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Disrupting the status quo has been the name of the game for UnaBiz, an operator of the Sigfox low-power wide-area network (LP-WAN) that shook up the market for internet-of-things (IoT) connectivity two years ago by offering subscription charges of just under one US dollar per device per month.
The move raised eyebrows among industry watchers then, but that didn’t stop the startup from chasing its goal of lowering the barriers to IoT adoption. After building up a sizeable base of customers, including Engie, a French supplier of property and energy management services, UnaBiz is now setting its sights on the IoT hardware market.
“One of the issues with the IoT ecosystem is that hardware is still too expensive to be accepted by industry and users,” said Henri Bong, CEO of UnaBiz. “To achieve massive IoT adoption, we have to bring down prices.”
Bong, a French-born Chinese, found like-minded technology partners in Taiwan, such as Lite-On, and continues to work with them today. Many of them saw a need for cheaper IoT sensors at prices as low as $15, and went round the market asking for them. “That woke up the industry, which realised they can’t sell a tracker for $80 with an 80% margin any more,” said Bong.
Today, UnaBiz operates a 20-strong engineering outfit that includes mechanical, electronics and radio frequency engineers in Taiwan, a global semiconductor manufacturing hub. The engineers design sensors that measure air quality, among other things, for IoT technology suppliers that have the software smarts, but lack the hardware knowhow.
Besides having a cost advantage, Taiwanese engineers have also enabled UnaBiz to take prototypes to production in just under three months. This includes miniaturising components, which has not often been the case until recently.
“If you look at what the IoT has been like for the last two, three years, most of the sensors are housed in boxes with wires sticking out,” said Bong. “We are very happy that we managed to secure ISO 9001 certification at the end of last year for our processes and quality management, which is quite rare for a startup.”
UnaBiz’s advances in hardware design are the envy of telcos, especially those that are missing the hardware piece necessary to drive wider adoption of the IoT. “Many of them are working with local hardware partners or those in China that they’ve found to be slow and expensive,” said Bong.
Henri Bong, UnaBiz
Still, UnaBiz had to tread carefully in Taiwan, where it also runs a Sigfox network, to keep costs in check in order to stay competitive. It buys core components, such as transceivers and microcontrollers, in bulk from direct sources such as STMicroelectronics, and leaves it to electronic manufacturing service (EMS) suppliers commissioned to make the actual hardware to source for other components.
By providing its hardware designs, UnaBiz can also avoid the hefty fees that big EMS suppliers often charge for additional R&D work to make up for their lack of dedicated LP-WAN and IoT expertise, said Bong.
Not content with disrupting IoT connectivity and hardware, UnaBiz has started building up integration capabilities to make IoT hardware and software applications work well together.
“Integration is not as simple as connecting a tracker to a Sigfox network,” said Bong. “After you provision the service, you need to know how to get the data out, interpret it, and so on.”
Read more about IoT in APAC
- IoT connectivity provider UnaBiz has been given the green light to roll out its Sigfox-based network in Taiwan, underscoring its ambition to expand its global footprint to 60 countries by 2018.
- While organisations in a global survey have put IoT as their top priority, those in Southeast Asia remain concerned with the cost and complexity of rolling out the internet of things.
- Malaysia is exploring the use of internet of things technologies for agriculture in ASEAN, driven by collaboration between government and the private sector.
- IoT may have benefited industries such as oil and gas, but issues such as connectivity are holding back adoption in Australia.
But UnaBiz does not do it all alone. It works with systems integrators to offer integration services, which accounts for about half its revenues today. Connectivity contribute less than 10% to UnaBiz’s coffers, while hardware contributes 40%.
On potential partnerships with telcos, most of which are backing the use of narrowband IoT, Bong said UnaBiz is open to working with IoT teams in telcos that want to win bigger deals regardless of the underlying connectivity technology.
“The telcos are more open now because they’ve failed to build an ecosystem over the past few years,” said Bong. “They thought we were a little startup that would die within a year but now that we have KDDI and Engie backing us, they are finding a way to partner with us.”
Although UnaBiz is not yet profitable, that could change by the end of 2020 or even earlier if a major deal materialises, said Bong. The firm is currently gearing up for a Series B funding round, after raising more than $10m in Series A funding from Engie and KDDI in 2018.