Connected Nation - Interview: Richard Penty, University of Cambridge

Supplementary content information

Working with Alwyn Seeds at UCL and with EPSRC funding, Richard Penty and Ian White developed a multi-service Radio over Fibre technology for in-building radio distribution. Since founding Zinwave Ltd they have also founded spin-out companies PervasID and eComm.

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Richard Penty, University of Cambridge

So the project that we worked on - and it was about 15 years ago now when it started - was a project called Friday and a project involving both Cambridge University and UCL. The idea was to try to develop a new technology which was to take radio signals from a radio source, let’s say a 2 or 3G base station and transmit them around the building. So, the problem we were trying to solve was people inside don’t get very good mobile phone coverage, and can you improve that by distributing the mobile phone signal to lots of antennas spread around the buildings using optical fibre technology.

During the project, and after the end of the project, it became clear that was a market need for that kind of technology. Over time that market need has grown because when we started, smartphones didn’t exist, you could be texting but that was about it and you could make phone calls, but now of course, you can watch videos etc. So the signals that you need to transmit around buildings are much more complex and you need much better fidelity of those signals, so actually it's played into our hands, it’s meant that the technology has become even more important. What we did was we founded a company about 12 years ago now called Zinwave, again a joint spin-out between Cambridge and UCL, and over time this company has developed this into a really commercial offering. It now employees fifty people around the country and does its manufacturing in the UK, and it sports multi-million pound products around the world every year.

Well what we’ve got on our stand is - the system is too big to demonstrate on the stand - and so we’re showing some elements of it, we’re showing some of the optical units and also remote antenna units. So these are the bits where the antenna is plugged into, which repeat the signal. So we’ve carried on working in this general area in distributed antenna systems within the University of Cambridge. One thing we’re now applying it to is to radio frequency identification or RFID, and what we’ve shown there is that using distributed antenna systems you can make a system which allows RFID tags to be measured over a much, much bigger area. And that's got lots of applications in retail, in hospitals and in public safety, and so we’re hoping to spin that technology out and make that successful as well in the future.

I think what’s characterized this particular piece of work has been engaging with companies and engaging with industry, and indeed trying to take what we thought was a useful piece of technology and to commercialize it. I think the thing we've learned is that it's a lot harder than you thought it was going to be, and takes a lot longer as well, and needs more money - probably all of them by a factor of five, probably - than we thought. But actually it’s very rewarding, and it’s worth doing, but you shouldn't be worried about failing as well.