not an open standard in an open spectrum, so you’re tied for connectivity to an operator, and that for instance has got to fit other used cases that for instance are very mobile and do a lot of roaming across the country.
So, now you have these different standards, and then of course in the home you see a lot of Zigbee, for instance Philips using Zigbee, IKEA, smart products are using Zigbee, so that’s what you see in the smart home and on the shortrange. So, these segments are there for a reason, it’s not only because the IoT industry likes to relentlessly push technology. I think even now if you look at the landscape you can see that it’s starting to mature a little, but yes, I believe there’s still quite some way to go for these real big IoT boom of devices to start. It is not really something in the super-short-term, but the traction is there, LoRaWAN is taking up and its doubling every year in numbers, so it’s getting there but not in the 20-50 million prediction style.
That brings up an interesting point which is that the market itself has been pretty fragmented for low-power wide-area technologies, we’ve had a lot of competition with different standards, even proprietary companies like SigFox that have been approaching the market; what do you see as the initial challenges to adoption? What are the pieces that have to come together for a standard to really gain serious traction?
Myself I’m all into LoRaWAN so I’m pretty biased in comparing alternatives, that’s to be said as a disclaimer first. But I think if you see big challenges in the market, what’s holding it back is not so much that these technologies are competing, but its more that its either industries are very slow in adopting something like Internet of Things, because it’s really affecting their things, like when we talked about SAS online, of course it was a scary place at the start, it was very virtual. But now you’re requesting quite significant KPEX and OpEx investments into these devices, also in extremely risky projects. So, what you now see is that in a lot of cases you need to make your own device, and it’s just a very risky project, so why do IoT startups fail, it’s because the range and the scope of the risk is huge, so you already have the product risk of hardware which is super-risky. We did a kick starter, we do hardware products ourselves, we became competent in it, we paid our price for the lessons, it’s all very risky, but then also you have to go to market.
So, let’s go back to this mousetrap example; you’re talking to a CFO, he’s probably somewhere in his early-sixties, he’s been buying mousetraps for 40 years and he’s always doing it in the same way. All of a sudden here comes the new kid, smart guy who says, ‘Hey, I have a smart mousetrap, it’s going to cost you 50 times more than your current mousetrap, but you can fire 90 percent of your people’, and there’s somebody sitting there, ‘So, okay so what you’re asking operationally from somebody is a hugething’. Then the general adoption has to come, and the proof that someone else is successful especially in this IoT market, you see the initial results, but I think the thing holding back the market is these go-to-market of the new technology guys and girls, and finding the adoption on a broad level for these kinds of projects, which are risky investments, that’s something that’s a given.
So, I think that is still a level of immaturity let’s say, that we will overcome in the next two or three years, at least in the LoRaWAN ecosystem I see it. I think the go-to market is the far more challenging part, the technology is there.
Yeah, and what’s notable is that there’s a lot of cooperation across different sectors and different industries around alliances. Could you talk about the role of organizations or initiatives like the LoRa Alliance, and some of the dynamics that are driving partnership of different types of companies, whether it be vendors, service providers, and customers, to accelerate real-time to value with LoRa Technologies?
We’re part of LoRa Alliance, an active contribute member, so we’re helping to form the standard, and actively involved in evangelizing the standard. We do that by for instance holding conferences around the world, so every January we have a big LoRaWAN conference in Amsterdam, and the rest of the year we have them in India, the US, the rest of Europe, Australia. The role of LoRa Alliance is complying to that standard and moving away from creating proprietary silos, and proprietary alliances which is more of the old system integrator style. But then trying to open-up and create a market, and making them accessible for many-many players, creating a horizontal technology layer that anybody can work on with an open standard, and that’s what LoRa Alliance is doing. That’s the beauty of now having the solid LoRa standard is, you have all these networks that can collaborate, they can start appearing their traffic, all the devices work on all the networks, so you create this trust because you create a lot of freedom for the end-user because they know they’re limited in their fender locking’s, and there’s more trust created, then again it comes back to these adoption of the technologies amplified.
LoRa Alliance is an immense success. It’s now almost four years old, but if you see in what pace that has gone and the adoption of the LoRaWAN standard, that’s just amazing. It’s also the strength of pushing such a technology standard. I think it’s also what the new age is, the successful companies in IoT, and the successful technology companies, they’re going to be I think two-fold; so the ones that stay pure horizontal and stay agnostic, they withhold them from closed alliances, so they stay and are very good in that piece in the value chain. Then if you have multiple partners that can do that, and then can work from their scale to lower the pricing, there you have the vertical players, they will be very much enabled by both low cost and quality, and I think what you see is that LoRaWAN and LoRa Alliance is then enabled to say, ‘Okay, this is the horizontal technology layer that we are going to comply with. Yes, they’re going to be like we’re members, and there are competitors, but everybody is saying, ‘Okay but if we don’t do it there won’t be a market at all’. I think the playing that strategic game is what LoRa and LoRaWAN makes it unique, and why the ecosystem is extremely active globally.
Can you talk about some of the use cases that are starting to emerge as compelling stories, or compelling narratives for LoRa, and how do you use specific used cases, or advantages to position LoRa against other alternatives to argue? What kind of stories and success stories do you use to convince people of the advantages versus other alternatives?
Yes, I’ll just run you through a few. So, something we’re doing together with KPMG and our integrator Meshed, is Sydney, they made the trashcan on the Sydney Fish market smart, so it measures the full weight of the trashcans when full, and the facility management organization is responsible for clearing the trashcans, so they can manage their workforce better. So, there’s a business case because this is an environment where you want to clean the garbage cans as soon as possible, so it’s a better service for the people that have gone there, and they can optimize their workforce.
Something we’re doing in New Zealand together with our integrator SODAQ, and an investor at Rabobank where I will be out-fitting 10,000 cows in New Zealand with Airtech. They are huge farms, there’s no cellular connectivity, so basically there is nothing; Wi-Fi doesn’t have the range, Firefi is too energy consuming, so what they’ve created is a device that is similar to what a cow has in their ear, as an ear-tag, but now it has a little solar panel on a GPS tracker. You can track the cow, get a date on, and if its moving or not, or if the temperature is squeezing then it might be giving labor. The business case is there, they can connect quicker on when a cow is sick, or when a cow starts to go into labor.
So, a project which is more from an environmental perspective is with an integrator from Slovenia, Arnas they are helping the green sea-turtle’s preservation research, and they’re fitting green sea-turtles with the LoRaWAN sensors, and then once they come on shore then we just need to get a signal. So, we have our customer Deutsche Bank the German organization, and we’re outfitting their railway stations with LoRaWAN, and they use the network to time-sync their clocks on the station, and next are going to do a very privacy-aware type of people-counting. So, they’re thinking of all kinds of use cases. Then we have a project in New York, Manhattan, so the present borough of Manhattan has a network gateway on our desk, they measure the temperature of the social housing, and check if the commercial facility management and landlord organizations are complying to their service levels that by law they need to reach, and it means for instance having sufficient heating in the winter. So, it measures the temperature and it feeds back complaints automatically to the government if some houses are not warmed enough.
One of our other customers is WeWork, WeWork is a global co-working space company, so they help businesses with very flexible co-working, and we help them to build all kinds of used cases on top of LoRaWAN networks. I think one of the more growing customers we have is a customer that is in cold chain management, measuring temperature of fridges in places where for instance, there is food and fish, but also in hospitals where you want to keep things at a certain temperature, and really want to know when for instance when somebody has kept the fridge door open. So, what you see here, and what’s the common denominator here is that it’s all about small messages, it’s all about information, and if you perform an action on that data you can save a lot of money, or it can save a lot of labor.
So, the examples are already there in the market, when LoRaWAN has not even been there for four years. This is all production failure generating use cases we’re talking about, this is not POC level, this is real production.
It’s really exciting to see a vision coming to reality, and I love the breadth of examples, particularly thinking about that Internet of Cows.
When you look at the market, are there some observations; typically in emerging markets there are a lot of misperceptions, or what people don’t think is true but is true. Could you talk about where you see some disconnects in the market, and what do you find I guess are the most common misperceptions, or misunderstandings about the market?
I think there’s a lot of noise in the market and that is confusing for end user integrators, our networks technology, but it’s also I think what fits the current phase of becoming a mature technology and getting to a point that we’re getting to scale. What I sometimes miss in how communication takes place is that sometimes technologies are positioned as a ‘winner takes all’ technology, and that’s just not the case in IoT, the real world of things is firstly far too complex to solve with one standard. So, yes, I think there can be misconceptions in the market. For instance in the LPWA sometimes you see there’s a framing that goes towards VHS vs Betamax, the war between videos. But this is the wrong analogy, this is really not what Internet of Things is about, it is highly fragmented, it’s a very hard market and its definitely not a winner takes all market, so it gets really confusing.
I sometimes have conversations about what’s this versus that, it’s not really this versus that, it is your case that fits the technology, yes or no? But it’s not this versus that. So I hope we’re going to reach a high-level maturity in a market where DIF communication starts to also appear, but I think that’s something that can be super-confusing when you’re not in the industry.
Are there some common characteristics that you see with successful deployments of the technology? I would love to get your sense of some of the more active members in Alliance, or clients that you work with, just to understand when you’re starting to think through the possibilities of LoRa connectivity, what are key elements for success that you’ve seen?
I want to approach this from the business side, because the last few years this was a technology searching for a problem, and now I think 2018 was a pivotal year where we saw these real use cases emerge in production, and I think you should always start there because the technology is ready. Now you really need to keep it simple, LoRaWAN is the successful categories are two…
- It can save a lot of labor work, it can save a lot of OpEx in the labor, you see a lot of used cases that are bottom-line OpEx-driven because you don’t need to hire this amount of field-force.
- The other category I always like to frame is about people not losing their jobs, and that’s in compliance. So, if there’s these strict regulations that you have to do it like this, the processes have to follow like this, and if you can check the processes and they are compliant with IoT then you can also save a lot of labor, but you can also increase a lot of certainty.
One of the very successful used cases in the Netherlands is a company that checks if buildings successfully performs the Legionella Prevention Process. In the Netherlands they have a regulation that if you run water in the vicinity, you have to run all water at least once a week for 10 minutes, at 90 degrees. But you have to check if somebody did that, or maybe if the automated building system did that, they need an out of bounds system that checks that. So, what they’ve created is a very simple temperature sensor, you put it in the system, and it checks that the procedures have been performed, because you can measure it with temperature. So, there its saving both labor and making sure that somebody is going to stay compliant. If you look at these categories you can find so many examples in this world, everywhere you look there’s regulations, there’s compliancy needed, there’s somebody that you’ll need to check it; so if I were to give advice to people on what kind of business to start, it’s really in these two categories, just simple bottom-line efficiency on the operational expenses, and compliance.
What do you see are some of the key challenges in working with a new and developing a new standard? I would love to get your perspective, your experience, as you’ve built The Things Network and worked with LoRa Alliance; when you look at the evolution over the last three years, and then looking forward, are there some considerations or obstacles that jump out at you where you might be able to share some insights?
Yes, I think this is collaboration. If you look at the strategic game theory, in the end it’s a prisoner’s dilemma, so we’re both in the same boat, and we have to collaborate to get the maximum results. If the odds are bigger that our individual gains are higher when you collaborate, and I think that’s something with LoRa Alliance which really clears it, even competitors are working side-by-side on commissions to get these standards out, it’s a fair play kind of market. Basically it all starts there with the notion that our individual gains are going to be bigger when we collaborate, and that our odds for success are bigger if we collaborate, even though we are sometimes maybe chasing the same customers. If you have that then you have the breeding ground to start creating standards, and you get the politics out of the way. Of course there’s always politics, don’t get me wrong, it’s not a complete fairytale of course, but if you get that out of the way, you get that aligned, then you have the breeding ground for that standard to emerge. Then it’s just technology, you have to have the smartest people onboard, but I think that notion that you’re going to build the market together, that’s really the basics, and without that you cannot do this.
How do you see the market evolving? I’m sure you do quite a bit of scenario analysis and forecasting, what are you optimistic about, and how do you see the market evolving over the next five to ten years?
For LoRaWAN and LPWA, you see that there’s 100 percent growth in chip sales every year, that it is being underlined by three independent researchers, so we see that the market is growing in an exponential phase, yet don’t confuse chip sales with devices, it’s something completely different, that silicone is being made doesn’t mean it’s being used. So, of course it will be a bit lower, but you see this general attraction moving in the right direction, and what we see with the amount of curiosity in the market, is that you see not over the past few years, is this kind of exception or curiosity out of the market is really going to use it to attract our business cases.
Are there some countries or regions that you see as ahead of the curve, or some that may be a little slower to adopt?
What we see ahead of the curve is the Netherlands and Switzerland, because there’s both an open operator, that’s The Things Network, so we have quite a big network, and a network where 90 countries in the world, Netherlands are the biggest. There’s also a mobile operator that is having a network, and the same goes for Switzerland, so there’s a lot of innovation going on there. They are ahead of the curve which means they’re a bit beyond the hype, and there’s also a bit of disillusionment in these countries. What you see there is a lot of European countries are following, the US, Australia, and then India and China for the LoRaWAN are following up there. So that’s what we see geographically, Latin America too, America and Latin America are on the same level.
How about industries? Certainly you’ve talked quite a bit about agriculture and smart cities, but are there industries that stand out to you as being prime adopters of LoRaWAN tech?
Yes, I think smart building facility management where in logistics we see more and more, and smart metering there was a big announcement in France by Orange also to operate a LoRaWAN network that they’re going to connect 3 million smart meters, between now and 2027. We get a lot of request from smart metering water companies in Europe. Basically, I think the examples I’ve just discussed is that these categories are where you see the traction right now.
So, for a company that’s looking to explore an opportunity with LoRa technologies, are there a couple of pieces of advice that you could provide for someone hearing these opportunities, where should they go to get started with the technology?
IT as a starting company is super-challenging because the scope of the risk is huge, with the hardware you have to go to market. The companies that we see are succeeding in IoT they already have an entry into the market, and they have a very-very good integrator. Then what we see is they’re becoming successful, or they have very good IT confidence themselves, where we can see startups fail is if they go from a technology perspective, and then try to go into a market. A lot of the time in the Internet of Things you’re talking about traditional market logistics, super-slow, focused on not failing instead of winning, so it’s very conservative. You have to know the market, you have to know who is calling the shots and then where the conferences are that you have to be.
My advice is if you want to get into IoT, either become that integrator and service the companies that have the problem, or if you’re a company that has the problem themselves, I’m sure you’ll find a good integrator and build your own IT practice. But companies to do the whole thing out of the blue, and then go to market, it’s really hard to see them succeed.
As you look across the landscape are there some interesting startups, or smaller companies that you’re keeping your eye on?
What we’re looking for in our own space is Teralytic, a startup from New York, they’re measuring soil, so if there’s need for more pesticides or need for more water for regions in the world where there’s less and less water, yes there’s a huge need for position hydration, and that’s something interesting. I’m really impressed by myDevices as a company that actually puts a layer on top of the whole LoRaWAN vertical stack and provides all kinds of different let’s say business cases, and readymade solutions out of the box, so there’s a very interesting company that we also partner with of course. In the LoRaWAN space there are many smaller companies, for instance the smart mousetrap company called Xignal, they’re very innovative in that. So, that’s just to name a few.
That’s great, I’m sure a lot of them will be coming to your conference, so if someone’s interested in that they don’t want to miss it.
My final question is about a recommendation, can you provide a resource recommendation for our listeners, if they want to learn more, or if you have something that you would share with your colleagues?
What I like is the book, ‘The Zero Marginal Cost Society’, by Jeremy Rifkind. It’s also about the Internet of Things, it’s more visionary, and maybe a bit of a holistic approach, it’s about if we start to automate add more robots, add more AI, and add more Internet of Things, we’re going to replace labor exponentially with machines. Basically for any aligned item of operational costs, if on that aligned item you ask, ‘Why?’ five times, you’ll always end up with, that’s because he/she is performing this job. So, OpEx is always in the afore end derived to manual labour. So, if you’re starting to optimize on these operational costs, somehow you get into a society that it goes to a near zero marginal cost society, how would it look like. So, I don’t know if something will get there ever, and it mentions the Eclipse of Capitalism, I don’t know if that’s true, but it sparks the imagination. Whether you agree with him or not, it’s a very interesting perspective.
I thought it was a really insightful view of what could happen when you move into this economy of abundance, but the issues in that of course have really moved to the forefront of the discussion about impact of technological unemployment, universal basic income, and of course the ability to create goods and grow food, it is quite interesting and that’s a great recommendation. The conversations and the debates that have followed are very topical, and very relevant for us going forward. So, thank you for that.
This has been Ed Maguire, Insights Partner at Momenta Partners, and our guest has been Wienke Gienzeman who is the initiator of The Things Network, and CEO of The Things Industries. It’s been a fascinating dive into LoRa and the universe of opportunity around low power connectivity over long distances. Wienke thank you so much for taking the time.
Thanks for having me.