ThingMagic’s Rollercoaster Journey—From the Internet of Things to the Calculus of Reality

ThingMagic is a 10-year-old technology company whose core idea seems as fresh today as when it first started. The bad news: that means it may have been too far ahead of its time. The good news: times are changing.

The Cambridge, MA-based firm was founded by five MIT Media Lab alums, who had the goal of “adding magic to everyday objects”—hence the company’s name. This “magic” came in the form of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, which enable wireless communication by way of tiny electronic chips that can be embedded in things, accompanied by readers and software to make sense of what each tagged item is, and track its whereabouts. The big vision was to create an “Internet of things,” so people could retrieve information about the objects around them—everything from product inventory on shelves to stuff in your home, office, or car.

Sounds a bit far out even today, right? Well, it was far more so in the early 2000s, and the evolution of RFID ever since has been quite a rollercoaster ride. To make a long story short, the technology was strong but its business use was overhyped, so it got stuck on the adoption curve. Tech companies based around RFID have come and gone, but some have endured, such as Alien Technology, Impinj (which I wrote about here), and ThingMagic, which all have raised a fair amount of venture funding.

In July 2008, my colleague Wade wrote an in-depth piece on ThingMagic, focusing on the company’s progress in shrinking its RFID readers (its main product) down to a size where they could be put into places like offices and hospitals—a big step toward realizing the Internet of things. Around the same time, Mark Roberti, the founder and editor of RFID Journal told me that it would be another two to three years before the RFID market would take off, because end users were still figuring out the physics and economics of tags and readers.

Well, it has been two years, and I’m wondering what has changed in the RFID world. To get some answers—and an update to the company’s story—I recently sat down with ThingMagic co-founders Yael Maguire and Ravi Pappu, and director of marketing Ken Lynch, to talk about what lessons they’ve learned over the past decade. We met at the company’s new digs at One Cambridge Center in Kendall Square.

“After 10 years, we’ve seen literally hundreds and hundreds of ideas for using the technology,” says Maguire, the company’s chief technology officer. “It may not be ubiquitous, but in most cases it’s caught up with people’s imagination. People are focusing on how to deploy it.” Pappu, who runs product development and implementation, puts it this way: “The story is changing from RFID on everything to RFID in everything. That’s always been the vision of the Internet of things.”

It’s certainly in ThingMagic’s interest to promote all the new ways RFID is being used. But beyond any PR spin, there’s something real going on. Yes, there is the recent news that Wal-Mart plans … Next Page »

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4 responses to “ThingMagic’s Rollercoaster Journey—From the Internet of Things to the Calculus of Reality”

  1. Another person who deserves a lot of credit is CEO Tom Grant, who helped guide the company as a consultant through bootstrapping mode, became CEO, and didn’t raise venture money until the company could scale. As Greg notes, one of the big mistakes too many technology companies make is getting ahead of the curve, and raising money too early is part of that. Tom waited until 2005 to raise the Series A and then a Series B in 2008. Looks like good moves in hindsight.

  2. Absolutely right—thanks for your comment, James. I had the pleasure of meeting Tom at the company’s ping-pong table. (Apparently Ravi is the champion there.)