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Enterprise 5G 'big wave' advances as Celona nabs $60 million Series C

There is a "shift left" as large customers in retail and automotive industries add enterprise 5G for deployments of robots, among other things, says CEO Rajeev Shah.
Written by Tiernan Ray, Senior Contributing Writer

Celona co-founders, from left, Ravi Mulam, Mehmet Yavuz, Rajeev Shah, Vinay Anneboina. "People inside any of the deep ecosystems like telecom or enterprise or cloud who truly appreciate how big a transformation is happening, were probably the ones most interested in being part of this journey," said Shah, who is CEO. 

Celona 2022

The movement to use cellular frequencies as office broadband connections that behaves like wireless LANs is winning converts and money at a surprising clip. 

Celona.io, the two-year-old enterprise 5G networking vendor profiled by ZDNet in November, on Monday announced it had received $60 million in venture funding in a Series C round, bringing its total funding to date to $100 million.  

The new money comes with what appears to be momentum among some very large customers in the automotive and retail markets. 

"We are getting some pretty specific validation points," Celona's CEO and co-founder, Rajeev Shah, told ZDNet regarding what he sees as his company's leadership in the still-young enterprise 5G market, speaking in an interview by phone. 

Those validation points include two of the largest retailers and a couple of the largest automotive companies in the world becoming customers, said Shah. He was not at liberty to disclose their names. 

"We had set a goal to say, the most innovative enterprise customers, when they make their design choice for their private networks, we want to be that choice," he said.

The projects of those companies, said Shah, are "significant automation initiatives."

"In all of these scenarios, what's really happening is they're putting in big robotics and unmanned vehicle types of applications." That includes using 5G for things in the back office, in particular, said Shah, because there are fewer dependencies to hold up the rollout. "But we're starting to see it even in retails and venues, where the experiences for the actual consumer is being shaped by some of this." 

Also: Enterprise 5G is a software 'revolution,' says startup Celona

One customer that runs venues is looking to 5G to cover an entire sports stadium "to affect how you check-in, how you do your ticketing, how you pay for things, the security covering the entire facility using cameras."

The technology is not being used as a replacement for Wi-Fi, said Shah. Rather, like the early days of Wi-Fi joining wired ethernet, for Celona's customers, "it is almost like a shift left for them," he said. A shift left is a term offered by Celona board member Matt Howard of Norwest Venture Partners, where a new technology is additive to what stays in place.

"This is like 3.0," explained Shah. "Think of the 1990s as driving LAN and desktop computing together, and Wi-Fi plus mobile was the next major trend; we see 5G LAN as AI-driven automation as the next wave.

"Every time you have one of these things emerge from the right, everything shifts to the left."

Another "validation point," said Shah, is having the round of funding led by DigitalBridge Ventures, the venture capital unit of DigitalBridge Group, a Boca Raton, Florida-based real estate investment trust that has focused on tech-related property investments such as cell towers and data centers.

"DigitalBridge is quite an innovative financial firm," said Shah. "They went from being a traditional REIT and investment fund to becoming a digital infrastructure firm." The fund sees everything from fiber to towers to co-lo as the infrastructure of 5G and edge and cloud, the "macro trends," said Shah.

"One of their observations, internally, was that while they had a lot of exposure to those growth vectors, they did not really benefit from what was going to be a correlated increase in software and hardware." Investing in Celona, in other words, gives DigitalBridge a hand in that area of the payoff of 5G.

Joining DigitalBridge are returning investors; Lightspeed Venture Partners, Norwest Venture Partners, NTTVC, Qualcomm Ventures and Cervin Ventures.

The mid-to late-stage growth market for startups was "very hot" in the fall, said Shah, leading to "very competitive terms" for the valuation and letting the company hit the high end of its valuation range in an oversubscribed round. He declined to disclose the post-money valuation.

"People inside any of the deep ecosystems like telecom or enterprise or cloud who truly appreciate how big a transformation is happening were probably the ones most interested in being part of this journey," said Shah.

"The more run-of-the-mill SaaS investor is not the one we got the same resonance with," he added. "There's still a divide where the SaaS investor hasn't fully caught on to how big a wave is coming."  

A somewhat surprising aspect of the announcement is Verizon as a customer. The company's founders had experienced the intransigence of large carriers in the deployment of enterprise cellular in previous forms, a malaise they told ZDNet they would be careful to avoid. 

But collaborating with big carriers is also important for going to market with large enterprise customers. And 5G is different enough from prior cellular efforts it can change the carriers, indicated Shah.

"The traditional experience with operators all of us have had is that they're very slow-moving," said Shah. "But what has changed is the emergence of this new spectrum of CBRS," he said, referring to Citizens Broadband Radio System, a part of the so-called S-Band of the spectrum below 6Ghtz that the FCC licenses for broad commercial use.

CBRS is "neutral to any operator," he said, meaning a shared resource among carriers rather than a fiefdom licensed to a single entity. The spectrum, therefore, "I think creates a dynamic where innovative customers and service providers are going to be rewarded for thinking more holistically." 

"I'm excited that someone like Verizon has really embraced that way of thinking," said Shah. "I think their enterprise team is viewing this as an opportunity to really differentiate themselves," he added. "I wouldn't be surprised if that triggers a chain-reaction" among fellow carriers. 

Priories this year with the new funding are two-fold: to expand the company's march to the markets in the U.S. and globally and to continue product development investment. 

"This is still a technology area that is ripe for innovation, so we are not going to slow down," said Shah. "We are going to continue to make wireless even more automated in its operations." 

No follow-on financing is planned at this point. "We have no shortage of interest in people wanting a piece of the pie," said Shah of investment interest. "But we have no need to do anything for the next two to three years."

The talent market is certainly competitive, which will be a challenge for expanding the team. Celona was 85 people when ZDNet last interviewed them. He said that the company has "reached the three-digit mark" just recently. The plan is to "effectively double as soon as we can hire," said Shah. "Hiring another hundred people within the next few weeks and months is honestly one of our great initiatives."

"I think it's a good place to join, so I'm looking forward to the new team that gets expanded."

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