Chip and win
Anthony Sethill is the founder and chief executive of UK tech company Frontier Silicon – the world’s leading supplier of chips, modules and software for digital radios. He gives Sean Hannam a glimpse into the future of smart audio, voice control and connected devices…
More than 80 per cent of all the digital radios ever built use our technology,” says Anthony Sethill, chief executive of Frontier Silicon, the UK business he founded in 2002.
Sat in the company’s main engineering centre, just outside of Cambridge, he tells ERT: “We have sold over 20 million units worldwide for digital radio – our current run rate is five million a year.
“When we started, the idea was that rather than develop finished products to sell to retailers, we would develop the core technologies that go into audio products and promote those to the brands and the factories that make on behalf of them.”
He adds: “We’re purely the brain – the brands’ factories create the bodies for the products. We don’t have anything to do with the acoustics or the industrial design.”
Frontier Silicon’s customers include brands such as Roberts, Pure, Ruark, Philips, Sony, Bose, LG and Panasonic and it also supplies technology for own-brand products from the likes of John Lewis, Tesco and Dixons Carphone.
Back in the early Noughties, during the early days of digital radio, Mr Sethill saw an opportunity to take the technology to a wider market and founded Frontier Silicon.
“The main reason we set up Frontier, in partnership with Imagination Technologies, which was a minority shareholder, was because Imagination was working on core technologies for DAB,” he says.
“Up until that point, there was no DAB market – the cheapest DAB product was a hi-fi tuner at £1,000 and, clearly, if that were the case, DAB would never take off as a mass market. Imagination developed an integrated first-generation chip for DAB and the objective was to bring out a £99 radio. Imagination created Pure and we created the solution for Pure.”
He adds: “The two difficult things to do were the RF (radio frequency) – and the software. We created a PCB that contained silicon, which would deal with the radio, and a processor to run the software. One of our key USPs is quality – we don’t lose customers. They trust us to develop robust technologies and to support them in helping them get their products to market. We’ve built a reputation for being the blue chip DAB solution, which is a nice position to be in, but one we’ve worked very hard on over the years to achieve – both technically and commercially.”
From developing chips and modules for DAB, Frontier then took to the next step, as Mr Sethill explains: “In 2007, we had a great idea – we could use our radio and our processing technology and software skills to develop internet radio. Connecting an audio product to wi-fi has led us to where we are today – we have now grown beyond that and we are doing smart audio.
“In the way that TVs and screens have become smart through connectivity to the cloud, it’s now the same for audio – we’ve had a transition from traditional audio to CD and MP3 and streaming. At the moment, the market’s dominated by Bluetooth, but it has lots of limitations in terms of the user experience and applications.
ERT asks Mr Sethill to tell us more about his predictions for where the smart audio market is heading in the future.
“Sonos has led the way, but the Sonos proposition, which is all around multi-room – is, in a sense, a niche application of smart audio. There’s a much bigger application than having speakers that can just stream and distribute music – things like Google – with its Google Cast for audio – and Amazon, with its Echo [a hands-free speaker you control with your voice]. Google has also announced its Google Home [speaker] product and it would like its Google Assistant [technology] integrated into third-party speaker products. Frontier Silicon will be a key system integrator to enable that – you will have Google Assistant-type functionality for voice search and the Cast system. You will be able to search and control music through voice.
“This year, our emphasis is on connected and smart audio – particularly with the launch of Google Cast. Over the next two or three years, we see that smart audio, with initiatives such as voice and Cast streaming, should create a significant increase in our business. With smart audio, we’re adding more functionality – Bluetooth and wi-fi connectivity, voice control and cloud-based content aggregation systems. We’re one of two system integrators that Google is working with globally on these technologies.”
Frontier Silicon has developed a new Minuet connected audio module, featuring Google Cast technology for audio devices. The first products that will use Minuet will go into production this month from several major global brands and there will be a number of launches over the next six months, including some at this year’s IFA show in Berlin in September.
Says Mr Sethill: “It will be fascinating to see how Sonos adapts to Google Cast.”
On the long-term future of smart audio, he says: “We think that as audio products get smarter, they will start doing a lot more – using voice will be particularly important in the way the user interacts with their device. The voice recognition speaker will also be the access point into the smart home.”
Mr Sethill points to the success of the Amazon Echo speaker that has launched in the States and uses the Alexa voice control system, saying: “Since its launch, I think it’s sold almost four million units and it’s probably the most significant consumer product to be launched in the past year in the US. It’s really captured the imagination.
“You cannot underestimate just how much impact it’s had on consumers, retailers and industry pundits since its launch – they see it as the gateway to accessing cloud-based services. It’s the biggest phenomenon to affect the common, ordinary speaker in the home.”
He tells ERT that smart audio also has wider implications for the connected home of the future: “Rather than use an app on your phone, you will just say ‘play Radiohead from Spotify’. Smart audio speakers will also be able to recognise certain sounds and will then trigger alerts – for example, smashing glass or a baby crying – and communicate it to you, through the cloud, to your mobile. It does appear that one of the biggest technology changes in the next 10 years will be the move towards the smart home. You’ll be able to use a smart speaker to control your lights, your thermostat and your locks and security.
“If a retailer does have the expertise, the budget, the merchandising and, more importantly, the space to establish an area to demonstrate and educate how you bring it all together to interact, then the smart home is a nice concept.”
In 2012, Frontier Silicon merged with Toumaz – a company that developed wireless technology for the healthcare market.
Last year, it developed its UNDOK technology and app for controlling multi-room connected audio products with iOS or Android smart devices.
Frontier Silicon employs around 150 people across four countries – the UK, Romania, the US and China. Last year, it reported revenues of just under £32 million – up 24 per cent.
Says Mr Sethill: “In the past two years, we’ve been growing in excess of 20 per cent a year and that should continue this year. With the adoption of smart technologies, I think that within two to three years we will double the size of our business to a revenue of $100 million.”
As the CEO of a British company, is he worried about the impact Brexit could have on his business?
“I have some short-term concerns about Brexit. We’re not here to make political statements, but I think it’s probably the biggest own goal that any government has instigated in my – and most people’s – lifetime. It is what it is and we have to get on with it.”