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Huawei snaps up UK IoT pioneer Neul

Huawei snaps up UK IoT pioneer Neul

Chinese giant pays $25m for the creator of the Weightless air interface and would-be standard.

All the major wireless players are jostling to pile up technology and IPR assets in the internet of things (IoT), and to drive the standards which will underpin those networks. Some, like Qualcomm, are pushing their homegrown platforms, while others are turning to acquisition of promising start-ups. Huawei has announced a deal in the latter category, paying $25m for UK-based IoT specialist Neul.

Neul (the Gaelic world for ‘cloud’) developed a connectivity platform called Weightless. Although initially tested in various applications, it was increasingly dedicated to IoT applications, providing the air interface for ultra-low power, spectrally efficient connections for objects such as smart meters, city lighting and many others. It was first targeted at the TV white spaces (TVWS) spectrum, but the industry body which promotes it as a standard, the Weightless SIG, last week announced implementations in 900MHz, and other bands (including licensed) may follow in future. Neul itself has released the first commercial chipset to support the would-be standard, called Iceni.

The firm’s own description of its technology says it is “capable of leveraging very small slices of spectrum to deliver high scalability, high coverage, low power and low cost wireless networks for the internet of things. Low spectral leaking and good adjacent channel blocking performance are mandated, meaning that a Weightless system can be a good neighbor to other spectrum technology incumbents.”

There are many rivals to provide the low power, long distance connections to billions of connected devices, including new evolutions of LTE or GSM; and several technologies running in 900MHz spectrum, such as UltraNarrowBand (UNB) and WiFi extensions. But there are clearly sufficiently unique features in Neul’s platform to attract Huawei, which has been investing heavily in IoT and ‘5G’ projects in the UK, and recently set up a £125m chip and R&D laboratory in Bristol.

Both Bristol and Cambridge, Neul’s home, are major centers of wireless R&D in the UK, and this purchase may see Huawei expanding further in Cambridge too, from its existing facility in Ipswich. The company recently told the government that it would invest £1.3bn in the UK but did not specify in which locations.

Huawei may be seen to be getting some clever and potentially important technology on the cheap, but at least will have the resources to maximize the potential of Neul’s inventions and perhaps to throw its power fully behind Weightless, which would improve that platform’s chances to securing a broad role in the IoT.

Without a major strategic investor or acquirer, Neul would run the risk common to so many start-ups in a promising but nascent market, of running out of money before it could win significant market adoption for its products – especially given the investment required in developing silicon. CEO Stan Boland, previously head of UK wireless chip start-up Icera (which was bought by Nvidia) was brought in to maximize Neul’s value to shareholders and is likely to have driven the Huawei deal as the best option for those investors.

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