Insider: Startups Mobilize WiMax

The latest edition of the Unstrung Insider finds that chip startups are on the cutting edge of commercializing the technology known as mobile WiMax. But to succeed, these young companies must meticulously balance adherence to the standards behind the technology while keeping one step ahead of larger silicon players like Fujitsu and Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC).

Mobile WiMax is seen as one of the hottest topics in the wireless industry at the moment because it could potentially enable carriers and vendors to offer high-speed broadband wireless coverage for consumers. But, as Unstrung has already reported, the technology behind the big talk is still being hammered out (see WiMax: A Spec Divided).

This presents switched-on startups with an opportunity but also a risk, the report's author, Gabriel Brown, finds.

"For these developers, life is a juggling act," Brown writes. "They need to be first (or at least early) to market, but must also maintain compatibility with the standards and WiMax Forum profiles. And given that neither of these is complete yet, bleeding-edge developers are potentially taking on high levels of risk."

This may also help to explain why the venture funding situation for these startups appears to be relatively low-key at the moment.

Brown says that aggregate funding in the sector is relatively modest, particularly relative to investment in 802.11 chip startups two, three, and four years ago. This probably reflects uncertain demand, immaturity of the market, nervousness resulting from flameouts in 802.11, and the early presence of Intel in the market.

Still, there is money to be had out there, as this table shows.

Table 1: Private WiMax Chipset Vendors
Vendor Founded; Location Funding to Date Value & Date of Last Round Lead Investors Head-count
Sequans 2003; Paris, France $10M $9M Series B, February 2005 Add Partners, Vision Capital, SGAM, I-Source Gestion, CapDecisif. 40+
Wavesat 1993; Montreal, Canada Not Known (complex history) $8M, October 2004 BDC Venture Capital, Monet Capital, Multiple Capital Montreal, Pac-Link Management Corp., Skypoint Capital Corporation, Solidarity Fund QFL, Sunsino Ventures Group. 60+
PicoChip 2000; Bath, UK $41.5M $20.5M Series C, June 2005 Scottish Equity Partners, Intel Capital, Rothschild, Atlas Venture, Pond Venture Partners Ltd. 50+
TeleCIS January 2000; Santa Clara, Calif. $8.7M $4M Series B, December 2004 ATA Ventures 30+
Cygnus 2004; Carlsbad Calif. $20M $20M Series A, July 2004 Not revealed (appears to be a mix of private individuals) 20+
Beecem Santa Clara; Calif. Not disclosed Not disclosed Walden International, Sequoia Capital Not disclosed
Aspex 1986, UK Not known $10M Series B, 2004 Not Known 35+
Runcom 1997, Israel $8M Not known Concord Ventures, Vertex Ventures Not known
Source: Unstrung Insider

Most of the vendors are working on both client and base-station kit because there's a strategic advantage in controlling both ends of the chain, says Brown.

Of course, if any of these startups do make a breakthrough in the mobile WiMax market -- or dramatically flame out -- then it is entirely possible that one of the larger vendors might be tempted to buy in mobile WiMax technology rather than build it all in-house. That's certainly been the pattern in the 802.11 market, where major vendors snapped up startups to fill in gaps in their WiFi chip technology (see Intel Acquires Mobilian, Intel Buys More WLAN Tech? and It's WLAN Seduction Season). — Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

The report, Mobile WiMax: Who Goes Where, is available as part of an annual subscription (12 monthly issues) to Unstrung Insider, priced at $1,350. Individual reports are available for $900. To subscribe, please visit: www.unstrung.com/insider.

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