Fasten your seatbelts
If anyone was drawing up a business plan for an organisation which aimed to become a leading player in the electronics industry, it's unlikely it would take the shape of Steepest Ascent. But the Glasgow-based company is quickly becoming a major influence on digital signal processing and communications, advising major players in the industry and helping shape the future of technology.…
Garrey Rice and Daniel Garcia-Alis are flying to Japan tomorrow, and the next day, they will meet a group of engineers from one of Asia’s leading mobile phone companies to talk about how to develop the next generation of mobile devices. Two days later, they will fly home to Scotland, and be at their keyboards in Glasgow the following morning, slightly jet-lagged but ready for business. It’s all in a normal week’s work for Garrey and Daniel, and everyone else at Steepest Ascent – working with big names like Nokia, Qualcomm and Xilinx, in locations all over the world.
For Technical Director Bob Stewart, jet lag was not such a problem on his recent overseas trip. He was lucky – just a quick flight to South Africa for half a day’s consultancy, then back home to Glasgow, without readjusting his watch.
Working overseas has become part of the company’s normal routine, and the international origins of Steepest Ascent can be traced back to the late 1990s, when Stewart was teaching an industry short course in Los Angeles, and realised that he and other like-minded people had something precious to sell – their knowledge and experience of DSP (digital signal processing). The visiting professor (he had previously worked in Minnesota as well as at USC) was not just rubbing shoulders with some of the industry’s leading executives and engineers but showing them what to do.
Back in Glasgow, Stewart also realised that Scotland was losing one of its greatest economic resources. As an academic supervising PhD students year after year at the University of Strathclyde, he could see a large percentage of the engineering talent going to England or overseas to get suitable jobs, so when the opportune moment arrived, he decided to persuade a few top graduates to stay – and become part of Steepest Ascent.
"We had virtually no business experience, no staff, no office and capital assets of zero," says Stewart, "but we did have a couple of very good prospects in the shape of a DSP communication design contract for a company in Minneapolis and the offer to take ownership of some 3G mobile software IP from a partner company, Entegra."
Today, the company has a team of 12 based in Glasgow, including five PhDs, with recent work on digital communications including standards such as 3GPP, cdma2000, 802.11, DVB-T/ DVB-H, 802.20, 802.16 and Bluetooth, plus a number of proprietary wireline communication standards. Its products include simulation libraries and software simulation solutions, and the company also provides an automatic VHDL generation solution. About 60 per cent of the company's business currently comes from overseas sales.
In addition, Steepest Ascent has a roadmap to develop further simulation libraries, most specifically for 3G LTE. "With mobile devices," says Freeland, "get ready for another revolution and quite incredible data rates to handheld devices via the enhanced 3G LTE developments." The company has also been involved in the IEEE Mobile Broadband Wireless Access (MBWA) standards group and been a voting member to define the new standard. It is also doing work on embedded software products, although the emphasis is very much on wireless communications solutions.
As well as consultancy and software development, the company holds short courses and on-site consulting events for professional engineers, covering the spectrum of DSP and communications, from theory to practical implementations – one of the strengths of the evolved (rather than planned) marketing model. "We can send in two of our engineers to a company to present, say, on 3G LTE," says Garcia-Alis, one of the managers, "and when the time comes for the company to purchase a new library or get some development work outsourced, they might just remember the two competent guys from Scotland that came by."
Stewart, who is a Professor at the University of Strathclyde’s Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, describes the company’s growth as both cautious and "organic" and expects it to expand at a rate of about 30 per cent per annum, over the next three years, in terms of revenues and people.
In Stewart’s other role, as founder and director of DSPscotland, an alliance of companies, research institutes and universities set up to promote the DSP sector at home and abroad, he is keen to see the industry not only grow but get more recognition for what it contributes to the Scottish economy. Steepest Ascent's contribution may not seem dramatic in financial terms but it does provide the kind of intellectual energy and strategic thinking which is needed to drive technology forward in Scotland, as part of a cluster of companies which add up to considerably more than the sum of their parts. It is also a model for the "intelligent enterprise" of the future, living on its wits rather than manufacturing widgets.
Steepest Ascent also believes in "marketing by doing" – instead of the hard sell, it simply gets on with its business. It also gets involved in sponsoring selective events like Femtocells Europe 2008, where its name will be mentioned in the same breath as large corporations like Cisco, Vodaphone, and Huawei – not bad company to keep, for a start-up still a long way from reaching its peak.
Time for take-off.
Thanks to Stewart’s time spent in America and his increasing industry profile, he was able to point colleagues in these blue chip companies towards the newly founded company, and within a few months, two more development contracts were in place, and these formed the basis of Steepest Ascent. In the early years of the millennium, the company’s talented team was attracting attention from several potential investors, including a US-based organisation which wanted to establish a base in Europe. Then, in mid-2005, the US partner suddenly announced that "the window of opportunity may have been closed" – the US company itself was being taken over and its Scottish plans were cancelled. It looked like a setback, but rather than being the end of a dream, it was just the beginning...
"There were five engineers in the company in April 2005," says Stewart. "We also had two development contracts, plus the IP (Intellectual Property) from Entegra, so we thought, let’s get more work, get our heads down and move this forward."
The name "Steepest Ascent" had been registered the previous year – partly to reflect the mountaineering interests of the company’s Chief Software Engineer, Graham Freeland, and a play on words which only electronics engineers would appreciate, based on a well-known algorithm called "Steepest Descent."
Freeland, who had previously worked with Entegra, had a few ideas about developing new simulation libraries – the tools used in the testing and development of new digital communication devices and standards. Add on the determination to succeed and remain independent, and the formula was more or less complete.
"We didn't want to borrow any money," says Stewart. "One of the simplest and best pieces of advice was from Campbell Murray at the Scottish Enterprise High Growth times – you know what's best for your own company."
Apart from its products and services, what also sets the company apart is that it is not a traditional IP "spin-out" from a university, but a start-up underpinned by talent from the University of Strathclyde. "Most people are familiar with the spin-out concept," says Stewart, "but Strathclyde is also encouraging towards start-ups based on critical mass and capability, and even on spin-ins, where new technology companies can find a strong partner in the University."
Steepest Ascent was also wholly funded from the start by its revenues, including a six-figure dollar contract secured within 12 months of its establishment, for the development of next-generation communications systems. In fact, says Stewart, Steepest Ascent has always felt that it would not be of interest to traditional venture capital firms – its assets are primarily its brains, its first-rate engineers and its specialist software, and its ability to win strategic contracts via an extensive list of contacts and customers.