From offering low-cost connectivity to hardware design and integration services, the Singapore-based IoT technology supplier is causing a stir in the internet-of-things market.
Disrupting the status quo has been the name of the game for UnaBiz, an operator of the Sigfox low-power wide-area network (LP-WAN) that shook up the market for internet-of-things (IoT) connectivity two years ago by offering subscription charges of just under one US dollar per device per month.
The move raised eyebrows among industry watchers then, but that didn’t stop the startup from chasing its goal of lowering the barriers to IoT adoption. After building up a sizeable base of customers, including Engie, a French supplier of property and energy management services, UnaBiz is now setting its sights on the IoT hardware market.
“One of the issues with the IoT ecosystem is that hardware is still too expensive to be accepted by industry and users,” said Henri Bong, CEO of UnaBiz. “To achieve massive IoT adoption, we have to bring down prices.”
Bong, a French-born Chinese, found like-minded technology partners in Taiwan, such as Lite-On, and continues to work with them today. Many of them saw a need for cheaper IoT sensors at prices as low as $15, and went round the market asking for them. “That woke up the industry, which realised they can’t sell a tracker for $80 with an 80% margin any more,” said Bong.
Today, UnaBiz operates a 20-strong engineering outfit that includes mechanical, electronics and radio frequency engineers in Taiwan, a global semiconductor manufacturing hub. The engineers design sensors that measure air quality, among other things, for IoT technology suppliers that have the software smarts, but lack the hardware knowhow.
Besides having a cost advantage, Taiwanese engineers have also enabled UnaBiz to take prototypes to production in just under three months. This includes miniaturising components, which has not often been the case until recently.
“If you look at what the IoT has been like for the last two, three years, most of the sensors are housed in boxes with wires sticking out,” said Bong. “We are very happy that we managed to secure ISO 9001 certification at the end of last year for our processes and quality management, which is quite rare for a startup.”
UnaBiz’s advances in hardware design are the envy of telcos, especially those that are missing the hardware piece necessary to drive wider adoption of the IoT. “Many of them are working with local hardware partners or those in China that they’ve found to be slow and expensive,” said Bong.
Still, UnaBiz had to tread carefully in Taiwan, where it also runs a Sigfox network, to keep costs in check in order to stay competitive. It buys core components, such as transceivers and microcontrollers, in bulk from direct sources such as STMicroelectronics, and leaves it to electronic manufacturing service (EMS) suppliers commissioned to make the actual hardware to source for other components.
By providing its hardware designs, UnaBiz can also avoid the hefty fees that big EMS suppliers often charge for additional R&D work to make up for their lack of dedicated LP-WAN and IoT expertise, said Bong.
Not content with disrupting IoT connectivity and hardware, UnaBiz has started building up integration capabilities to make IoT hardware and software applications work well together.
“Integration is not as simple as connecting a tracker to a Sigfox network,” said Bong. “After you provision the service, you need to know how to get the data out, interpret it, and so on.”
But UnaBiz does not do it all alone. It works with systems integrators to offer integration services, which accounts for about half its revenues today. Connectivity contribute less than 10% to UnaBiz’s coffers, while hardware contributes 40%.
On potential partnerships with telcos, most of which are backing the use of narrowband IoT, Bong said UnaBiz is open to working with IoT teams in telcos that want to win bigger deals regardless of the underlying connectivity technology.
“The telcos are more open now because they’ve failed to build an ecosystem over the past few years,” said Bong. “They thought we were a little startup that would die within a year but now that we have KDDI and Engie backing us, they are finding a way to partner with us.”
Although UnaBiz is not yet profitable, that could change by the end of 2020 or even earlier if a major deal materialises, said Bong. The firm is currently gearing up for a Series B funding round, after raising more than $10m in Series A funding from Engie and KDDI in 2018.
作者：陳維雄 Aaron Tan
法國華僑Henri Bong在台灣遇見與他志同道合的合作夥伴，像台灣的光寶科技，如今繼續與這些夥伴合作。他們都看到市場需要更便宜的物聯網感測器，甚至便宜到15元美金的單價，在全球市場高喊需要如此低廉的單價。“這樣的現象讓整個市場突然覺醒，大家也理解到不能夠繼續在市場上販售單價80元美金的GPS追縱器而從中抽取80%的利潤”，Henri Bong解釋。
“如果我們看最近兩三年的物聯網技術發展，大部分的感測器外觀都是（較粗糙）外部有一堆電線盒子”，Henri Bong提到。“我們很高興在去年年底拿到很少新創公司會拿到的ISO 9001品質管理認證的執照，讓我們的生產管理流程及品質管理得到鑑定。“
優納比的硬體設計優勢是讓很多電信商羨慕的，尤其目前最缺乏硬體部分就可以更廣泛的讓物聯網更普偏。“很多電信商比較習慣與【他們國家】當地的硬體合作方，或是在中國的合作方，可是兩者不是動作太慢就是太貴“， Henri Bong坦白。
“系統整合不只是簡單的將一顆追縱器連上一個SIGFOX網路。一旦提供第一個連網服務以後，還需要將數據傳出去，讓它有意義，甚至提供更多後續的步驟。”Henri Bong 解釋。
針對是否與傳統電信商合作的可能性，雖然大部分的電信商都在推廣NB IoT的技術，Henri Bong表示優納比歡迎與有興趣拿下更大市場、更大專案的電信商合作，尤其沒有侷限是那種無線網路技術的案子。
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