Slovenian startup grabs T&M market with bare bone instruments

February 14, 2018 // By Julien Happich
When Ljubljana-based startup Red Pitaya launched what it describes as a Swiss army knife for engineers on crowd-funding site Kickstarter in 2013, it only took a few days to reach its initial USD 50,000 goal, ending up the campaign with over $256,000 pledged from 826 backers. Since then, over 30,000 Red Pitaya STEMlab units have been shipped worldwide, growing with them a fan base of developers willing to exchange and contribute open-source code for the FPGA-based instrument.

Upon a simple code refresh, the remotely controllable Ethernet-connected pocket-size hardware can be turned into various Test & Measurement instruments, including an oscilloscope, a logic analyser and a spectrum analyser, or it could be used to implement a software defined radio. All that at a fraction of the price of the traditional benchtop instruments that would pile up on your desk.

The success went far beyond the company's expectations with the potential to disrupt the T&M market. Now Red Pitaya is doing it again, announcing the VNA bridge module, a small unit that connects to the credit-card-sized STEMlab platform and turns it into an affordable vector network analyser (VNA).

Meeting with Red Pitaya's CEO Rok Mesar, eeNews Europe got to hear more about the company's vision. Mesar was prolix about the many unexpected applications in which STEMlab ended up, either replacing costly equipment or making new applications economically viable. Examples ranged from aircraft turbo-engine blade monitoring applications to power fingerprinting for power-grid cybersecurity or even large-scale geographically distributed networks of connected STEMlab units to image the Earth’s ionosphere and quantify the impact of solar storms.

In a particular example, the STEMlab-based replacement solution came at roughly a fifth the cost of the NI PXI-5105 oscilloscope it replaced, comparatively even cheaper if you took into consideration the price of a LabView license.

But why wouldn't traditional T&M vendors want to address these markets?

Where Mesar sees a gap in the market for a small startup, large T&M vendors don't see enough margin to be made and prefer to offer boxed standalone instruments to what they consider as a captive audience, sometimes struck with pricey software licence fees.

"If you go to old engineers with a smartphone-based T&M application, they don't want it. But if you approach students instead, they don't want to see a bulky oscilloscope" the CEO notes. Eventually, costly standalone instruments will become marginalized to very specific niche markets, he believes, while the Red Pitaya STEMlab can cover 80% of the market's needs with its 150MS/s 14-bit inputs and outputs.

"We've been contacted by many T&M companies. When they see the chunk of market we can address, they start thinking that they maybe they ought to go into that direction too" commented the CEO, adding that every option was on the table (including an acquisition).

But we understand Mesar wouldn't want to see his company become a sub-brand under a larger T&M umbrella.