Technology leader

Innovative Wireless in Lynchburg is expanding its space and markets

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Print this page by Joan Tupponce

Sirius Satellite Radio listeners can thank a Lynchburg firm, Innovative Wireless Technologies, for helping define the architecture for the Sirius radios in their cars. “We designed a subcomponent used in all their designs to this day,” says company founder Eric Hansen.

Innovative Wireless produces products and services on the leading edge of technology, such as Sirius, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Hansen started the firm with a partner in 1997 (whom he bought out in 2004) after working for telecommunications company Ericsson. (The Swedish company had purchased a Lynchburg-based General Electric manufacturing plant and later closed it.) “We decided initially we would focus on building a service company focused on engineering outsourcing and design capabilities,” Hansen says. “That required less investment and capital upfront than making a product.”

Corporate clients include Harris Corp., a Florida internal communications equipment company; aircraft manufacturer Boeing Corp. and RF Micro Devices, a North Carolina-based manufacturer of integrated circuits. Innovative also works with the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as well as more than 50 mines in the U.S.

The company made Inc. magazine’s annual list of fastest-growing private companies four out of the past five years. Its 2011 ranking at 3,327th was based on a three-year 57 percent growth rate, from $6.5 million in 2007 to $10.2 million in 2010.

Since opening its doors, the firm has grown from two to 45 employees, most of whom are engineers and scientists. During the past six years, it has morphed into a balanced mix of products and services. “Engineering services continue to be a strong component of our business model even though now we have more revenue from products than services,” Hansen says.

The company sells wireless products for the mining and mineral industries, border security, military force protection and energy segments. Current products include the Coyote wireless sensor system used in military force protection and border security. “A border agent has to cover 28 miles of rugged terrain,” says Hansen.  “The unmanned sensors will alert him to traffic in the area. It’s the ground version of an unmanned aerial vehicle.”

The company also makes the Sentinel communications and tracking system, a wireless voice data and tracking solution for the mining and mineral industry. “In 2006 Congress passed a law that all underground mines had to upgrade their communication and tracking system,” Hansen says. “We’ve been selling the equipment to that market since 2008.”

Besides the fact that it was home to Ericsson’s manufacturing plant,  the Lynchburg area appealed to Hansen for several reasons, “A large portion of our staff came from that Ericsson facility, which at its peak had about 4,500 employees,” he says. Hansen also liked the region’s collaborative and business-friendly environment. “There are many local and regional universities to draw from, and we have used internships and apprenticeships to build a pipeline of young and fresh minds with new ideas.”

This summer, the company will move from its 13,000-square-foot building into a new 36,000-square-foot facility in Lynchburg, giving it more space for growth.

Hansen will participate in his first Virginia VALET trade mission to Europe this fall, visiting Finland, Poland and Esbjerg, Denmark. The VALET (Virginia Leaders in Export Trade) program helps Virginia companies expand their international business. “Denmark is a good fit for our defense and security products,” he says. “There is a defense training facility in close proximity.”

International business currently accounts for less than 5 percent of the company’s business, but Hansen expects that number to increase. “We are budgeting a large international project for the U.S. government in the fourth quarter that would take international to 25 percent of our business,” he says.

Hansen already has learned lessons in selling to the European market. “There are spectrum [frequencies] and regulatory differences between the U.S. and Europe as well as safety requirement differences,” he says. “The European spectrum is not in alignment with ours in the U.S. so there has to be a change in our fundamental solutions of support for those markets.”

In addition, his company must get export licenses, often from the U.S. Department of State, for some of its products. “They don’t want defense-related technologies sold in non-friendly countries,” Hansen says. His strategy for international sales is to find international representatives and distributors “that have capabilities and competencies to sell our products.” 

The economy of Esbjerg
A west coast seaport on the North Sea, Esbjerg is Denmark’s fifth-largest city. The city’s economy is dependent upon fishing, oil and offshore activities. Companies headquartered in Esbjerg include The MacArtney Underwater Technology Group, a global underwater technology firm. The city also has more than 200 companies involved in offshore ventures (oil, gas and wind power) that include Ramboll, which provides design and engineering services for offshore wind turbine structures, and ABB, a provider of electrical equipment for wind turbines.

Travel to Esbjerg
The sea plays a major role in Esbjerg’s tourism. One of the area’s most visited attractions is the Fisheries and Maritime Museum with the famous Men at Sea monument nearby. Nearly 12 million birds migrate to The Wadden Sea National Park, the largest park in Denmark, in the winter. The city’s fish auctions by the Fish Auction Hall occur every Wednesday and are a popular stop for tourists. Water-related activities include river and stream fishing and boating.

The economy of Lynchburg
Lynchburg’s economic drivers are health services, higher education, engineering and retail. In 2011 the city was listed in Forbes Top 50 “Best Places for Business and Careers” because of its energy, technology and health-care sectors. Major employers include Centra Health, Liberty University, Areva (power generation and nuclear parts), Lynchburg City Schools, the city of Lynchburg and J. Crew Outfitters. In January, Tessy Plastics LLC (custom injection-molding industry) announced it was investing $4.8 million to expand its facility in Lynchburg, creating 60 jobs.

Travel to Lynchburg
Lynchburg is made up of seven historic districts filled with Queen Anne and Federal-style mansions. The city also has 12 sites on the Civil War Trails, such as historic Sandusky, a Federal-style mansion used during the Battle of Lynchburg as the headquarters for Union forces. The Lynchburg Museum at the Old Court House focuses on the history of the region, and the Lynchburg Community Market (the third-oldest farmers market in the country) is open year-round. Nearby attractions include The Bedford Wine Trail, George Washington and Jefferson national forests and Holliday Lake State Park.

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