Written by Andrew Seale
The Fraunhofer Society is far from a household name. And yet, the German applied science research organization likely impacts you every day.
“Every one of us has paid Fraunhofer money, we just don't know who the hell they are,” explains Albert Behr, founder and CEO of BehrTech, a provider of next-gen wireless IoT connectivity for Industrial and commercial networks. “Who are they? They're the inventors of MP3. They’re Sirius XM – that’s the brand, but the (technology) was built by Fraunhofer… Galileo spacecraft, GPS… these guys are world experts at a level that we don't have in Canada in terms of technology.”
With an annual budget of €2.6 billion, 72 institutes spread throughout Germany and more than 26,000 employees, the majority of which are scientists and engineers, the research powerhouse is synonymous with the reputation for “German engineering.” And yet, turning those ideas into companies continually eludes them, says Behr.
“The Germans, God bless their soul, are amazing world-class engineers, but they're really bad at commercialization,” he says. “Name one world-class German company because it's come out of Germany by definition in the last 25 years? The answer is none.”
Commercialization is the Canadian half of BehrTech’s story. Winnipeg born, Behr has spent 30 years in tech including time at Fujitsu in Tokyo to Symantec in Cupertino and later Seattle then a stint at IBM.
20 years ago he realized his interest was at the forefront, the innovative ideas that fuelled these massive companies. He moved back to Canada, launching Behr and Associates in Toronto with a goal to find “cool Canadian technology companies” and bring those ideas to the Microsofts, Intels and Ciscos of the world, a search he later expanded beyond Canadian companies to global startups.
“I was known as the commercialization guy,” he says. “People would say ‘take it to Albert and he'll take a look at it’ and if it made sense, I'd sign them up as a client and help them get a licensing deal, or OEM deal, or distribution deal.”
His reputation spread and he added roles as a professor of PhD Engineering students at Western University and co-founder of Cleantech North among other things to his resume. One day, he gets a call from the Fraunhofer Society asking him to do a presentation on commercialization. Post-talk, the institute’s head approaches Behr and tells him about this new wireless technology they’ve developed, how it’s the “best on the planet” but they’ve had no luck commercializing it.
“If someone made these performance claims they were talking about and it came out of U of T or Stanford, I would call bullshit on the spot, I really would've, because you know, science is hard and hard science is really hard,” he says. But Behr found what he claims in the best wireless IOT software on the planet. And he was excited. So excited he built his company BehrTech around it. “Think of it as wifi on steroids,” he explains.
BehrTech’s MYTHINGS software leverages MIOTY, the wireless connectivity protocol underpinned by Fraunhofer's technology. The software runs on off-the-shelf Intel gateways and allows for 100,000 connections, a 30 km connectivity diameter. The platform will run for 15 years on batteries and works with movements of up to 120km an hour.
As an example, he points to an office tower near King and Yonge where the technology is installed. The software is wirelessly connected to air quality monitors and leak detectors throughout the building, a task that would typically require a lot of wifi repeaters.
“They put one of our gateways on the 50th floor of the building and sensors on P2… our technology punched around 51 floors of concrete and rebar,” says Behr. Although the company is a Transatlantic partnership, he wants it to be a Toronto success story.
“I never thought I'd see it in my professional career… I've lived in the Valley, I've lived in Seattle, I've lived in Tokyo and Toronto is absolutely a destination city now in technology,” he says. “If you were to say that to me 10 years ago, I would have laughed at you, I really would've – it's quite amazing.”
Photo credit: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)