Sunday 19 November 2017

Connecting cars online is driving Cubic Telecom jobs and growth

The Dublin-based tech company is set to double in size thanks to its success in installing mobile connectivity into cars, laptops and other devices. Chief executive Barry Napier spoke to our Technology Editor

Barry Napier
Barry Napier
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

While Apple and Google lumber on with plans for self-driving cars, an Irish company is helping car giants to take solid steps in their own automation.

Cubic Telecom says it is about to double its Irish workforce (to 140) thanks to a series of deals that let cars connect online as they're driving around.

"In the first quarter of this year, more cars were connected in the US than new mobile phone contracts," says Barry Napier, chief executive of the Dublin-based firm. "There's been a massive shift in the internet of things and cars."

Audi is the first major brand to roll out Cubic's technology, which is partially based on the company having its own "virtual" 4G mobile network across Europe, North America and Asia. Having struck agreements with 35 local network operators, this virtual network allows the company to embed sim cards in cars that then connect online at speeds of up to 100Mbs.

At present, the result is a series of online services including Google Street View, traffic and parking information, in-car entertainment and social media integration. In the future, it could help with a lot more, including automation.

"We increased our network footprint by a factor of two and should have over 50 operators soon. Most of this is LTE [Long-Term Evolution] and based on local integration, not roaming agreements."

Cubic is one of the most highly-funded indigenous Irish tech companies, with €34m in private backing. The majority of this came from its last round in 2015, led by Audi and the multinational mobile technology firm Qualcomm. Local backers such as ACT Venture Capital were early investors.

The company doesn't just connect cars, either. It has a growing business embedding sims and virtual sims into devices such as laptops, so that the manufacturing brand can offer its own connectivity services as add-ons.

"The whole idea is when you buy something like a laptop, you shouldn't be limited in how you can use the device," says Napier. "People don't understand megabytes and gigabytes - they understand the applications. So if you buy a license for a product, this can give you access to that suite of applications based on your location, so you don't need to access wifi to get at it."

Napier says that the company expects to see the first of these connected services live in early 2017.

"We have a very strong relationship with HP and Lenovo," he says. "We're about to announce a third major partner as well. Over the last 12 months we've seen threefold growth in our partnership with HP. These are laptop and tablet solutions and we'll now see that move into enterprise."

He says that it won't stop there. Cubic is starting to eye up possible hook-ups with delivery companies.

"If we're supplying the biggest car companies and PC companies, it's only logical that we look at distribution for companies such as DHL or Fedex. Or even companies like Dominos. These types of companies may benefit from being able to offer a single window to control devices."

Nevertheless, connecting cars appears to be Cubic's sweet spot at present. Although part-owned by Audi, the company appears confident that it can land deals with other manufacturers.

"Audi is part of the Volkswagen group which has 12 other brands we're hoping to branch into," says Napier. "For other brands outside Volkswagen group, we're working hard on our solution."

Cubic has recently become fairly close to Microsoft too. While giving a stage presentation in Dublin last month, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella used the company as a case study for interesting Irish tech start-ups.

This was partially because Cubic has opted for Microsoft architecture to build out its technology.

"A lot of companies base their solutions on Amazon," says Napier. "We did it differently, using Azure and dot net.

"We've met senior Microsoft executives and we get access to their architects and programmers. By having it on Azure, we can integrate things into the control panel. It's a lot easier."

Getting a "champion" at executive level is one of the most important ways to get business, Napier says.

"Having that local executive support is critical. If I look at HP, Lenovo or Audi, having top-level executive support, who want it to go global has been a big factor for us. So, with any new companies, we try to get this type of executive support. In our old way of doing things, it would have been a lot slower."

Of the 60 new people the company says it's hiring, most are in technical programming or engineering roles.

"That process started since we began rolling out with Audi in June," says Napier. "The majority of the new hires are in dot net programming or engineering. They're very technically driven, looking at areas such as geofencing and data analytics."

Napier and fellow executives, including mobile industry veteran Gerry McQuaid, retain close to half of the company. A bid from "a current shareholder" to buy the firm in 2015 was passed on, even though it was a "decent offer".

Napier says the company just wants to get on with business.

"People talk a lot about M2M [machine to machine], but there's nothing sexy about connecting a water meter," says Napier. "And yet everyone wants to know where their car is or how much petrol they have left in their tank. The likes of Uber are taking this very seriously."

Soon, new Audi owners will have a choice of services in their cars, ranging from email to infotainment in the back for kids.

Cubic will handle issues such as billing, if premium services arise.

"When you walk out of your office or your home, you will have the same high-speed LTE connectivity," says Napier. "You can connect multiple devices. What you're used to doing on your phone, or in your home or office, you can now do in your car."

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