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July 23, 2019 · 19 min read

The global future of sensor technology on the smart edge with Becky Oh of Apple and PNI

CEO and President Becky Oh started her career as an Apple chip designer and quickly realized she wanted a bigger view of how her products played into the broader business. She took a role in Field Application Engineering and thus began her journey into business development, which she continued to advance until joining PNI Corporation when the now-global sensor company was in its startup phase.

PNI has advanced it’s position under Becky’s leadership into a global player in the smart edge and IoT sectors. Becky and Ledge discuss the path new network technologies take to adoption, when your competitors are your friends, and how to form fruitful alliances that create a rising tide for all companies in the space.

Becky Oh

President and CEO of PNI Sensor

Becky Oh is the President and CEO of PNI Sensor. Throughout her 17 years with the company, Ms. Oh has held a range of senior-level positions, from operations to technical business development. She received an M.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT.

Her keen direction and technical knowledge have guided PNI Sensor’s successful integration of its magneto-inductive sensor and sensor fusion technologies into IoT, consumer, industrial, scientific, robotics, and military applications. These products range from IoT-enabled vehicle detection sensors, position sensors for TALON tactical robots, attitude heading reference systems for NOAA’s deep-water buoys, sensor fusion algorithms in mobile platforms, motion tracking in the WiiU Gamepad, and digital compasses found in Ford, GM and Chrysler automobiles. Ms. Oh holds multiple patents in the area of devices with multi-sensing and reporting capabilities.

Read transcript

Ledge: Hey, Becky. Great to have you. Thanks for joining us.

Becky: Hey, Ledge. Thanks. Thanks for having me today.

Ledge: The listeners won’t know this, but you are dialing in from across the world in Turkey. That is super cool. I just wanted to point that out, that technology is amazing.

Since we’re on a technology podcast would you, if you don’t mind, give a two or three minute introduction of yourself and you work, and how you got where you are and what you’re working on?

Becky: Sure. Well, thanks for having me. Yes, it’s late here in Turkey but, yes, thanks to technology we can connect all around the world here.

My name is Becky Oh, and I am currently the CEO of PNI Sensor. I actually started out as an electrical engineer working for Apple computer, then moved on to being an FAE over at Synopsys.

I just wanted to get a little bit more involved and kind of have a bigger picture of how I could contribute to a company or a technology or products. I ended up joining a company where a couple of my friends had started it, and that happened to be PNI Sensor Corporation. At that time, we were making compasses. Right now everyone thinks, well, there’s compasses in mobile phones and so it seems a very simple thing, but we actually had to develop the sensor, the magnetic sensor, to be able to do it.

We kind of went from having to develop the actual sensing element and creating an end-to-end product; where we actually had the case, the hardware, the PCB, and the software, to create an electronic compass.

We’ve always had this notion that we needed to create the end application for sensors for it to really have any meaning to anyone. That’s kind of where are.

Ledge: You run a global sensor company that’s 30 years old. You’ve seen a lot of things. I think this idea of IoT is so new, right? You’re probably like, pff, no. We’ve been doing this forever.

Tell that story a little bit. The name has changed but you’ve kind of been there, done that. What have you learned along the way?

Becky: IoT is the big thing for the next growth of sensors. I would say the explosion of sensors was in the mobile phones. It was hard to find anyone that understood what sensors did, but after the mobile phones really took on JIROs, XLs and magnetic sensors, there was a lot better understanding of it.

As sensor companies, we look at, well, where’s the next growth? Automotive, obviously, will have a lot of sensors in it and that would get connected to the cloud but also have a lot of intelligence on the device itself. That’s what we call a smart edge product. But the other piece of it that we look at is, what are the devices that are not part of an automotive, that’s not part of mobile device, that are not part of wearables, that need to get connected to the cloud? Because there then you can do a lot more processing of the edge devices as well as having smart edge products.

Being in the business for 30 years, we started off in the military side developing just the compasses, to developing compasses in cars and then even selling products to Walmart and Costco as a finished product. Then we looked at where else we needed to do sensors, and so we did sensor fusion algorithms for mobile phones – so any type of motion tracking, any rotation of the screen on sensors, we did a lot of that.

Then when we looked at where we needed to focus our company now, we looked at IoT. Again, obviously, we want to contribute into the automotive market as well as the mobile. What I find very interesting is, how are we going to create devices that will connect to the cloud and be part of an IoT system?

Our latest product that happens to use our magnetic sensor is a parking sensor. As a parking sensor, how do you connect that now to the cloud without having to use a lot of power? Parking sensors have to buried in the ground, so you can’t just pull these things out and putting a new one in every month or so. You can’t even try to recharge these things. How do you optimize that? So

One of the things that we’ve seen in the market that’s coming out as part of the ecosystem building up the IoT sensors, is something called and LPWAN, which is low-power wide area network.

There, what I’ve been seeing is, how is this all going to really be built out because, if the network is not there then we can’t connect to it. It’s not Wi-Fi where it’s burning a lot power. It’s not cellular because that burns a lot of power. It’s this new network technology that’s supposed to be very optimized for long-range as well as for sensors.

Now we’re kind of in this chicken and egg. If network’s not there we can’t connect. If the network’s there and there aren’t any devices, it’s not very interesting at all. That is kind of…

Ledge: Obviously, yeah. That’s the adoption problem with a dependent two-sided technology. It’s like, who bought the first fax machine?

How do you address that? I must imagine there’s got to be a lot of cross-industry leadership and discussion that you must have to be engaged with to move things along that.

Becky: Yeah. It’s kind of fun because that’s when you have… Your competitors are actually your friends because it’s all about building out this whole ecosystem. Luckily, a lot of these individuals that had been previously in the telecom industry, so we call them telcos, they came together and realized, well, you know what, there’s this IoT and this network has to be built out.

They saw an opportunity there and created alliances.

One of the alliances that we belong to is called the LoRa Alliance. What they decided to do was make this certain protocol open source, and since it became open source this whole protocol and how to build out the stack and such, a lot of the big players got behind it.

One of it is ARM. So there is The Things Network which is an open source. They give you everything to build out your own network. You can actually be your own network provider. Since it’s open source and it’s free, it’s a little bit crowdsourcing network.

For instance, we’re a network provider of TTN in Santa Rosa, so we have a gateway up on our building. Anyone that wants to connect to it just asks us and we allow them to connect to it.

So having a company an ARM supporting it and promoting it really helps. Being open source helps.

The other companies that’s actually jumped into that whole thing is Comcast. They have a division machine that provides this LoRa network service as well.

We still have to build it out but at least it’s this time where… The building out process is actually very interesting. Like I said, it’s a fun time because all your competitors are your friends. Even though they might be your competitor, they’re really trying to help you. I think it’s actually a fun time to do this.

Ledge: Right. It’s everybody needs Main Street to be a street before you can build stores on it and compete with each other.

Becky: Right. That’s a good way to put it. Yep.

Ledge: Maybe this is sort of a newbie question for your space but, everybody is crowing on and on about 5G and how that is going to be the most important connective tissue, and everything is going to go online because of that.

What I’m hearing from you is, there’s this lower power other network layer that potentially could be even more impactful. Is that true?

Becky: I actually think they’re all going to coexist.

The great thing about 5G is the fact that it would be ubiquitous. Although, as you know, we don’t have cellular connections everywhere, and there’s going to be limitations. Every technology has its pros and cons.

So 5G, yeah right, you’ve got all these big companies pushing for it and the telcos are really out there getting these up, but that means that you have to pay for the data. The RF does burn a lot more power so some things just are not going to be able to use it. They say they’re going to have micro transmitters and some repeaters and whatnot to enable a lot more connectivity, but that’s to be seen. It’ll take time to build out.

The thing about the LoRa and the LPWAN, which is low-power wide area network is, because it is open source and it doesn’t have to cost you to send data up to it, I think there’s going to be certain applications where you don’t want to use 5G, you want to use a private LoRa network, where the network is actually free. That allows low-cost devices to transmit a lot of data up to the cloud as well.

I think it’s just going to be a combination of things.

Ledge: We say free, but obviously there’s network equipment, and it’s plugged in and there’s data transfer going on. Somebody bears the cost of that sort of data pipeline in one way or another, right?

Becky: Right. You can think of it as Wi-Fi. If you’re running Wi-Fi, in the end you do have to connect to the backhaul, but you don’t have to necessarily pay for Wi-Fi.

If you have Wi-Fi in your house, you’re not paying for your Wi-Fi service, you’re paying for internet connectivity. But, if you’re running Wi-Fi in your office, you may want to have your IT department hook it up so you have more better coverage, you have security. In that sense it’s not free, but you’re not paying for data within your company to use Wi-Fi.

Ledge: It’s sort of unmetered.

Becky: Yeah, exactly.

Ledge: So you create these devices. Talk about the power issues because, you said, you’re burying it in the ground and it needs to run essentially forever. Has battery technology come along enough that… When do the rest of us get this because I know we all want it?

Becky: Well, it’s a couple of things. Yes, battery technology has gotten a lot better. You still have to manage your power consumption properly. One thing about LoRa, for instance, it’s not meant for live-streaming a video or even audio, because it is meant to be a public network. You don’t want to be jamming it up either. There are limitations as to how much data you can send so that you’re not jamming the whole airwave.

To transmit some information is not a lot. That’s why it’s good for sensors.

For instance, even if you had a temperature sensor or a water meter, you’re not sending data constantly, you might be sending it maybe twice a day, maybe only once a day. Even water meters, you don’t want to be changing.

You can effectively have three AAA lithium batteries last you over ten years. At about ten years, batteries itself aren’t ready to last over ten years anyhow, so you can maximize the life of it, but, we’re not talking about coin cells batteries, rechargeable batteries that go on your wearables, for instance. You are talking about something that’s going to be three AA size batteries. But on gauges and on something like a parking sensor that goes in the ground, you can afford to have a little bigger size batteries.

Ledge: Let me shift gears to CEO role.

Yu came out of an engineering background, at least at the beginning. Paint the picture for me of rising from engineer to senior executive. Many times you see an engineering background rise maybe to the CTO level, if there’s a desire for leadership position. CEO is sort of that other totally different side of the world.

Can you talk about your journey there and what was important?

Becky: Yeah. I love tech but I guess I always wanted to see the bigger picture. When I was working at Apple, I was a chip designer. I got it, I could do my piece of it really well, but I wanted to have a little bit bigger role, and there aren’t that many computer architects. You’re not going to be the computer architect that’s designing the next computer. I just wanted to have a broader view of what technology can do.

At that time, we were using Synopsys tools to do the ASIC design, and so I thought, well, maybe if I get in more towards sales and marketing maybe I can see a bigger picture of technology.

Instead of just dropping right into sales or something, I took role as a field application engineer. That was actually probably what was very enlightening for me, to see all the different types of engineers out there designing ASICs and for the different type of products that they were designing for.

That got me excited, but then I also wanted to not be just part of just selling just bits and pieces but again, I still wanted to have the large picture. It happened that a couple of my friends had started PNI Sensor and I had asked them, “Hey, can I just help you guys out?” because I just want to get a better feel for what it takes to build products from soup to nuts and also understand the business side of it.

I happened to join PNI, and when I went there I said, “Well, what do you guys want me to do there?” They were about a 20% company at that time. They said, “Well, I don’t know, but can you just figure it out?”

I looked around and I said, “Well, I think there’s thing called operations, maybe I can try that.” That’s kind of where I really got an overview of not just the design piece of it but there is a purchasing piece. There’s the process piece of making things.

In operations, sometimes you just have to jump in and do customer service. I think that’s where I saw the business side of it a lot more. It’s usually you’re always trying to serve the end customer. To me, the most important role in a CEO is to know your customers.

Being in operations and having to just jump in and doing customer service got me in touch with the customers. Then having the technology background and understanding the customers, enables you to do a lot of business development.

Actually, if I were to choose a role, I think business development is probably the most fun of all, because you’re not really tied to having to meet all your numbers sales people but if you have a technology background and you want to understand the market, then Biz Dev really gets you to see a lot of different applications that your technology can be used at. Then you’re sitting there trying to think, how can we make it all work for the customer who is looking for a certain thing, and can we adopt our technology to meet the customer’s needs?

That’s the fun puzzle that crosses between technology and business, and I think that’s probably the most fun role. CEOs, you have to make sure you meet the payroll, you have finances, all of that thing that you have to look at all the time. Biz Dev is the ideal world I think a technologist could have.

Ledge: I think, when I hear you describe that, in our world there’s a new sort of… I don’t want to say new, but people are starting to pay attention what we call developer relations. Developer relations is when your customers and users and all the critical pieces in your ecosystem for Biz Dev are all very technical. You need that. Also, in a larger company it would be something like sales or solutions engineer.

You’re absolutely right. It’s not often tied to a quota system, but it’s tied to that big picture that ties marketing and product and sales altogether with that technical lens. I imagine you have to do all that and more when you’re then up in the higher seat of tying all the functions together.

Becky: Oh yeah. I mean, as CEO role, the piece I hate doing the most is obviously the finance piece there. You always have to look at the numbers, make sure you team is meeting the numbers. You’ve got to balance that with your budgets and whatnot. Sometimes you don’t get to the fun piece of it which is the product development piece, at least from a technologist point of view. You always want to be creating something and then trying to figure out how that fits in with what your customers are looking for.

I think technology, you’re not selling commodity products. Not always. As technologists and technology companies, especially if you’re not a large company, we’re a small company so where we’re going to bring value is creating something new. Which is fun from a technologist point of view and from an engineering point of view, but it’s difficult from a sales point of view.

That’s where Biz Dev is really important, because you’re trying to create a new business for a new technology that you’ve created, and you’re trying to convince everyone that this is going to bring value.

Ledge: Yes, like category defining. Which means you have to pave the way for everybody to even understand that your thing exists in the first place, and why they need it.

Becky: Right.

Ledge: Also, I think in the CEO role you’re sort of the primary arbiter of company culture, which is not typically a thing that would rise out of engineering unless you’re a super-technical engineering company.

Maybe spend a minute talking about that and how you have to think about organizing culture in with operations and tech and finance and all the things that you do.

Becky: I think engineers need to be able to be creative. It really depends on what type of company you’re working for. I look at it as, you can be a technology company but you can be more of what I consider as a manufacturing company. Which means you’re more concerned about making things low cost and really streamlining the process. I consider that more of a technology operation brain people that really want to get super-efficient.

But if you want to create new technology, you have to have a culture where it’s very free-form and creative. We’ve always been… Again, when you’re smaller or when you’re a startup, that’s what you have to focus on, is being creative and making the best of something that’s sometimes not even existent.

Our company culture has always been very flexible. Engineers, we don’t have any set time they’re supposed to be in. You’re just supposed to get what you’re supposed to get done. It’s not if you’re there 9:00 to 5:00 you’re going to be more productive. Maybe that you need to go off and do something, and then at 10:00 p.m. you’re going to get really cranking on your idea.

Definitely, company culture and knowing what your end product is and how you need to direct your engineers I think is important.

Ledge: Absolutely. I love that you’re thinking about that creativity, because we here that time and again from engineers that, yes, okay we need to bill hours but it’s not about being hours butts in the seat. That they’re going to be creative and go for a walk or play ping pong or whatever. They’re background processing algorithms and whatever they need to do for the design, and that’s often where those creative breakthroughs come from.

Awesome stuff. I’m going to totally shift gears now and this is the lighting round, okay? Critically important stuff. Are you ready?

Becky: Sure.

Ledge: All right. Star Wars or Star Trek?

Becky: Star Wars.

Ledge: Me too. What are you reading right now?

Becky: Wow. I only get to read the Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. I haven’t read a book in a while right now. But I’m listening to a podcast. What was it? The Downfall of the Shah. It’s The Fall of the Shah from Iran. So a BBC podcast.

Ledge: Wow. Very cool. Very cool. I happen to be listening to a podcast course about Ancient China, so I can totally relate. Okay, what can’t you live without?

Becky: I can’t live without my dogs. How’s that?

Ledge: Nice. Lovely. Good answer. What is the last thing that you Googled for work?

Becky: Oh, Googled for work. Oh, jeez, I don’t know. Do you know what you Googled for work?

Ledge: It’s always about podcasts stuff for me, yeah. Maybe you don’t have to Google for work anymore. We should all aspire to that. I’ll get you a free pass if you don’t know.

Becky: I actually don’t know. It was probably something about defense industry, since I’m in Turkey attending this thing called IDEF. Today they had a lot of generals walking around looking at all these big guns and missiles and tanks. It was a little scary, but it was kind of cool.

Ledge: Very cool. Okay, I don’t know if you’re a fan of The Office but there is a classic episode of The Office where Jim is messing with Dwight. Dwight is the office heel, you know, and he’s sending him faxes from future Dwight. He’s messing with him. He’s saying that coffee is poison and all that.

I like to say, if I gave you one piece of paper and one of those big, thick, black Sharpies, what would you write on the paper? If you’re future Becky, you get to send a fax back to ten-years-ago-Becky. What would you write on the piece of paper?

Becky: Take more time, and it’s okay not to be perfect.

Ledge: There’s always a story behind these answers, so why do you say those things?

Becky: I think a lot of times we get so wrapped up in trying to it right. When I look back, some of the stuff that I get so uptight about trying to get right probably I didn’t need to spend so much energy on that. You only have so much energy you can spend on things, and I think when you’re young you just feel everything is important. You just want to get everything right. We spend too much time in that and miss the big picture.

When you take a little bit more time and clear your mind of it then I think you can be a lot more creative and strategic.

Ledge: Well, Becky, this has been enjoyable. Thank you for being a good sport with those. I always appreciate that.

It’s really great to have you on. Thanks for telling your story.

Becky: Well, thank you, Ledge.