Startups To Benefit From UMTS Spending

Imagine you’re a telecom, and you wake up this sunny Friday to realize it’s not a dream, you really did just pay £8 billion for two German third-generation mobile license blocks. Yes, you paid much more than you wanted for fewer license blocks than you’d hoped. And when your friends ask you what, specifically, you will do with this license, you can’t answer.

If you think you hear laughing, it’s probably coming from Denmark.

“We were all laughing about this just yesterday,” said Soren Jessen Nielsen, head of strategic business development in Europe for BlueKite, which just closed a $36 million round of funding from a VC group headed by Texas Pacific Group and including Credit Suisse First Boston. The investors purchased a 21 percent stake in BlueKite, which develops proprietary bandwidth optimizing technologies and a software platform aimed at increasing network capacity and Internet access speeds for fixed and mobile networks.

“Bandwidth is finite; it’s absolute,” said Nielson, who scoffs at UMTS hype. “A 2MB line into a PDA? Please. When UMTS comes, no one has any idea what they’re going to do with it. But I’ll tell you, whatever they (the telcos) do, they’re going to run into the same bandwidth problems and capacity issues that you have with GSM and Edge. You ain’t gonna have multimedia while traveling on a train, forget that one – that’s marketing hype.”

But whether BlueKite believes the UMTS dream or not, it’s hoping to profit from it. The San Francisco-based company, with roots in Copenhagen, may be one example of how startups in Europe can benefit from the trucks full of money being thrown at UMTS. Whether you believe UMTS is the Great White Hope or a Big Fat Joke, one thing European VCs seem to agree on is that companies developing applications for next-generation mobile networks are worth funding. With telcos around Europe set to pay up to $200 billion for licenses, they may have little money left to develop their own applications to run on these networks. Enter wireless communications, software and technology startups.

“There is a ton of work to be done to create these UMTS-based applications, and this is an area where small companies are really needed, and where they can do a good job,” said Peter Dietz, managing director of TakeOff VC Management. He believes the UMTS bidding war will cause larger companies to leave to small companies the work of making the applications that will make UMTS sexy. “I can’t name names at the moment, but we have already been discussing this with two of the German companies in our portfolio; one is something of a cross between an IT service and a multimedia agency, and the other is a pure software development company.”

Kim Bach, vice president at 2m Invest in Copenhagen added: “This is a perfect example of the “Tornado effect.’ There’s so much money being spent in this area that it’s impossible to imagine it won’t have a positive effect on the small suppliers.”

Bach has seen this market development coming for a long while. 2m has been sinking money into the organization that is now BlueKite since 1993, when it was called RadioMail, and it had teamed up with Motorola to make Newton-like handheld devices.

“We really knew the idea of wireless computers was the way to go in the future, but we were out,well, let’s say a bit too early,” Bach said. “But we were sure this technology would have to have a breakthrough sometime, so we kept feeding what would become BlueKite until a couple of years ago when they really took off.”

BlueKite’s reincarnation about two-and-a-half years ago, headed up by CEO David Cox, was funded by $1 million in seed money from 2m, which owns 41.6 percent of the company. BlueKite started with offices in Silicon Valley, but fleeing high prices and labor costs, it moved it kept its administration in San Francisco, but moved research and development to Los Angeles. In the last year, the company has grown from 10 employees to more than 70, and has offices in Copenhagen, London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Paris.

2m invested an additional $3 million last year. BlueKite’s aim is to develop technologies that better manage bandwidth and compress data, but still utilize existing infrastructure. For example, on a standard ISDN line, BlueKite technology can determine, on an ongoing basis, whether a given user needs two or three channels, or just to keep one open on an idle mode.

In fact, BlueKite already offers a technology that allows ISDN-speed data transfer rates over existing wireless networks for companies including British Telecom, Swisscom and Telecell Portugal, as well as Connect Austria.

“We looked at everyone offering solutions to bring high-speed mobile data transfer,” said Lars Reichelt, currently COO of Connect Austria and soon to be director of wireless for Europe at Yahoo. “When we finished, BlueKite came up by far the best,” even with competitors including Nokia and Ericsson offering similar products. “This is a great tool, and it makes the workplace truly mobile. You don’t have to worry about fumbling around looking for a proper phone plug – in Austria there are seven approved types of phone plugs. It costs 3 shillings ($0.20) a minute, and you can work while others watch in wonder.”

BlueKite may well be poised for growth during the development of the so-called mobile future, but it won’t be alone for long. Software companies are desperately needed to build the very applications that will make UMTS profitable, and most startups aren’t clueless to the trend. Some industry estimates put the number of WAP development companies at over 600 in Europe alone, and VCs are desperately trying to plunk their cash into the right wireless companies. Yesterday, every VC wanted a in its portfolio, now they want wireless startups.

“This (the development of UMTS) creates opportunities for smaller companies,” said Stephan Uhlmann at Deutsche Venture Capital Gesellschaft. “There’s a great opportunity here for developers of applications that will bring products to end users via UMTS.”