Refusing Limits in Real-Time Measurement
2021-05-25 | 13 min read
Néstor Oliverio is an inventors’ inventor. As a researcher and entrepreneur, he knows firsthand all the challenges that must be overcome to bring emerging technologies like 6G and quantum computing to market. To turn such a novel idea into a prototype will test the limitations of all the equipment and tools at your disposal. And the future can’t be held back by the present.
Néstor’s journey as an inventor is one of many stories we’ll be sharing during National Inventors Month in our Refusing Limits series. We’ll dive deeper into the unique approach each Keysight inventor brings to solving problems and explore how they are refusing limits to help Keysight and its customers push the boundaries of technology.
Inventors like Néstor find a way to pick up their heads and scrutinize not just what they and their colleagues are doing, but they reflect on how they are doing it. Is this the best technique and process? Could we be doing this differently? How much precious time and effort is wasted in just accepting the way things are done.
What was the inspiration behind your patents? What was the problem that troubled you, that researchers just accepted as the norm?
A longtime colleague of mine, Dr. Marc Almendros, and I developed a technology for significantly improving the real-time capabilities in test and measurement solutions through new hardware programming tools for instruments. We actually started our own company a while back, just to focus on helping researchers who were struggling with the speeds and synchronization needed to conduct numerous measurements across multiple parameters. We were working in a quantum optics lab at the ICFO-Institute of Photonic Sciences, where many research groups were toiling away on the bleeding edge yet spent way too much time trying to reinvent the test and measurement wheel.
We noticed that these inventors spent a significant amount of time creating their own test and measurement equipment for their specific applications, in part because they like doing things their own way, but in part, because the commercially available test and measurement equipment at that time did not have the real-time capabilities that they needed. We are talking very, very strict real-time capabilities—test and measurement equipment that can execute complex measurement sequences, fully synchronized across a large number of channels in tenths of nanoseconds. That is like a million times faster than what a PC can achieve.
And so, we observed a real gap in the level of real-time precision and accuracy that was needed, that was being filled by researchers creating their own test and measurement equipment and having to spend a lot of time learning the very complex skills, like working with FPGAs [field-programmable gate arrays] required to develop this equipment.
And that was your inspiration to start your own company, to fill this gap? That's a big step from researcher to entrepreneur.
Yes, it is a big step, it requires a lot of investigation, learning, and hard work. But we had the advantage that we were coming at this problem as a fellow researcher, as an insider. We understood the requirements because we lived the problem. That gave us the confidence to spin off from the lab and create Signadyne in 2010. And while the problem was rather obscure, to where much larger commercial vendors would not have been interested, we held onto the upside that our idea might apply to other fields or other applications, either at the time or perhaps down the road.
Inventing for inventors who needed to focus on advanced technologies and not metrology, we wanted to make our solution as easy to use as possible. That would require an approach where both the hardware and software were designed to work together seamlessly, enabling customers to build complex custom solutions and control them like a standard piece of equipment. Taking that step and the resources required for a robust commercialization led to the acquisition of Signadyne by Keysight in 2016.
Do inventors typically start from a clean sheet of paper, or is it more a game of mashing up existing and cutting-edge technologies?
Invention is certainly a game of connecting the dots, between new technologies that have not yet been exploited and technologies from other areas that can be adapted in a new application.
In our case, we started with the hardware. We looked for a foundational technology that was not so bleeding edge, was known and available but was still not well understood in terms of what people could do with it. We looked for ways to leverage FPGA technology for its untapped flexibility, speed, and synchronization capabilities. FPGA was a fairly new technology a decade ago, and while their commercial use was becoming more and more prevalent at that time, these devices were fairly well hidden inside the product. It was not clear in the test and measurement world how to take full advantage of the programmability of FPGAs. This presented an opportunity for us to innovate.
At the same time, as researchers ourselves, we wanted to find a way to present something so new in a way that was simple to users and easy to understand and use. We were targeting the people who knew how to use this type of equipment but who did not have the expertise to develop it themselves. This “use model” was the foundation for the hardware and software design and tools that would enable us to solve this problem. We had to make it simple to use, without compromising the capabilities or performance of the system that you could achieve if you were an expert developer.
So, you’ve now specified this great idea. Which came first, developing the technology or defining the patent?
In this case, we worked first on the technology, and then we decided to file the patents later (we actually ended up needing to file two patents). There are many reasons to file a patent or make an innovation disclosure. One is obviously to protect your intellectual property, but there are other business purposes, too, especially in the case of a pre-revenue startup, where a patent is a clear way to add value in the eyes of investors.
Thinking back, there are always these squishy periods of invention, where you want to share the solution with researchers eager for help, but you have not commercialized a product yet. This is another place where patent protection fosters co-invention. It’s rather complicated to share a prototype, but once people see something that can make their lives easier, they want to put it in their research sandbox and play.
How does that happen, where that switch suddenly gets flipped from being an idea to a solution?
I would say when you get enough customer evidence that what you are proposing is something that really solves their present and future problems, and they are willing to pay for it. In this case, and I think it happens in many fields of bleeding-edge technologies, researchers tend to just do stuff by themselves. They want their work to be original, and even when they reach the point where they realize that their approach is not effective for the task at hand, they may just start the reinvention process all over again! This is often a reason why sometimes equipment vendors do not pay attention to these little-known problems because they are not interested in trying to sell to a market of people willing to develop things by themselves.
Sometimes, a solution has to be presented in a compelling context, or as a future need. Following the ideas of Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma, I find it interesting that businesses struggle with presenting a future solution too early to their potential customers. People can see value in what’s right in front of them, in the things they need today. For my quantum research colleagues, they had a clear problem that they were just suffering through. For the broader market, we needed a platform of modular instruments like the PXI standard, to put our solution into a context where it could be appreciated.
And did your customers appreciate your invention?
Sometimes, people are so busy that they just don't stop to think about what is on their bench. They are immersed in an application that they know better than anyone, but it is hard to pick your head up and step back to reflect on ways to make your test and measurement more efficient and more effective.
Sometimes, an early demo might be enough for a customer to sign on to a new solution because it’s better than what they are currently doing and offers the most promise, and while it may not solve all their problems, they may also recognize that they do not know the full extent of their problem. That’s especially true when it comes to an emerging technology that might not hit their bench until a few years down the road. Inventors have to keep that R&D perspective in mind—to see around those corners and connect those dots.
Sometimes, there is just that moment when you show somebody a solution to a problem that is not exactly the solution they were asking for or how they were envisioning it. That moment when you get to show off your first demo…and there is just a look of surprise. They get really excited about it. They can see how it will change their lives. And you, as an inventor, get to see that all your research, all your head scratching, and all your efforts, were worth it.