Qualcomm's grab bag of Israel R&D point to a future beyond chips

Best known for its dominance of the mobile chip market, Qualcomm is increasingly turning its attention to other mobile services and products using tech developed at its Israel facilities.
Written by David Shamah, Contributor

Apple may get the headlines, but Qualcomm is the company with the chips that its iPhone, and many other smartphones, rely on. But chips are only one part of the Qualcomm story, and R&D done in Israel is a big part of that.

Qualcomm is a huge corporation — it's said to have some $100bn in market cap — with 157 facilities in dozens of countries around the world, including Israel.

Most of the technology the company develops here, as well as the startups it has acquired and the technologies it invests in, don't seem to fit the profile of a company that makes components for phones and tablets, or even necessarily software that it may bundle with its devices.

What Qualcomm is finding in Israel is a diverse group of technologies that are aimed at helping the company move onto its Next Big Thing,  whatever that may be.

For example, Qualcomm's M2M (machine to machine) mobile platform, which is used to track the location of pets, children, elderly and expensive goods, was largely developed in Israel.

Internet of things

It's part of Qualcomm's 'internet of things' ambitions. The internet of things is the idea of everyday objects being intelligently connected through a combination of wireless networks, modules, sensors and software to enable the real-time exchange of information — with key elements of Qualcomm's platform developed in its Haifa facility. Among the products that have resulted from that technology is the Tagg, Qualcomm's pet tracking device.

Then there's the new multi-gigabit wireless WiGig chipsets demonstrated at CES by Qualcomm and Israel's Wilocity. The system, based on chips by Qualcomm and fabless maker Wilocity, can transfer even high-definition video at distances of up to 40m with speeds more than 10 times faster than current average Wi-Fi transmission rates, said Tal Tamir, Wilocity's CEO, as well as provide super-fast transfer rates for wireless file transfer between devices not in the cloud.

Israel acquisitions

Qualcomm has also been on an Israeli start-up buying spree of late. In 2010, the company bought iSkoot, which started out life developing enhancements for Skype, and now, in the service of Qualcomm, makes social media apps for AT&T (Social Net), Verizon (Social Beat), and T-Mobile (Social Buzz), among others. And last year, Qualcomm snapped up DesignArt Networks, which develops small cell technology for cellular base stations and wireless backhaul infrastructure.

Yet another Qualcomm purchase in 2012 were the assets of Israel's EPOS, which specialised in digital ultrasound technology. EPOS had applied that technology for input uses such as pen, stylus and gesture recognition. According to Qualcomm, the technology will be used to help boost Snapdragon's UI capabilities for smartphones, tablets and e-readers.

Besides all that, Qualcomm has been investing in Israeli startups, via its Qualcomm Ventures funds. So far, the fund has sunk money into five Israeli startups (one less than in all of Europe), including companies that specialize in networking and backhaul solutions (Siklu), online shopping solutions (Corrigon), and crowdsourcing mobile consumer apps (Waze).

Project Ray device. Image: Project Ray

And it's likely that Qualcomm Ventures will be making a sixth Israeli startup investment — in iOnRoad, which recently won the third annual Qprize international venture investment competition. iOnRoad is an augmented reality road safety app for iPhones and Android devices that uses the features of a smartphone (camera, sensors, GPS chip) to alert drivers if they are getting too close to the car in front of them and are in danger of a collision.

To top it all off, Qualcomm has been an enthusiastic investor in Israel's Project Ray, which equips smartphones with technology that makes life easier for the blind.

Using GPS and location software, for example, a Qualcomm phone equipped with Project Ray technology could guide blind people as they walk down the street seeking an address, much like turn-by-turn GPS systems do for drivers. Using a smartphone's camera, the device could indicate when the light is green or when a vehicle is approaching, warning users when not to cross the street. With an NFC chip, the device could even read out information on medicine labels. And it does much, much more.

It's a mix of technologies and products for Qualcomm in Israel, giving the company access to a wide array of capabilities. While the company has an overweaning domiance of the mobile chip market, it's clear it's looking to a future beyond silicon — and its Israel R&D efforts will be a key part of that.

iOnRoad in action. Image: iOnRoad
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