Proximetry Emerging with Technology to Manage Performance of ‘Smart Grid’ and Other Wireless Networks

San Diego-based Proximetry’s co-founder and CEO, Tracy Trent, says he has been consciously trying to keep the wireless software company under the radar since it was started almost six years ago.

Trent began Proximetry after previously serving as the president and CEO of Stellcom, the San Diego wireless software developer acquired by Vytek Corp. in 2003, and as a senior vice president and e-business solutions group manager at government contractor SAIC. Trent says the premise for Proximetry was simple: What if a software technology startup could do for wireless network operations what Bellcore (the telecom R&D lab now known as Telcordia Technologies) did decades ago for telecom landline networks, in terms of end-to-end network management and performance optimization?

“We didn’t see anyone with a software platform that could manage this disparity in wireless networks,” Trent says, referring to the patchwork quilt of multiple frequencies, multiple vendors, and multiple protocols that exists in most wireless networks. Yet, if that could be accomplished—and “If you could promise a certain level of performance with a certain payload capability—that could be an interesting space” Trent says.

In developing Proximetry’s technology to fulfill that vision, Trent says the company focused on private wireless networks—such as the smart grids operated by electric utilities—because, as he puts it, “It’s the best wireless networking problem that’s ever existed.”

“Why is smart energy so exciting?” Trent asks rhetorically. “It’s big. The wireless networks that Qualcomm and others have built are not nearly as big as what the smart grid will have to be.”

In addition to the millions of so-called “smart meters” that utilities plan to install for every residential and business customer (San Diego Gas & Electric alone plans to install 2.3 million smart meters in its service area) Trent says utilities plan to also install millions of other wireless sensors to continuously monitor the energy coursing throughout its power grid.

At the same time, the performance of the wireless monitoring network also changes constantly. Yet Trent says the mission-critical nature of the power grid means that this wireless monitoring network also is becoming mission critical. “It’s very different than from [landline] telecom networks, where network operators monitor and make changes to optimize performance,” Trent says. The wireless network has to be managed automatically, to ensure the system responds instantaneously, so the most important parts of the network will operate as needed.

After developing such a system, known as “AirSync” technology, Trent says Proximetry went through beta testing with Sempra Energy, the San Diego-based energy goliath that operates SDG&E and Southern California Gas. Trent says AirSync has the capability to manage and optimize the performance of wireless networks that include various technologies from an assortment of vendors, and which use multiple wireless frequencies and different protocols.

In addition to targeting the emerging market for smart grids operated by electric utilities, Trent says Proximetry’s technology also is addressing the needs of private wireless networks in the oil and gas industry, emerging broadband markets in India and Mexico, and certain transportation markets.

In aviation, for example, Trent says that aircraft manufacturers and airline operators have been laying plans for developing private wireless networks at airports. With passengers in the terminal using much of the available bandwidth on airport wireless networks, aviation industry officials want to ensure that each aircraft that pulls up to a gate can download all the data needed in the cockpit before departing on the next leg of its flight.

“We’ve done tests at the San Diego airport,” Trent says, “and later this year, we’ll be standing up a facility for Boeing [near Seattle].”

Proximetry has raised a total of $10 million in venture funding, primarily from a group of European investors led by Munich Venture Partners, the VC partner of Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute of applied research. The other investors are Investec, a London-based specialty bank, Aeris Capital, with offices in the U.S. and Switzerland, Menlo Park, CA-based Rembrandt Ventures, and San Diego-based Windward Ventures.

Proximetry is not expected to require any additional venture funding, Trent says, aside from some smaller angel investments (including one in July) that were needed to provide a company match to grants awarded by the European Union. The company became profitable this year, and plans to announce a couple of “significant partnerships” at the GridWeek 2010 conference on “smart grid” technology and advances, which is set to begin October 18 in Washington D.C.

The AirSync software platform is expected to be available for customers later this year, Trent says. The company has done much of its software development in Poland. While Proximetry has about 70 employees, Trent says only 15 are working at the startup’s San Diego headquarters.

If Trent has made the right bet, the biggest deployments of wireless technology—and the biggest opportunity for innovation—might not be in the legions of consumer cell phones and smart mobile devices, or the wireless networks that support them. Instead, it could prove to be in millions of wireless sensors and monitors, along with all the supporting private network infrastructure, for the pervasive-but unglamorous job of monitoring the electrical grid.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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