Start-up of the week

A start-up disdains smartphones, looks to the Internet of everything

Altair Semiconductor believes it has the formula to beat the big boys in the most lucrative communications market of all

Altair chips (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Altair chips (Photo credit: Courtesy)

The cellphone network of the future, LTE (also known as 4G), is here now, to the delight of a start-up with an ambitious goal — to sneak past Intel, Marvell, Broadcom, and Qualcomm while they aren’t looking and grab a big chunk of the “Internet of things” that will be here any day now.

Eran Eshed, a co-founder of Israel’s Altair Semiconductor, is planning for LTE dominance in a world of devices that will dwarf the phone business.

LTE (long-term evolution) networks are as much as 10 times faster as current 3G networks for phone and data networks, and the big service providers around the world (like Sprint and AT&T in the US) are in the midst of rolling them out their users. LTE is the network of the future, and LTE chips are the chips of the future, said Eshed, and LTE chips are the only kind Altair, established in 2005, makes.

But it’s not the phone market Altair is interested in, says Eshed, calling the billion and a half or so phones that consumers will be buying in the coming years a “trivial application” for 4G. “People have only two hands and two ears,” Eshed told The Times of Israel. “There are only so many smartphones a person can use.”

The much bigger play in 4G is going to be devices that communicate with each other, with a base station and with other many and varied devices. “This is a market that is huge,” said Eshed. “We are talking about between 20 and 50 billion consumer and business devices, like cars, cameras, gaming devices, sensors, inventory tracking devices, and much more. The right price point for these things is just a matter of time, and once the prices come down sufficiently they will be everywhere.”

Such devices — some of which are already on the market — don’t have the legacy issues phones have, with the need to support both 3G and 4G until (if ever) all service providers convert to 4G networks.

“The Internet of everything,” where almost everything is connected to something via the cloud, is a market that other companies – notably Intel and Cisco — have spoken a great deal about in recent years. But according to Eshed, it’s all just talk, at least when it comes to an LTE implementation for those devices. “Qualcomm is way ahead in the LTE market for phones. This year they will ship 90% of the LTE silicon. Everyone else is just playing catch-up, and frankly none of the companies we are in competition with, like Intel, Marvell, Broadcom, and other fab and fabless chip makers, have the time or inclination to compete in the Internet of everything market.”

Shareholders in public companies like Intel want results as fast as possible on their investments, and for quick ROI these companies need to stay focused on phones. “For every dollar they put into LTE they get a much better return on their investments in smartphones,” said Eshed. “This is what their stockholders are interested in seeing.”

Meanwhile, Altair is making its LTE play, shipping more than a million chips this year. “By the time the big companies get around to this market, they will find a serious competitor — Altair Semiconductor — ensconced in a secure position as a dominant player in the market for these devices,” said Eshed. “Intel, Qualcomm, Marvell and the others see LTE as an evolution from 3G, but we see it as an eruption, a new force that will bring about a new reality in the market.”

One of Altair’s big backers has been Verizon itself, which has assisted the company with facilities, certifications, and other important components. “For them it’s a great idea to work with an up-and-coming company like ours, and their 4G work has influenced the rest of the industry to roll out their LTE networks as well.”

Altair has raised about $100 million so far, with its most recent investment amounting to $25 million, courtesy of its previous investors, including Bessemer, BRM, Giza, JVP and Pacific Technology. According to Oded Melamed, Altair’s co-founder, “Altair’s month over month increase in chip shipments is a testament to the widespread move towards LTE-only across the industry and we intend to use the funds to support our customers as they ramp high volume production and deploy their products in the field.”

With 190 employees — 140 working in Israel in R&D, and the rest spread out through the world in sales and service — Altair is a rather large start-up, but it prides itself on its start-up-style flexibility and versatility, said Eshed. It’s changed its product line at least once to home in on its most lucrative potential market.

“We’re a niche company, supplying chips for single-mode LTE devices,” said Eshed. “It’s a niche we believe we will be able to dominate.”

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