Unabiz: “The IoT Industry Has Not Finished Exploding Yet”

We interviewed Manuel Álvarez, Managing Director of UnaBiz Iberia, to chat about the IoT Map in Spain and the rest of the world.

In this interview Manuel Álvarez, Managing Director of UnaBiz Iberia takes a look at current affairs, from its inception as Sigfox in 2013 to the recent acquisition of UnaBiz in 2022. UnaBiz has evolved to offer agnostic IoT solutions, excelling in energy efficiency. Alvarez shares that although Spain is not yet leading in this area, the global focus on energy monitoring and efficiency will drive growth.

During the interview he also discusses restructuring after a 50 million financing, progress in the Spanish market (34% market share), the foray into LoRaWan and the convergence of technologies as the key to success in IoT. Manuel anticipates a future where energy efficiency will be the driving force of IoT worldwide.

Company origin and trajectory

UnaBiz’s history dates back to 2013, when it emerged as a startup known as Sigfox. The company designed a network and protocol specifically for the Internet of Things (IoT), offering efficient machine-to-machine communication. Unlike cellular networks, Sigfox technology allows devices to be autonomous and independent, significantly extending battery life by minimizing the need for continuous communication. This energy efficiency is crucial in telemetry cases, such as remote counters in inaccessible areas, where the battery can last up to ten years.

Sigfox experienced global growth, expanding to 73 countries and attracting prominent customers such as Verisure (Securitas Direct) and companies such as Airbus and Michelin. In Singapore, UnaBiz, originally one of Sigfox’s operators, realized the need for broader solutions for some specific IoT cases. Consequently, UnaBiz evolved to offer solutions with various technologies, not limiting itself to Sigfox.The turning point occurred in February 2020, when Sigfox went bankrupt. In April 2022, and seizing the opportunity, UnaBiz acquired the parent company.

Since then, UnaBiz presents itself as a leader in IoT solutions, providing comprehensive advice to customers. The company positions itself as agnostic in three key IoT layers: communications (Sigfox, Lora, WiFi, Zigbee, cellular network), devices (selecting the most suitable for each case) and platforms to visualize and exploit data generated by any of the networks. The acquisition of Sigfox has strengthened UnaBiz’s position as an end-to-end IoT solutions provider, allowing them to offer the best in each layer to meet the unique needs of their customers.

Who is Manuel Alvarez?

Manuel Álvarez, currently serving as Managing Director at UnaBiz for the Iberia region, oversees all business operations in Spain and Portugal. With a solid background in banking consulting at Accenture for four or five years, he transitioned to the telecommunications field, where he accumulated more than a decade of experience.

His involvement in a company specializing in the manufacture of SIM cards and related software solutions, including platforms for their management and OTA devices, gave him a broad knowledge of the sector. After a three-year period dedicated to the family in Ireland, he returned in 2020, joining Sigfox as Sales Manager, subsequently rising to Managing Director within a year and a half. In total, he has three and a half years of experience with the company.

Financing round

– Following the €50 million funding round in early 2023, can you detail UnaBiz’s line of action during this year and objectives for 2024?

The funding was mainly used to develop a new company. UnaBiz was a Sigfox-only focused company and is now focused on convergence of technologies. For that, you need a new and different structure. Faced with this new structure totally focused on Sigfox and having experienced a startup-like growth, the decision has been made to restructure the organization.

As you can see in the news, 1/3 of the staff has been laid off in both the French and Singapore headquarters, in order to have a more agile organization. With these changes, Sigfox is expected to break even by 2024, something that had not been achieved so far and which was one of the goals set by UnaBiz when acquiring Sigfox.

– Avoiding alarmist headlines derived from massive layoffs by technology companies, will this restructuring be focused on hiring more technical profiles specialized in new technologies?

Where we are heading towards the convergence of IoT solutions. We are much more focused on developing solutions and less focused on a single technology. From a certain point on, we will focus on the possibility of hiring profiles more oriented to IoT solutions.

Economic data and public/private markets

– Now I wanted to talk about economic data, since the data I am handling is from April. The headline was “UnaBiz reaches 34% market share of connected objects in Spain”, with figures of 16 million connected objects, surpassing the big telecoms in the country. What are your impressions of this data? Has it improved since April or has it worsened? Is the 34% share maintained, growing or decreasing? Can I access more specific data and when will it be available to the public? Is there any specific sector where this data stands out?

The data has improved; we continue to connect the dots. The insight we gained for that data comes from existing public data on objects connected to cellular networks. These range from POS to devices in Smart Cities, such as streetlights and air quality systems. We add to that market the number of objects we have connected, which gives us 34%. It is relatively public because in June we gave an award to Securitas Direct for having 5 million objects connected to us. That’s where we got the market point from.

I would say it is growing; we will start calculating it from the operators’ Q3. We can make it public next year. Our vision is that we continue to grow in building monitoring and certifications, both in public and private, including the ESG certification sector.

– In the public administration area, are you also growing, or is it more noticeable in the private sector?
We are growing in both the private and public sectors. For now, we have less access to public administration than we would like, as it can be more complex to sell in this area. Transition periods between governments, regardless of party, can slow down administration. However, our big goal is to reach out to the public administration, as historically we have been more oriented towards the private sector.

With the public administration we have had some universities or, for example, the Madrid City Council, which has dealt with air quality issues, but we have not yet managed to reach the administrations on a massive scale. In the end there is a part of the definition of public tenders and others that we have to do a commercial work, which many times, simply because of lack of knowledge, they do not know the technology. Right now the private sector is dominant and we can be at 90% – 10%, but I would like to be at 70% – 30%.

The IoT Map in Spain

– Regarding the Internet of Things landscape focused on Spain, I would be interested to know the primary challenges identified in the IoT map in Spain, specifically by industry. Are there any that stand out in particular?

I think the IoT industry has not yet finished exploding. There are notable cases, such as the national deployment of Securitas Direct, which is naturally more developed in densely populated areas. However, we see that the application of IoT covers many independent niches, some of which we cannot even foresee.

Our specialty lies in technology, so we cannot anticipate the next emerging niche. We may find ourselves in situations like Digitanimal, which is strong in northern Spain, where we cannot foresee these movements. If we manage to collaborate with the Andalusian government, we could deploy in numerous buildings, generating a distortion in growth for no apparent reason, simply because a government decides to do so.

– Has something similar happened in Castilla y León and the Canary Islands? I suppose they also handle penetration data if they consider that each community is a unique market.

Not in our case. These regions are innovating more, but in relative terms, not absolute, at least for now. Madrid and Barcelona stand out for their population, and unless we find a very specific niche in a region, it could change the IoT map with more competition.

We have data on the coverage we offer, covering 95% of the population. However, we cannot foresee how that data will be used or to whom it will be communicated. This is beyond our predictions and depends on other factors.

Industrial IoT acquisition, deployment and sustainability

– Regarding the adoption of these IoT devices, how does a company address adoption barriers, such as costs or overall stability, once it decides to deploy IoT devices, for example, in an automotive factory to get information from all the instrumentation that goes into creating a car?

Here’s an important part of the IoT world. It is crucial to understand, even if it is in terms of volume, that scalability makes sense. From our point of view, on the communications side, we make a constant effort to facilitate a return on investment. In addition, we have worked on the convergence of devices, such as those compatible with Sigfox, Lora and other technologies. This allows manufacturers to have a single stock with a single configurable module when shipping to the customer, reducing costs and offering more affordable devices. Finally, the intelligence that each platform brings is the value to measure and consider.

– Do you manage data on the impact of IoT on sustainability?

There is a very interesting data which is the consumption of a Sigfox antenna versus the consumption of a 5G antenna, and it is substantially lower.

– But technologically, does it provide the same?

Technologically, for IoT cases, they provide the same. An example that we often use is that you have a bicycle and with the bicycle you can ride on a bike path, you can ride on a street and you can ride on a highway. But what’s the point of paying to ride a bicycle on a highway? Obviously, a bicycle can go on a freeway, but it’s not the most efficient thing to do. In the practical case of a large industry it will mean a cost reduction.

LoRaWan technology

– You have been implementing LoRaWan technology relatively recently, because I understand that the partnership is dated November 2023. What benefits does LoRaWan technology bring to projects such as Facility Management in both public administrations and private companies?

Yes, it is correct that we started implementing LoRaWan technology recently, with our collaboration starting in November 2023. Regarding the benefits for Facility Management projects, we have already gone through different stages. Initially, we focused on the ability to visualize and present data from a LoRa network, something we were already doing at UnaBiz before the acquisition of Sigfox.

Now, we can offer our customers LoRa devices, regardless of whether they are public administrations or private companies. This is crucial in building management, as it enables efficient management of devices such as thermostats and air quality monitors. The advantage lies in the efficiency of deployment, as there is no need for complex installations. You simply place and turn on the device without the need for power cables. In addition, configuration is minimal, as each device has a unique identifier, and the network processes whether it should communicate or not.

This approach not only speeds deployment, but scalability is total. We are moving towards providing gateways for customers to create their own local LoRa network. We have agreements with Kerlink to offer these gateways, and we are exploring the possibility of providing complete networks and managing them directly for our customers.

– How has the offering of massive IoT projects in Spain impacted you?

For us it’s a total change, because until now LoRa and SigFox had been two competitors using the same radio signal, different protocols over the same 868 frequency, but they had different use cases. If you have an asset that you don’t know where it’s going to be and you want it to be connected, it’s economically impossible for you to deploy a LoRa network for that device to communicate all the time. For that it is obviously better to have a Sigfox network, which has all the efficient and autonomous communication part and you already have the network deployed by Sigfox. If you have a location where they are clearly not going to move, you have a large number of devices that justify the investment in creating a LoRa network, it made more sense to have a LoRa network.

When you had the combination of the two there were times when the customer would say, “What do I do? I can have assets of one type and assets of another”. So, many times we lost projects for that reason, because that was the only technology we could offer prior to being UnaBiz. Now we can give a complete solution to the client, and be totally agnostic in deciding what is the best solution for the client.

– I understand that you already sell it as a unique product.

It is a unique solution. What we want to do is provide an IoT solution. I think the technology discourse is over. Obviously there are departments in companies that have to know how each of the technologies work. Right now it doesn’t matter if a thermostat is communicating on a cellular network, on Sigfox or LoRa. What you want to know is that it actually communicates when it needs to communicate and the staff that maintains the building can do it more efficiently both economically and energy-wise.

As I mentioned before, our goal is the convergence of communication technologies. However, we understand that in the ecosystem we must facilitate that convergence. We helped manufacturers. By opening the Sigfox library so that they could implement it in the new LoRa modules. Now, with the same communications module, device manufacturers don’t have to duplicate or triple stock, but can adapt to customer needs using SigFox or LoRa as required on a case-by-case basis.

– How has the recent convergence of technologies impacted your market positioning and what benefits has it brought?

Well, we believe that this convergence has mainly strengthened us by allowing us to reach customers who were not exclusively focused on a single technology. Previously, we were in the situation of missing opportunities or not being able to offer them a complete solution because it did not fit conceptually with the company’s NDA.

Now, our perspective is that Sigfox is the best option, but if the use case demands something different, we can still provide an end-to-end solution with a vision that encompasses the entire spectrum of the Internet of Things (IoT). This gives us the ability to offer complete solutions across multiple verticals.

Predictions in the IoT world

– Where is the IoT industry headed? You can make a prediction globally or even specifically for Spain.

I think that globally and in Spain, in terms of all energy efficiency issues, it will continue, or even go faster than in the rest of the world. In the end, I think it is a global trend, to be aware of the expenses we are making. To do that, first they have to monitor consumption, that is the basis of IoT, and from there, then be able to act on it. That is the biggest trend we can see in the IoT world.

– Is Spain at the forefront?

My view right now is that not yet. I think that the Nordic countries are ahead of most countries in energy efficiency.