Inside Track with Ryan Pratt, Founder and CEO, Guerrilla RF

Aug. 10, 2015
MW&RF Technology Editor Chris DeMartino talked with Guerrilla CEO and founder Ryan Pratt about the startup MMIC company.
Ryan Pratt, Founder and CEO of Guerrilla RF.

CD: What opportunities inspired you to create a MMIC startup at this time?

RP: I saw an industry preoccupied with the needs of smartphones. This is understandable due to the unprecedented size of the smartphone IC market. But there is also an enormous opportunity to innovate in the high-performance space aimed at the infrastructure markets. Knowing our industry as I do, I see a lot of stale MMIC products that are ripe for disruption.

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Another big opportunity we see is how the smartphone explosion is challenging cellular infrastructure to keep up from a capacity point of view. This leads to new technologies like small cells, carrier-class Wi-Fi, and wireless backhaul experiencing explosive growth. We believe these technologies are not well served by the MMICs focused on traditional base stations or cellular handsets, due to their unique performance and form-factor needs.

Personally, the primary inspiration for me to create this startup was to be able to work on the products and technologies I wanted to without needing to uproot my family. When I left my last company, my choice seemed to be to either take a job working in a less interesting area of the industry or relocate.  With a special-needs child and a lot of family and friends in this area, relocation was not on the table.  That is when my father suggested creating a startup. With my wife’s support, I did just that.

CD: What are some of the challenges of being a startup and competing with larger well-established companies?

RP: The biggest overall challenge of being a startup in the semiconductor industry right now is access to capital. In my experience, traditional venture capital is not a plausible path for chip companies except in very rare instances. We were extremely fortunate to gain the support of local angel investors in order to launch Guerrilla RF.

In terms of competing with larger well-established companies, we do not see this as a huge challenge. It goes to the roots of our name, Guerrilla RF. We see numerous under-served market segments that the larger companies are not interested in addressing. As with guerrilla warfare, we seek weak areas to attack. In our case, this means finding and developing products for these under-served niches. As indicated earlier, we feel some examples of these are small cells, carrier-class Wi-Fi, and wireless backhaul. We feel that our team of industry veterans and outstanding supply-chain partners enable us to compete with the bigger companies whenever necessary.

CD: Do you believe all of the consolidation that has occurred among companies in the semiconductor business is good or bad for the RF/microwave industry?

RP: I think the consolidation is generally a good thing. It has definitely been a great thing for us, as we see many opportunities emerging due to these consolidations. Instances where older products get obsoleted by competitors and really good people become available due to layoffs have benefited us enormously. 

I also think consolidation is a good thing for the industry, because many products were getting commoditized. There should now be enough profitability to pay for the R&D needed to sustain the amazing wireless network growth we have seen in the last several years.

Of course, the negative side is that jobs are being lost.  Ultimately, it worries me greatly that we are losing some really talented people from the industry.

CD: You mentioned the loss of jobs. Since you had to experience a career transition yourself, what advice would you give RF/microwave engineers so that they can continue to thrive in this industry?

RP: The first thing I would advise is to take a good look at your financial situation to make sure you will be ready for your career transition. Layoffs are a reality in our industry and you need to be able to take the necessary time to find a new job you will like. In my experience, you need at least three months of savings if possible.

Next, I would recommend taking a deep breath and considering all of your options. I felt a panicky need to find a new job as quickly as possible right after I was let go. Some of the best advice I got was to take some time to be with my family and carefully consider what my next step was going to be. Rushing into a new position seemed like the right thing, but in retrospect I am really happy that I did not. To guide your thinking, keep in mind your career goals and figure out how your next position will get you closer to them.

CD: That is great advice. I am sure our audience will appreciate it. Getting back to MMICs, what applications are creating the highest demand for them in today’s market?

RP: There are a mind-boggling number of applications related to MMICs. Some of the hottest ones we see are drones/UAVs, Wi-Fi access points/home gateways, and wireless backhaul. Defense and instrumentation are also sizable application areas for MMICs.

CD: What specific requirements will drive the development of new MMIC products?

RP: We believe lower noise figure and higher linearity/power are the key driving forces in new MMIC products. This is an area where products like our new Power-LNA family are garnering a lot of customer interest. When you can offer low noise and very good linearity simultaneously, some pretty cool levels of system performance become possible.

In the near future, we see the push to higher frequencies becoming much more important. Starting from 3.5 GHz up to the 5.0- to 6.0-GHz bands and even to K-band and above, we see ever-increasing demand for new products. This is being driven by the overcrowding seen in the lower-frequency bands, as well as the insatiable demand for greater wireless data bandwidth. Cellular carriers are looking for more spectrum, which leads to the need for high-performance MMICs at much higher frequencies.

CD: What role do you see gallium-nitride (GaN) technology playing in the overall realm of the MMIC marketplace in the future?

RP: As things move up in frequency on the infrastructure side, GaN will become absolutely essential.  To put out any appreciable power above 2.5 GHz, I currently see no other technology choice. The big problems with GaN are its high cost and the difficulty of implementing it in a system, due to the negative gate-voltage requirements. As demand increases, I think these challenges will be overcome with some innovation to take GaN mainstream.

CD: How much impact do you think the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT) will have on the demand for MMIC products?

RP: I think the IoT’s emergence will have a large impact on MMIC products. I don’t see the small end-node clients of the IoT using many MMICs. But the infrastructure connecting everything will use a lot of these components. When you have many devices trying to connect over a larger area, the infrastructure must have a higher level of performance to accommodate it all.  To me, this means high-performance MMICs will be a must have.

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