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ICT breakthroughs

Half of the Norwegian companies that report R&D activities have the Research Council’s User-driven Research-based Innovation (BIA) as their only programme. Since it was launched four years ago, BIA has funded 371 projects, 139 of which are related to ICT research. One of the recipients is Geir Førre, a Norwegian entrepreneur who helped revolutionize wireless communication with his first company Chipcon and is now making breakthroughs in microcontroller technology.

Førre was working as a microelectronic researcher at SINTEF in the 1990s when he came upon his first business idea: low power radio frequency (RF) solutions, which could be used for consumer electronics and building automation.

He left SINTEF in 1996 to start Chipcon at the Oslo Innovation Centre with two SINTEF colleagues and a NOK 500,000 grant from the Norwegian Industrial and Regional Development Fund (now part of Innovation Norway). He later got funding from Innovation Norway’s IFU (Industrial Research and Development Contracts). Within 10 years, he had developed the company to become the market leader in low-power RF solutions and sold the company to Texas Instruments for NOK 1.3 billion.

“The half a million kroner grant was an important encouragement at the time,” said Førre. “To leave the security of a job was a big hesitation.”

Cold Blooded Reptile
But it did not stop there. Førre used part of his NOK 100 million gain from the sale of Chipcon to start up Energy Micro in 2007. Here, government R&D funding played an important part in the product’s successful development.

Førre received NOK 11.5 million from the Research Council’s BIA programme.

The results from this research led to a NOK 7.5 million grant from Innovation Norway’s IFU, which supports development of products in an international market and involves cooperation between a company and a demanding customer. In this case, the customer was Kamstrup, a Danish manufacturer of system solutions for energy and water metering.

Now his product is on the market after less than three years of development. In March 2010, Energy Micro launched the EFM32 Tiny Gecko microcontroller for low power, space and cost sensitive applications. It consumes less than a quarter of the energy of other 8, 16, and 32 bit microcontrollers.

He took on the gecko as part of the company’s logo because the cold-blooded reptile uses 10% of the energy compared to warm blooded animals. The EFM 32 works ideally for battery-operated systems needing wireless communication, such as medical systems and security alarms, because it requires less energy and needs to be replaced less.

Førre aims to manufacture and ship 1 million microcontroller units (MCU) by the end of this year and capture 1% of the MCU market by 2017, representing NOK 2 billion in revenue. His higher goal is to have NOK 20 billion in revenues by 2020.

“It wouldn’t be possible to build companies without these kind of arrangements because it is difficult to find funding in early stages,” said Førre. “BIA gives the inherent research groundwork to make a product and Innovation Norway to make the prototype.”

Bipper SIM helps parents manage their children’s approved mobile phone numbers list and call usage, and can function as a safety alarm. © Bipper

Where Are My Kids?

Silje Vallestad is another success story, albeit quite different. Unlike Førre who has more than 17 years experience in semiconductor research, Vallestad had no technological expertise whatsoever. But just like him, she had an idea and got government R&D funding to make it happen.

In 2007, Vallestad had just completed her Masters degree in business and was on maternity leave with her third child when she came up with the idea for monitoring children’s phone use. However, she knew little about technology, had never held a paid full-time job, and preferred working with NGO start-ups.

“I knew nothing about mobile communication,” said Vallestad. “Prior to last summer, I was using an old mobile phone without a colour screen.” That did not stop her. With the backing of Norwegian investors and Innovation Norway under the IFU scheme, she was able to fund research towards the development of a flexible wafer that could be attached to a SIM card. She found a student at Bergen University College who specialized in mobile solutions, who in turn put her in touch with Sirma, the largest IT company in Bulgaria.

Sirma was Bipper’s first IFU partner. Together they developed the myBipper platform. Bipper’s work with Sirma eventually became the door opener to the collaboration that was struck with Motorola last year. Motorola became its second IFU partner and helped develop the waiver SIM with Bipper.

The slim SIM card works on three levels. It can control whom the child talks with pre-selected contacts, such as relatives and friends. It can restrict the number of text messages and talk time, blocking out use during school time or at night, and limit talk with selected contacts while still keeping the phone open to reach parents. Finally, it can function as a safety alarm via a speed dial to five contacts that get simultaneous notification if the alarm is located, along with a message of the child’s location.

“There have been several attempts at kiddie phones, like Firefly in the US, but the kids don’t accept phones with just mommy and daddy’s phone number,” said Vallestad.

Motorola announced in April 2010 plans to launch Bipper’s iSIM application in Norway and Bulgaria this year, followed by the rest of Europe, Middle East and Africa, and North America. Motorola’s iSIM platform can later be used for other applications, such as mobile commerce for banking, near field communications, and alternative call routing.

Geir Førre, founder and chief executive of Energy Micro.
© Energy Micro

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