Why did UnaBiz want to buy Sigfox?

  • April 26, 2022
  • Steve Rogerson

Steve Rogerson talks with Henri Bong, co-founder of UnaBiz, the new owner of Sigfox.

I sometimes find it hard to believe that there is a whole generation of people who don’t know what I am talking about when I mention the VHS versus Betamax battle. OK, this was a long time ago but its reputation lasted a lot longer as it was for many, many years used as an example of what happens when two competing technologies attack the same market.

And over the decades I have seen many cases that in one way or another fitted the mould for such a skirmish. One of the most recent was in the IoT world when LoRa and Sigfox ended up as the leaders of the war for deployments using unlicensed spectrum.

I have talked with loads of people and written volumes on the differences between these standards and whether one will end up being the winner. Well, earlier this year it looked like the questions had been answered when Sigfox went into receivership. LoRa, it seemed, had won.

But the French courts, bless them, decided that, rather than wait for Sigfox to sort itself out or be wound up, finding a buyer was a better way and thus started an auction that initially saw nine bidders, and last week these were whittled down to just one, Singapore-based Sigfox operator UnaBiz.

Henri Bong

So why would anybody want to buy a failing company? I caught up with Henri Bong, co-founder of UnaBiz, this week to ask him exactly that.

So, let us start with a little bit of background. Bong is an ex-employee of Sigfox and came on board in 2014 to set up the company’s Singapore office where he was responsible for some big Sigfox operator signings, notably in Australia and New Zealand.

When it came in 2016 to finding an operator for Singapore itself, Bong decided to start his own company – UnaBiz – and do it himself. UnaBiz now operates the Sigfox networks in Singapore and Taiwan. It has since raised around $40m in two financing rounds and diversified into producing sensors and other products, as well as getting involved in IoT technologies such as LTE-M and NB-IoT and, wait for it, LoRa. This, as I discovered in my talk with Bong, was going to be key for UnaBiz going forward.

By the way, it looks like it will be UnaBiz going forward, at least as the company name, though the technology will still be known as Sigfox. Bong said though that Sigfox would stay as the company name for at least the next three months.

“I never really felt I wanted to buy Sigfox,” said Bong. “Then the administration happened and people started asking me what I thought.”

They also started asking him why he didn’t put in a bid, so he did.

“Being a Sigfox operator, we know how important this technology is,” said Bong. “It is needed.”

But, and it is a big but, Sigfox has been losing money, hence its troubles this year. What can Bong do to turn this round?

For a start, UnaBiz is starting in a better place. The deal with the French courts means it has bought the company but not its debts. Also, it was able to pick and choose which of the existing long-term contracts Sigfox had that it wanted and which could be cancelled. And it could also continue only to employ the people it wanted.

So what does that mean? Losing the debts is easy; this effectively means UnaBiz is starting with a clean slate. And choosing which of the long-term contracts means Bong is confident he can get Sigfox breaking even within three years and get back the money UnaBiz has paid for Sigfox – an amount that is being kept secret – within five years.

As to employees, UnaBiz will continue to employ 110 of the 174 people at the company. Those being kept are the core teams, the ones responsible for the technology and support. The ones losing their jobs are mostly in sales, marketing and communications.

“These are the people who didn’t sell enough before for Sigfox to break even,” said Bong.

But the big change Bong is planning is to make Sigfox a more open standard and provide bridges between it and LoRa so companies will not have to choose one or the other both but have both. Yes, you read that right.

“I am discussing with other protocol owners how to bring Sigfox to the same levels of openness and create bridges between the different technologies,” said Bong.

This could mean chipsets and base stations having both technologies integrated, though he insisted Sigfox would keep its uniqueness.

The other change is UnaBiz may move its headquarters from Singapore to France. This has not yet been decided but it was one of the conditions of the French court that this was considered. French investors already own more than a third of UnaBiz, with roughly a fifth each coming from Singapore and Taiwan investors.

So that is it really. Sigfox looks set to continue with new owners, but there was still one question I wanted to ask Bong. We have all been on EBay or the like and won something and then thought, oh no what have I done, I should never have paid that much for this. How does Bong feel now he has won the auction?

“I am super excited,” he said with a super excited voice. “I don’t see it as an acquisition. It is a union or wedding of two entities that were made for each other.”

Enjoy the honeymoon.