Wesley Clover leads $5M investment in Kanata’s ThinkRF

Jim Roche
Jim Roche

A local tech company that has developed a cutting-edge device aimed at thwarting terrorism and corporate espionage has landed $5 million in venture capital from one of the city’s top investment firms.

Kanata-based ThinkRF says it will use the new funding to expand its sales team and further develop its technology that intercepts and analyzes wireless signals sent from devices such as smartphones. Ottawa’s Wesley Clover International led the new round, with several private investors also participating.

The company says its notebook-sized product can “listen in” on a wide spectrum of wireless signals and analyze their frequencies to determine if they come from a “friendly” device such as an iPhone or something potentially more nefarious such as a surveillance bug.

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ThinkRF says it already has hundreds of customers, from government intelligence agencies that use the high-tech boxes to track down terrorists to Fortune 100 companies looking to suss out competitors that might be spying on corporate meetings.  

The spectrum analysis market is expected to be worth $1.75 billion by 2022, the firm says, and CEO Jim Roche says ThinkRF’s product is the leader in its field.

“It solves a problem that our customers desperately need to be solved,” he says.

The company says its device is smaller, lighter, less expensive and more energy-efficient than competing products that are often as big as a suitcase, weigh up to 30 pounds and can run upwards of $130,000 apiece.

By contrast, ThinkRF says its platform is small enough to be tucked away under a desk or in the corner of a room where it won’t be noticed – and, at an average price tag of $13,000, is one-tenth the cost of similar devices.

“To our knowledge, there’s nothing out there that actually competes (directly) with this,” says vice-president of product management Jas Obhi.

He says no data is stored in the device itself, meaning it’s useless if lost or stolen. The platform is connected to clients’ computers via Ethernet, and special software is used to analyze signals in an effort to determine their source.

The company stresses its technology can’t pinpoint the exact identity of the signal’s sender, but rather flags frequencies with characteristics that suggest “anomalous activity” that warrants further investigation.

In a world where “bad actors” are becoming more sophisticated every day and allegations of Russian hackers sabotaging the 2016 U.S. election continue to swirl, ThinkRF’s products are in growing demand, says Wesley Clover vice-president of marketing Steve Langford.

“The competitive landscape now is very aggressive all over the planet,” he says. “In some areas, you can’t necessarily trust those you’re doing business against. It’s an unfortunate reality of the world we’ve come to live in today. That’s the sort of stuff we need to guard against.”

Now at about 30 employees, ThinkRF currently has revenues well into seven figures and expects to more than double those numbers next year, Mr. Roche says. The firm recently opened a sales office in the Washington, D.C., area to serve the growing U.S. market and is looking to aggressively expand into Australia, France, Germany, Great Britain and New Zealand in the near future.

In many ways, the company is the proverbial overnight success that was years in the making.

Founded in 2007 by Nikhil Adnani, a former engineer at the federal government’s Communications Research Centre, the firm was originally backed by Wesley Clover and spent the better part of a decade refining its technology. About a year and half ago, ThinkRF began stepping up its marketing efforts, and Mr. Langford says investors believe the company is now “ready for prime time.”

“This is not trivial stuff,” he explains of the product’s years-long development cycle. “When you’re going to put a message out there that says, ‘We’re going to increase your security,’ you better be able to walk that talk. It takes a long time to do that and keep pace with the perpetual arms race that is the nature of security these days. From an investor perspective, we believe this is really a tipping point now.”

Mr. Roche concedes the firm is facing many of the same challenges that confront most high-growth tech ventures. That includes beefing up R&D spending and finding the right engineering talent to ensure its products remain ahead of the curve while at the same time ramping up its marketing to capitalize on that competitive edge – “the core blocking and tackling required to aggressively grow a high-tech business,” as the CEO puts it.

Nonetheless, he knows those are good problems to have.

“It’s exciting to be here,” he says. “We have developed a technology which is unique and potentially applicable in a much broader market.”

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