Impinj Navigates Nascent RFID Market with Unique Technology, Strategy—and Patience

What’s the most exciting company in Seattle? I recently put the question to Patrick Ennis, the global head of technology for Bellevue, WA-based Intellectual Ventures, and his answer surprised me: Impinj. The firm in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood has been around since 2000, and is well-known for its focus on radio-frequency identification (RFID) technologies—not exactly the sexiest field in an era of Web 2.0, mobile software, and alternative energy startups.

But dig a little deeper, and the story of Impinj will grab you. Like most successful companies, Impinj has been forced to change its strategy at crucial moments. It has had to navigate tricky technology standards—eventually winning out in a major fight between standards bodies—and adapt to major challenges in the marketplace. Through it all, it has amassed an impressive network of customers, partners, and investors—to the tune of $110 million in funding from the likes of Arch Venture Partners, Madrona Venture Group, Polaris Venture Partners, and Mobius Venture Capital.

So how is it doing now? After Ennis mentioned Impinj—he led an investment in the firm back when he was a managing director at Arch—I was eager to hear its story, and why its technology and business model are still so promising. I recently had a chance to visit with Impinj’s CEO, William Colleran, and Evan Fein, vice president of finance and administration. What they told me amounted to quite a compelling case study of how to navigate a nascent market.

Impinj was founded in 2000 by a University of Washington professor of computer science and engineering, Chris Diorio, who was a student of microelectronics pioneer Carver Mead at Caltech. Diorio serves as Impinj’s chairman and chief technology officer. “He’s a fantastic professor and entrepreneur,” Ennis says. “Usually, professors just want to be professors. When you do find an entrepreneur professor, it’s heaven. The world needs more people like that.”

As Fein relates, Impinj originally focused on hardware for cell phones and base stations. Diorio had developed a technology called “self-adaptive silicon” that allowed an electronic circuit on a chip to adapt its characteristics after being fabricated. The company released a cellular product in 2001—right as the telecom industry was melting down. “We decided, ‘This isn’t going to work,'” says Fein, who was employee No. 8.

So the search was on for broader applications of integrated circuit technology. In late 2003, Impinj settled on RFID as its new focus, over other promising candidates like ultrasound and GPS. The idea of cheap, tiny chips that could be used to “tag” any product or shipment and improve companies’ supply-chain management was getting a lot of play in commercial circles. What Impinj brought to the table was a very accurate and energy-efficient way of tracking and communicating with tags at different distances and through different materials (like warehouses filled with heavy equipment, or crates packed with plastic containers). Its special sauce was a unique mix of circuitry, antenna design, and algorithms for locating and identifying the tags.

In 2004, Wal-Mart announced it was planning to use RFID to tag its pallets and crates. “We were on top of the world,” says Fein. “We felt really lucky we’d picked RFID.” Then came a year-and-a-half long battle over RFID technology and radio-spectrum standards, against competitors like Alien Technology and Matrix, and big players like Texas Instruments and Philips. In the end, after lots of technical analysis and testing, Impinj’s approach to ultra-high-frequency tags and readers won out—it was shown to be more accurate and efficient than other approaches—and Diorio was elected chairman of the governing standards group. “That gave little old Impinj an upper hand over the big companies and startups,” says Fein.

Despite the company’s owning the triumphant technology, a lot of the RFID hype started to wear off in 2005. Wal-Mart’s mandate failed to kick in; the company didn’t penalize its vendors for not using the tags, and it didn’t buy the technologies to read the tags itself. And since then, the growth of the RFID market has remained painfully slow. “RFID was over-hyped in the short term, but under-hyped in the long term,” says Colleran, Impinj’s chief executive.

What he means is that the potential for overhauling the way companies track products is still there. “The challenge is demonstrating the benefit, and making adoption simple,” Colleran says. In the meantime, Impinj has been solidifying its RFID technology and market share, and securing the rights to market other essential pieces of the puzzle besides chips and radio-frequency antennas. It now sells entire RFID systems—different kinds of tags, readers, antennas, and software—for use in the pharmaceutical, retail, and food safety industries, among others. “Originally we wanted to do just chips, but in a nascent market like RFID, you need to have all the systems,” says Colleran.

In January of last year, Impinj raised a $14 million venture round led by Samsung. And last summer, Impinj sold its memory business to Virage Logic for $5.2 million and acquired Intel’s RFID-chip business, to strengthen its position in chip hardware. But with the market still waiting to take off, and in a very difficult economic climate, what’s an RFID company to do?

Hold the course, the Impinj leaders say. Since the financial crisis began, Fein says, “Orders have been delivered, and few have been canceled. It’s hard to know what our revenues will be.” Colleran would only say that Impinj’s “revenues have grown at a brisk clip…The industry is growing from a small base.” He compares the state of RFID today to the personal computer market in the early 1980s, and the Bluetooth wireless-device market in 2000. “You’ll know it’s mainstream when the technology is invisible,” he says.

So, eight years later, the jury is still out on what the return on investment will be for Impinj. The company currently has 130 employees, more than two-thirds of whom are engineers; the others include sales and marketing, finance, and operations staff (manufacturing is outsourced). Its technology is impressive enough, but in the end, betting on Impinj is equivalent to betting on RFID—and nobody knows if or when that market will reach critical mass. My guess is that the investors at Arch, Madrona, Polaris, and Samsung are still pretty excited to have the strongest horse in the race. Now it’s just a matter of patience.

Looking ahead, Fein gives a couple of general guiding principles. “We are improving the way we make investments,” he says—with an eye toward product development. Second, he says, “You have to be flexible and adaptable to the market.” Colleran echoes the sentiment and adds his two cents, which sums up the history of RFID pretty well: “It’s inventing a new technology and a new industry.”

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3 responses to “Impinj Navigates Nascent RFID Market with Unique Technology, Strategy—and Patience”

  1. Carol says:

    With all the recent breakthroughs in optical commication, RFID may just stay stalled. Optical tags have the potential to be less expensive, more accurate, and use no bandwidth.