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CEO Interview: Accelerating OpenRAN 5G wireless technology

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By Nick Flaherty


“OpenRAN is a fascinating place to be at the moment,” said Tom Cronk, executive chairman and CEO of AccelerComm in Southampton, UK. “From the geopolitical all the way down to the transistor level it’s amazingly dynamic.”

“The US government has really woken up to 5G in a way that’s significant and what they are funding is great for us,” he said. “The 5G Open Innovation Lab has been a fantastic experience with the driving companies of Amazon and Microsoft taking a very edge compute approach which is very different from the telecoms operators.”

AccelerComm was set up in 2016 as a spin off from the University of Southampton in the UK to develop the technology developed by Prof Rob Maunder around Forward Error Correction (FEC) techniques to boost channel coding performance. The IP is used initially in FPGAs and then integrated into chips.

Cronk joined as chairman in 2017 having been a senior vice president and General Manager of the Processor Division at chip designer ARM. The company raised £5.8m in October last year to grow the team, bringing the total investment to £8.3m ($11.5, E9.6m).

“The last wave of funding brought in more experienced people. For me that was a big part of it, to grow another big engineering team it the UK, that’s important to us and having the university there is a great asset,” said Cronk.  

“In our specific case we have been very fortunate. We have hit the right people and the rounds have gone through as expected, but I think that’s probably not the norm. We are of a size now and can afford to cast the net a bit broader, we are forming a subsidiary in the US now in the Valley and we have US customers,” he said.

There’s a lot of investment into cloud computing on top of virtual radio and Open RAN, he says, with the US driving the commercial development and rollout. A US government lab is calling for OpenRAN equipment to evaluate performance and cost effectiveness.

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“The most exciting market with 85 percent of the business is the US and that’s great, they are big investors and my history with ARM helps. We tried for a while with China but we’ve backed off from that partly from the geopolitical situation but also it has matured to be self sustaining. What is not necessarily obvious is how prolific the supply chains are internally in China.”

“The ultimate opportunity although it might take some time is to get the technology into Nokia and Ericsson and we have strong engagements with both but they are so vertically integrated. They are both engaged with Open RAN now. We’ve been an active participant for 18 months to two years, we are very interested in the device driver side and we are part of the active working committee on that,” he said.

“We do a small part of a very complex system so to be successful we need standard interfaces with open source partnership models and OpenRAN is gamechanging in that respect. Because we can demonstrate what we do has economic benefits, we can expand our core competence in signal processing,” he said.

Another trend is the use of the IP in different ways in private 5G networks. “A significant proportion of our wins are in private networks, Different companies offer different value propositions with different models. Oil and gas with range, mining with penetration, factory automation with low latency,” he said.  

“The reason we are under the 5G umbrella is it offers a broader market with three markets in one, with private and public networks and the IoT. We build that functionality into our configurable RTL from macrocells to IoT and that will allow us to take a classic segment view of IoT, automotive, industrial automation,” he said.

Next: Other markets


 

This isn’t just about 5G, says cronk.

“We have quite an interesting roadmap and we can drive that to a significant point where people buy into the roadmap. Our roadmap is to do more of the difficult stuff,” he said. “Low latency radio is everywhere, we could do millimetre wave, we could do wifi, hard disk drives, the technology is that generic and that would drive us a long way.”

“We have the capability for other protocols. At the moment we are mostly focussed on enhanced levels of network sensitivity for small cells and in-building networks. We are working on a product with 3dB gain in network sensitivity and you can use that to increase the size of the cell or push twice as much data through the cell for better spectrum efficiency

“We developed some IP for an underwater applications and a significant design in a space application with thousands of satellites and ground stations with a US company. That signal to noise ratio (SNR) is really, really important.”

The underlying technology was developed at Southampton. “They assigned the core IP and got an equity stake, then Innovate UK bootstrapped the company with early funding. IPG were in early on for the seed round and then we did a sub-A round with BLOC ventures, then the A round end of 2020 when IQ Capital came in. We are using that to grow the team. We are at 35 people, growing to 50 people if we can. It’s quite tricky to find people, it was particularly hard to start with, as its not mainstream tech in the UK.”

How big can AccelerComm grow? “Probably to 200 engineers in five years if we can,” said Cronk. “If you grow quickly you have to look for hotspots with small teams to acquire.”

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