At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, several weeks ago, one hot display that had as much to do with nature as the hottest cellular-based gadgets drew thousands of onlookers.
Plymouth-based NimbeLink, a small, fast-growing provider of modems and “asset trackers,” displayed thousands of bees at work in hives, enclosed in a huge glass case. Normally, one wouldn’t connect the work of a bee to a technology conference, however captivating the scene.
NimbeLink, though, was demonstrating how its AT2 Asset Tracker, a small device, is used inside a hive to track activity. The device can tell a beekeeper through his cellphone if a competitor or somebody else swipes a hive. And where it went.
That’s vital at a time when the global bee population, so critical to pollinating plants, the balance of nature and more, is declining due to pollution, industrial agriculture and pesticides, according to experts.
“The [AT2] also tells us if the temperature or humidity change, if the queen bee has died, or if something else is wrong,” said NimbeLink CEO Scott Schwalbe. “And because of the scarcity of bees, hives are being stolen in some cases.”
NimbeLink’s European partner is the huge cellular communications firm, Orange. They are partners on this latest development in the evolution of the “Internet of Things” (IoT) that uses “cellular connectivity solutions” that includes some NimbeLink technology.
NimbeLink’s products, which generally cost $50 to $150 apiece, are part of the building blocks in fast-growing cellular networks that enable companies to remotely track everything from factory machine output to fluid levels in thousands of tanks to bee activity.
“NimbeLink has an outstanding global reputation for innovation and reliability, and we are delighted to work with them to create new ‘IoT’ success stories for our customers throughout Orange countries in Europe,” Luc Savage, a vice president of IoT business of Orange said in February.
NimbeLink is a fast-growing component maker that’s helping to propel a small piece of the IoT market, which will top $256 billion in global sales within a couple of years, according to Boston Consulting Group. That’s not bad considering that the IoT was little more than an idea 20 years ago.
NimbeLink was last fall also named to Deloitte’s “2018 Technology Fast 500.”
It was one of only a few Minnesota companies to make the much-tracked annual tech ranking.
Indeed, NimbeLink, which employs 25 and manufactures through a Twin Cities contract-electronics shop, has grown from revenue of $3.5 million in 2016 to $11.6 million last year. The company is forecasting revenue to top $15 million this year.
“Everybody wants to know where their assets are,” quipped Schwalbe.
NimbeLink’s original product was its “Skywire” embedded modem, another critical link between the cellular carrier and the factory floor or farm equipment or beehive or a sump pump during these times of basement flooding. NimbeLink gets about 20 percent of its revenue from data plans and service. The segmented information allows the equipment owners to gather and understand what’s happening with operations in the field or factory.
NimbeLink’s established competitors include Digi International of Hopkins, a company that posted more than $228 million in revenue in its most recent fiscal year.
“NimbeLink’s value is that they make a lot of difficult things easier for customers in terms of hardware design, including the Skywire, a plug in modem, and its really simple to get connected and with a good data plan that makes it a one-stop shop,” said Josh Mickolio, a senior product manager at Digi-Key Corp., the big industrial-distribution company. “Even though it’s a relatively small company, they are able to do a lot of things technologically. They are a leader in their space.”
That includes the ability of this small-tech innovator in a huge, dynamic market to get an improved product from the drawing board to the market in a hurry, Mickolio said.
“We’ve made cellular technology as easy as possible,” said NimbeLink Chief Technology Officer Kurt Larson. “We enable the connection with the modem. It’s like us talking on the telephone. Only its an internet conversation between a coffee machine, a snowblower, a drone or an ATM machine and the equipment owner or manufacturer. It’s up to them to analyze the data.”
Schwalbe, 57, a Wabasha-area native, is a manufacturing and Navy veteran who spent much of his career at the National Security Agency.
Larson, 38, is an electrical engineer and computer scientist from the Twin Cities. They worked together several years ago at Logic PD, the local electronics design-and-manufacturing operation. They failed to persuade management to let them pursue their IoT ideas.
So they launched their own thing in 2013.
NimbeLink has been financed so far with equity by individuals and venture-capitalist First Analysis of Chicago in 2016.
First Analysis, Schwalbe and Larson are the three largest shareholders.
In order to gain critical scale, NimbeLink will have to raise more capital. Or eventually sell to a larger player.
“Our goal is to build a solid business and the next stage will come,” Schwalbe said. “We want to have impact on the industry.”
Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.