Monday, November 4, 2002

Spokane

Wireless data get wider audience
New Wi-Fi switches promise to keep Vivato hopping
Related stories

Tom Sowa
The Spokesman-Review

The moment of truth for Bob Conley and Skip Crilly occurred exactly two years ago, when the two men met in Conley's Liberty Lake basement. Together, the two engineers at Agilent's Liberty Lake site had spent 47 years with the company.

But they were about to leave and start a risky tech company in Spokane during a shaky economy.

"It was like standing on a beach and deciding to set off with just a wooden raft," Crilly said about launching Vivato.

For most of his years at Agilent,
Crilly had researched radio frequency technology. He realized the ideas behind Navy radars, combined with Ethernet data management, could be applied to wireless networks.

The 51-year-old Crilly and Conley, 46, weighed the risks of becoming entrepreneurs. Both finally decided to jump aboard the raft and hold on.

Two years later, the company is ready to shine a light on what it does and who its customers will be.

During that time, Crilly, Conley and the Vivato team have operated in "stealth mode," hiding its main product plans to keep potential competitors in the dark.

Coming out of stealth today, Crilly says what started as a lashed-together raft has grown into a sturdy craft. With 75 of its 90 workers in Spokane, Vivato is one of the fastest-growing companies in the area.

What it's developed, said Conley, is something as groundbreaking as the cell phone was to voice communications.

Companies have been hunting for ways to deliver secure, high-speed data over the air, without creating expensive repeaters or high-cost amplifiers.

Crilly and the Vivato bunch have developed a low-power wireless system that transmits information over a broad area, using a "switch" that delivers high-speed streams of data to laptops or personal digital assistants.

Each antenna or switch can handle hundreds of streams of data within its beam area, the same way a cell tower distributes hundreds of phone calls at the same time.

Most wireless systems today are restricted to short distances, but the Vivato switch can easily zip data over a mile with no trouble, said Crilly.

If Gonzaga wanted to provide always-on wireless network connections for everyone on campus, three or four Vivato "switches" would do the job.

Putting wireless into every GU building, using what has been the standard approach, would cost several hundred thousand dollars.

The Vivato option would cost far less, through Crilly said the company can't yet list exact prices for its equipment.

It expects to set prices early in 2003, when the switches will be available.

Two years ago, all Crilly and Conley had was a good idea, plus the backing of Jim Brennan, another Agilent engineer who saw potential in the idea.

The three realized none of them had the business skills to lead the company. Conley's only true business experience was teenage summer work at the White Elephant on North Division.

Crilly, on a hunch, looked up an old college fraternity mate, Ken Biba, who had taken a number of tech jobs in California.

Crilly and Conley sent e-mail to Biba, outlining the idea. After about a month, Biba's next message back to Crilly read: "You are an evil person."

The response was Biba's joking way of saying he'd been happily semi-retired until the Vivato idea changed his plans.

"Skip's idea was so wonderful it inspired me to come back into an operating role with the company," Biba said.

But by early 2001, the tech sector began tanking. The co-founders tried to keep faith, saying the best time to start a new company is in a downturned economy.

As other tech companies struggled and laid off thousands, Vivato became an attractive option. About 20 engineers were hired from the Spokane and North Idaho area, with the rest from companies from California to Georgia.

Biba's track record in Silicon Valley also paid off. Realizing the best venture firms trusted companies they could visit easily, Biba based Vivato's headquarters in Silicon Valley. But the research and development team stayed in Spokane at its office on Mirabeau Parkway.

Today, the 60 engineers working in Spokane all make more than $60,000 a year, Conley said.

Getting money proved relatively easy. In early 2001 Biba landed an initial investment of more than $2 million.

Over the next few months, he pulled in another $20 million, raising a lot of eyebrows after US Venture Partners, one of Silicon Valley's major venture capital firms, became a key investor.

Crilly said he never lost confidence. "I knew all along the idea was a good one."

But their confidence was tested in in September last year.

Said Conley: "As we were moving along (last year) we said the only things that could take us down was a stock market crash and a major disaster."

Not much later, they had to deal with both.

After 9/11, the steamship Vivato suddenly seemed lost at sea.

"It was pretty frightening for a while," Conley said.

"People we had been talking with regularly stopped returning calls."

And despite the stock market slide, wireless technology became the darling of the U.S. and global marketplace.

While cell phone sales continued to rise, a far faster rise was occurring as consumers were looking for wireless laptops and handheld devices, to stay connected inside airports, hotels or coffee shops.

Consumers and companies were high on Wi-Fi, a high-speed network system that relies on inexpensive devices sending data over short distances.

In most cases, either inside homes or in a business, those Wi-Fi antennas provided data for up to 300 feet.

Vivato's Wi-Fi switches, by contrast, can deliver high-speed packets of data over distances up to four miles. Anyone who's already bought a wireless network card or device could use the Vivato network.

Unlike cell-phone towers that transmit in all directions, the Vivato devices transmit data in a beam array covering a 100-degree-wide sweep.

Along with the impressive technology, Vivato had another plus, said Conley.

"We were not some dot-com kids," said Conley. "Investors saw guys with gray hair. They liked that we were people who had already done work on developing other successful products."

In both the Spokane and San Francisco offices, today's celebrations will be restrained but enthusiastic. They don't want to get caught up in the zany hype of the dot-com bubble. Among those invited to the Spokane office will be old pals from Agilent, whom Brennan, Crilly and Conley all say played a big part in helping them develop the idea.

"They really supported us, by letting us grow through our jobs at Agilent," said Conley.

"We're going to do at this company what Agilent did. Profits will come first," Conley said, "but we'll make sure our engineers stay current and keep on learning."

•Tom Sowa can be reached at (509) 459-5492 or by e-mail at toms@spokesman.com.


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