Bob Conley graduated from WSU in 1978 with a BS in electrical engineering. He worked for KeyTronic for a couple years, and then took a position at Hewlett-Packard. At Hewlett-Packard, each engineer was encouraged to spend 10 percent of their time exploring his or her field on a project unassociated with their assigned project. While Conley used his time to pursue his master’s degree, his colleague, Skip Crilly, pursued an ambitious radio astronomy and search for extra terrestrial intelligence (SETI) project. Crilly designed and constructed a very sensitive phased array radio receiver with dish antenna at his home in Liberty Lake and at Spokane Community College where he assisted in the Engineering Technology program. These antennas were connected back to his Hewlett-Packard laboratory bench via high speed wireless links which he also constructed. As he became familiar with FCC (Federal Communication Commission) rules on unlicensed wireless transmission, he realized that a loophole in regulations allowed him to create a wireless networking system, based on phased arrays with much more range and coverage than current systems. He approached the FCC with his idea and was told that, in fact, he was correct. He and Conley started Vivato with two other partners in 2000, developing technology that can provide 4 to 10 times the range and 10 to 30 times the coverage of competitive systems based on the popular IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi standard.
The technology uses the phased-array antennas to create narrow beams for transmission and reception of network data from laptop and hand held computers at 2 mile ranges from the Vivato base station. Because of the extremely large areas of coverage, the maintenance and deployment costs are lower than competitive wireless systems. Conley describes phased arrays as similar to the idea of dropping pebbles in a pond. When one drops two pebbles in a pond simultaneously, the intersection of the resulting waves doubles the amplitude of the waves, and the “signal” propagates away at right angles to a line drawn between the entry points of the pebbles. In their technology, Vivato drops 16 “pebbles” simultaneously for increased signal level and to form narrow beams. The beams can be steered by dropping the pebbles at slightly different times.
The company received several rounds of venture capital support since its start and grew to 110 employees. They now have more than 200 customers worldwide and have installed well over 1000 base stations. The City of Spokane uses a Vivato wireless network for coverage in the entire downtown area for police and public access.
Regarding the life of an entrepreneur in a start-up
Conley reported that he had worked until midnight the night before his visit with students. Today he was stretched thin, filling in for a colleague and running a seminar for customers. “Every day is a tough, but fun, day,” he said.
Advice to Students
“You don’t want to take on established companies. You don’t want to go straight head-to-head with them. What city manager would buy from a start-up when they can get a similar, even if inferior, product from an established company?” he said. Instead, an entrepreneur has to fill a niche that the established company is not filling. Getting the right team together with all the right skill sets is very difficult and very important. While their technology is revolutionary and a great idea for the market, the company, he says, is still working hard to build a successful business. “We are working to communicate (our product advantage) to the world,” he said.
Bob Conley with students at Vivato