Former Qualcomm exec Rob Chandhok introduces Helium IoT venture

Rob Chandhok is a familiar figure to many who have been covering the mobile sector in recent years, having been a senior exec at mobile chip giant Qualcomm and one of the few allowed to speak to the press. But last December he decided it was time to move on and joined IoT startup Helium.

Chandhok is speaking at Internet of Things World in May and the event team caught up with him recently to get the lowdown on the company that lured him away from Qualcomm. “Helium is a company dedicated to making it easy to connect physical things to the internet,” said Chandhok.

“Helium was created when a bunch of the founders were playing around with the Internet of Things. They found it very difficult to radio connect the things they were building to the internet, and basically have a tool set that was of the same calibre of what they were used to on the web side.

“So, for example, if you were a game developer you’re used to standing on top of enormous amounts of software so you can actually write your game without having to write a graphics interface from scratch. But if you wanted to connect something to the internet, you almost had to be a radio guy and understand the guts of Bluetooth or ZigBee or Z-Wave, and they found that very frustrating.”

There is a growing trend of developing bespoke solutions for IoT, so Helium seems to be well positioned, but what uniquely does it bring to the table? “One of the things we decided to do is really provide an end-to-end system,” said Chandhok. “Helium uses the 802.15.4 radio set, so for example in one module we’re currently providing a dual-band 15.4 radio.

“Then we have our own firmware on top of it that optimises the power using 15.4, we put an extra-low power amplifier on it to get better range, with the idea being that we can create a low-power coverage area with our access points at a much more efficient cost base than you might otherwise do.

“The contrasting approaches to Helium tend to use either cellular or their own radio networks. Some of these companies have as their goal, providing an alternative coverage network to a carrier provided network. We wanted to provide an alternative that works in the way you’d use wifi instead of cellular broadband connection. It’s when you’re in your own space using unlicensed spectrum, and have that under your control. So if you want to connect things in places that you have administrative control, Helium makes things look like web-connected objects.”

There is undeniable momentum around IoT. As a concept it seems to have been around for a while without much clear direction, but that seems to be changing. “We’re talking to a bunch of verticals, like people who own skyscrapers and want to do sensing and command and control,” said Chandhok.

“One of the things that’s unique about the Helium module is that is has a hardware router trust on it in addition to the radio chip, so every module can authenticate itself to the network and authenticate that the network is trusted. If I want to sense temperature somewhere, I don’t need a lot of trust associated with that; but if I want to turn on a gas valve somewhere, I’d better know where that command is coming from.”

Chandhok clearly feels Helium is well positioned to help define and consequently benefit from the rise of IoT. “I came from a company that has a long history in excellence in large scale radio systems at Qualcomm, and what interested me about Helium is that it had expertise on both sides of the shelf, as it were,” he said.

“I see a lot in IoT of people who are really good at one side but not the other, and Helium is really attacking the problem of making things feel like they can move as fast as software on the internet, and that’s what’s really exciting about it.”

As the name implies, IoT is an almost infinitely broad concept and if the aim is to make everything smart and connected then a pretty robust infrastructure will be required. The opportunities for startups like Helium will be plentiful and if they’re attracting the likes of Chandhok then they’re probably heading in the right direction.


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