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“When you’re being innovative, there are always skeptics,” says Dr. Irwin Jacobs, co-founder of the world’s leading provider of wireless technology and services, Qualcomm.
Jacobs knows this lesson well. In 1985, Qualcomm was a small company providing R&D to the government. But its real goal was to become a fully integrated, research-to-manufacturing business. So, Jacobs and his 6 co-founders began to cast about for an opportunity in digital satellite communications. They determined that the transportation industry offered the best commercial potential, and spent the next three years developing a system that would enable trucking firms to closely track their drivers’ progress and provide the ability for drivers and dispatchers to send messages to one other.
“Everyone was very skeptical that we could have a low cost, very small terminal that fits on a truck and yet works over satellites designed for very large terminals,” recalls Jacobs. “We managed to achieve that.” Moreover, through a major marketing effort, Qualcomm convinced truckers that its novel system was worth paying for. Soon, the first big order came in, from Schneider National Trucking Company, providing the company with a much-needed capital infusion.
This early success led Qualcomm to take another daring departure from conventional wireless wisdom. In 1989, the Telecommunications Industry Association endorsed a digital technology called Time Division Multiple Access. Three months later, Qualcomm introduced Code Division Multiple Access, a superior technology that would change the global face of wireless communications.
These formative years were helped significantly by the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program. As the fledging company’s first funding, SBIR awards enabled Qualcomm to hire engineers and begin developing chips. All told, SBIR participants such as the National Science Foundation and the Defense Department awarded the company $1.5 million. This gave the firm the freedom to explore its founders’ innovative idea and thus pivot from contract research to consumer applications.
In 20 years, a staff of 35 has expanded to a global workforce of 16,000, with a market capitalization of more than $80 billion. The company holds more than 13,000 patents, which are licensed by almost 200 telecommunications equipment manufacturers worldwide. The chip department, which the SBIR program initially bankrolled, now makes up two-thirds of Qualcomm’s revenue, while the aforementioned transportation system, OmniTRACS, has become the largest of its kind.