Interview: SenarioTek Co-Founders Simi Ghiasvand And Bob Alman

Sept. 12, 2013
Microwaves & RF sits down with SenarioTek's Simi Ghiasvand,CEO & President, and Bob Alman, CTO.

NF: You founded SenarioTek in 2003, which was a pretty tough time in the electronics industry and the microwave market in particular. With the measurement industry largely covered, how did you carve out your niche?

SG: When we started SenarioTek, our goal was to provide performance RF and microwave solutions without the high overhead associated with large companies. Our prior experience had shown us that the wireless and computer industries were moving to higher and higher data rates, with data being transmitted at RF and even millimeter-wave frequencies. SenarioTek was able to help wireless and telecom engineers meet their goals by improving their margins and the reliability of their test systems.

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The tough times over the years have resulted in a wide range of talented engineers becoming available. SenarioTek has hired many skilled veterans of the test and measurement industry. With over 250 years of combined RF and microwave experience, our engineers work closely with our customers’ engineering teams to ensure a thorough understanding of their measurement needs.

NF: Compared to your larger competitors, you have the advantage of being flexible and can quickly move between various projects—while covering DC to 70 GHz with your varied solutions. Can you provide some examples of your breadth of expertise?

BA: Because we don’t manufacture our own components, we use the knowledge and expertise of the engineering staff to evaluate and choose the best components available. We like to say that we are “brand-agnostic.” This gives our engineers the flexibility to perform an unbiased component evaluation and selection based solely on the needs of our customers.

Over the years, SenarioTek has developed unique solutions for a variety of applications. Today, we have over 300 unique designs in use by our customers all over the world. In order for us to compete in our industry, we rely on cutting-edge technologies. Our RF switch matrix and subsystems provide an excellent combination of performance and reliability for a very wide range of applications. In the satellite test area, we have developed thermal-vacuum-compatible test solutions, which are enabling our customers to complete some of their most difficult testing in a more efficient and timely manner.

For our high-speed digital customers, we hold very tight tolerances on delay matching, which they require for many next-generation standards. We also are proud of our expertise in calibration. Many project teams address calibration toward the end of their design; we find that it works best to keep calibration in mind throughout the test-solution design process.

NF: Can you tell us about some of the legacy solutions that you have provided for the defense market?

SG: We have participated in a few well-known defense projects, such as JTRS, JSF, and F-22. We have also participated in quite a few commercial and defense satellite programs. Today, having sold to all of the major primes, we are on most of their vendor lists. In addition, we have participated in both the Air Force and Department of Defense (DoD) Mentor-Protégé programs. These programs are dedicated to growing unique, technical small businesses that have cutting-edge technology to offer to the military sectors.

For legacy test solutions, we have had many projects updating and upgrading existing test solutions. We have replaced old subsystems and addressed obsolescence issues without significant changes to the old test systems—especially the test software. SenarioTek can reverse-engineer decades-old products, allowing the use of even old systems that need to be pulled out of mothballs.

NF: With all of the talk of cutbacks in defense spending, it did not seem like this year and last year would offer great opportunities in defense solutions. Yet SenarioTek and many other firms are producing solid earnings.

SG: The defense industry’s cutbacks are real. It has reduced the defense primes’ contracts, which in turn has had a domino effect on the rest of the defense industry. SenarioTek’s business is primarily providing capital equipment. Of course, capital-equipment budgets are the first to go when budgets get cut. The reason SenarioTek is experiencing steady growth is that we had anticipated and prepared for this tough defense environment. For the past two years, our business team has implemented a strategy to grow in the wireless, commercial, semiconductor-test, and medical sectors of our business. These relatively new products have been very successful. Their growth has dampened the effects of the defense budget cuts.

NF: What commercial applications are currently providing the largest opportunities for you?

BA: One of the commercial applications where we have seen real growth is signal-integrity testing as it relates to high-speed serial applications. The frequencies of these applications continue to climb, and the difficulty of meeting the design requirements has grown accordingly. We strive to ensure that our equipment performs better than the extremes of the customer’s test environment. Most importantly, we have to ensure that station-to-station test results are consistent and correlate, thereby making it easier for the engineers to evaluate the results. Here, we have developed products with very tight phase/delay matching that produce results with the lowest uncertainty and repeatability.

SenarioTek is now a recognized leader in a completely different market as well: the commercial-satellite-payload test area. Satellite payload testing—especially the new trend of satellites moving up to Ka band (32 GHz)—has the hardest RF test requirements in the industry: performance, quality, and longevity. Satellite test brings to the table unique challenges in test fixtures, communications, and connections. In the past seven years, SenarioTek has developed technologies that directly address these challenges. Although only a few companies provide satellite manufacturing, the near-future growth potential for SenarioTek is very high.

Bigger And Better

NF: I understand you recently moved to a larger facility. Can you provide some detail on where SenarioTek is now (in terms of space and staff) versus where you started?

SG: We started SenarioTek in my living room and in a coffee shop. In the beginning, we had three people. Today, we have 25 people and our latest facility is over 12,000 sq. ft. Earlier this year, we received ISO 9001:2008 certification.

Five years ago, we had the same-size staff as we have currently, but we are generating much higher revenue today. As an organization, we have become much more efficient in meeting our resource needs. We work with other small companies or individual consultants to meet some unique customer requirements. This gives SenarioTek the advantage of providing solutions for all customer requirements, such as analog, digital, control, software, firmware, etc. By engaging the “experts” in their fields of interest—without adding overhead that is not being used on a regular basis—we can provide the best possible solution to customers more affordably.

The new SenarioTek facility in Santa Rosa, CA.

NF: With 10 years under your belts, what do you consider the key to SenarioTek’s success? Can you project where you would like to see SenarioTek 10 years from now?

SG: Our customers choose SenarioTek for three important reasons. First of all, our technical expertise enables us to create solutions for their toughest RF/microwave challenges. SenarioTek also has an excellent reputation for quality and reliability; we have very few post-sales support issues. Finally, SenarioTek coordinates joint milestone checkpoints to meet our delivery dates.

From a business perspective, we leverage our unmatched business ethics and integrity in the combined relationships with our customers, vendors and our employees. SenarioTek prides itself in providing an un-biased opinion to the customer’s problem. We work very hard to offer products with the best combination of price, performance, and reliability to the market.

Our goal for the next 10 years is to grow steadily by providing cutting-edge technologies to the highly demanding test-and-measurement market. At the same time, we need to maintain SenarioTek’s reputation for technical excellence, quality, and meeting our commitments. Most importantly, it is my responsibility as the CEO to make sure that our values and culture stay intact as we grow.

NF: Do you think it was more difficult to start a woman-owned small business in this space?

SG: As a woman engineer with a BSEE and MSEE, I am very familiar with the challenges of being a woman in technology; it really starts in college. As a woman, the higher you go up the management ladder, the fewer women you get to work with. This is especially true when working in the defense industry. As a woman CEO, having a technical background enables me to close the gap with my customers and work with them closely to better understand their challenges.

Because the government recognizes this, being a “women-owned, small-business” entity has helped us to participate in a few small business set-aside programs. In addition, SenarioTek partners with other test-and-measurement companies to take advantage of these opportunities.

NF: You certainly place a lot of emphasis on customer service. What perks do you offer beyond your three-year, no-cost standard warranty?

SG: First, let me point out that we offer the three-year, no-cost warranty because we are that confident of our product quality and reliability. It is very rare that our customers even use their warranty. But if they need to, we move quickly to resolve any problems.

The most important service we provide to our customers is that we act as an extension of their own engineering team. We provide—free of charge—the benefit of our RF expertise to critique their test system design. When necessary, we offer alternative solutions that may offer better RF performance, lower cost, longer life, future expansion, or the combination of all.

As a standard practice, our engineers communicate directly with customers and take the time to understand their test issues before we provide design ideas. No other company in our industry provides this level of technical service free of charge. SenarioTek’s value proposition is to solve our customer’s test-and-measurement problems and we truly practice that.

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NF: Do you have any advice for people looking to start a new company in the microwave space?

SG: Starting a company from ground zero is not for the faint of heart. Our industry is filled with people who are very intelligent and educated, but are they also entrepreneurs? If you are not an entrepreneur, you should not start a company—especially in the microwave test-and-measurement space. This may sound cliché, but it is very true. Being an entrepreneur requires the willingness to take risks, believe in your vision, objectively drill through problems, get excited when challenging situations emerge, and remain unafraid. One needs to always find a way to move forward. The competition is tough—especially in this industry, where most of the competition consists of very large companies with a lot more resources and experience than we have.

The challenge is to find your niche, believe in it, and surround yourself with intelligent people who believe in your vision and move toward that goal. Give yourself room to make mistakes, because you will make a lot of mistakes. You have to be able to learn from those mistakes and be able to forgive yourself and everyone around you when mistakes are made. If you make no mistakes, you are not taking enough risk to grow the company. If you can pull off all of these things, you will end up having a company with competition, but without peers.

About the Author

Nancy Friedrich | Editor-in-Chief

Nancy Friedrich began her career in technical publishing in 1998. After a stint with sister publication Electronic Design as Chief Copy Editor, Nancy worked as Managing Editor of Embedded Systems Development. She then became a Technology Editor at Wireless Systems Design, an offshoot of Microwaves & RF. Nancy has called the microwave space “home” since 2005.

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