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In early 2022, UnaBiz CEO Henri Bong received a call from a French journalist to comment on Sigfox’s decision to file for bankruptcy protection arising from debt issues, component shortages and slowing business over the past two years.
At the time, Bong was caught off-guard, as he had just learned of Sigfox’s decision a few hours before the call. Thinking on his feet, his first response was that he would do all it takes to keep Sigfox afloat.
The premise behind his response was simple: UnaBiz had built a profitable business as a pan-Asian operator of Sigfox’s low-power wide area network (LP-WAN), supplying internet of things (IoT) connectivity, devices and applications together with its partners to companies such as Nicigas in Japan and Konvoy Group in Australia.
“We have showed that we could create a profitable business model with Sigfox, and we need this technology to keep doing our business,” said Bong, a French national. “And I said we will never let Sigfox die.”
The day after the story ran, Bong was inundated with calls from investors and potential buyers of Sigfox grilling him about his next steps, including the possibility of partnering with other bidders to bail it out. “I had an idea of who the bidders were and the amount of cash needed, so I did a benchmark and showed it to my board,” he said. “Looking at the figures, we were able to offer the same, so why should we partner?”
But detractors saw a major roadblock. UnaBiz, being incorporated in Singapore, would face an uphill task of convincing the French government of its bid to acquire Sigfox, which has 220 patents and is considered a supplier of sovereign technology. “They told me the data sovereignty committee would never let me go out of France – I said that’s fine, but let me try,” said Bong.
After UnaBiz threw its hat into the ring, the company received a wave of support from its ecosystem partners and Sigfox customers that had backed its efforts to unify different IoT platforms and connectivity solutions, including rival LP-WAN technology LoRaWAN.
Henri Bong, UnaBiz
“We’ve been championing a united LP-WAN world for the past two years, because we believe that we need to work together instead of having silos of protocols that are not compatible nor acceptable to customers,” said Bong.
At that time, UnaBiz appeared to be one of the strongest contenders, and he made his initial pitch during a commercial court hearing in Toulouse, where many French IoT startups have spawned.
Bong told the court: “We’re not just an opportunist. What Sigfox didn’t manage to do in France, like the massive deployment of gas and electricity meters, we did in Japan. If Sigfox did that, they would not be in administration today.”
His pitch was so compelling that the French authorities did not reply to him for weeks. When he eventually got a call, he was told he would not get a favourable answer despite pressure from Sigfox’s ecosystem and customers to back UnaBiz’s bid.
“I told them that Sigfox is not just a French story,” said Bong. “It’s about thousands of people worldwide, developing sensors and solutions based on Sigfox technology. If it’s just a French thing, it will never fly internationally.”
Sensing political forces and nationalism at work amid the French presidential elections, he penned an open letter on 13 April 2022 to the now re-elected president Emmanuel Macron.
“You gave me a taste for politics,” Bong wrote to Macron. “You have given me hope in a government with progressive values, capable of destroying dogmatic practices that chained France to immobility and futile political games. Today, I must confess to being disappointed.”
He also wrote that UnaBiz’s bid did not raise any particular issue outside the normal approval process for foreign investments in France, adding: “I therefore interpret this refusal as being due to specific issues certainly linked to the political context.”
After his letter went viral, Bong got another call from the French ministry of economy, stating the government’s concern about protecting French assets and sovereignty, to which he reiterated that 48% of UnaBiz’s shares are owned by French citizens and entities, including Engie, the French multinational utility firm.
Bong said the UnaBiz board had also voted unanimously to explore the possibility of redomiciling the company to France to gain approval for the deal.
On 21 April, Bong’s hard work paid off, when the Commercial Court of Toulouse appointed UnaBiz as the new owner of Sigfox. The decision was unanimous, with UnaBiz endorsed as having the best offer among nine bidders by the jury, administrators, the public prosecutor, as well as Sigfox and its employee representatives.
The size of UnaBiz’s bid has not been publicly disclosed, but Bong said more investments are needed to advance its technology-agnostic vision of converging various IoT services, including those that ride on private IoT networks and satellite connectivity.
Read more about IoT in APAC
- A new generation of farmers is tapping the internet of things and machine learning to operate self-sustaining urban farms with minimal supervision.
- India is set to be a cradle for IoT deployments thanks to its vibrant economy and its potential to play a bigger role in global manufacturing.
- More enterprises across APAC are using IoT to track fleet vehicles and improve operations, but technology integration and security concerns are still holding back widespread adoption.
- Bharat Petroleum has developed a digital nerve centre powered by IoT and AI technologies to monitor the journey of its products.
“We will work towards this convergence because we believe there’s no one technology that can do everything,” he said. “Even our metering customers in Japan want to make sure we have a backup solution in case the local Sigfox operator decides to shut down its network.”
Meanwhile, Bong and his team will be looking to raise more funds – UnaBiz’s existing shareholders have already pledged to double their investments – as well as restart Sigfox projects that were put on hold due to cashflow problems.
“We are also working to reassure Sigfox operators that the service will continue with no change in service level agreements and pricing,” he added.
On the prospect of redomiciling the company, Bong said even if UnaBiz decides to relocate its headquarters to France, Singapore will remain as its Asian headquarters. It is also seeking advice from a mergers and acquisitions consulting firm on corporate and investment structures following the acquisition of Sigfox.
“From now on, we own the intellectual property and can decide what we want to do with it, with Singapore as the regional hub for Asia-Pacific and the convergence of different technologies into one IoT network,” he said. “That opens so many opportunities – it’s a new game.”