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Tempow - high tech earbuds for all
03 December 2020
How a French software start-up is using IP alongside strategic partnerships to make listening better, build business with giants and change a market
Tempow is a 20-people French startup developing and licensing TempowOS, the most reliable and best-performing operating system for True Wireless Earbuds, the product category name for Airpods-like devices. This product category is currently experiencing the fastest category growth in consumer electronics.
The company was founded in 2016 by Thomas Girardier and Vincent Nallatamby who were then two French students on an exchange programme at UC Berkeley, California. Today, the company already owns more than 45 patents, and is partnering with Bluetooth semiconductor companies, such as Telink, VeriSilicon and Jieli, to bring TempowOS to market.
Several audio and smartphone brands in Europe, Asia and the US have already adopted TempowOS and the first True Wireless Earbuds powered-by-TempowOS will be launched in January 2021 in Europe.
What market gap did you see in the field of audio devices that led to Tempow’s creation?
True Wireless Earbuds (Airpods-like devices) are becoming one of the largest consumer electronics products. There were none on the market in 2016 compared to 250M devices shipped in 2020.
Half of the market is owned by Apple's Airpods. However, all audio (Bose, Sonos, Sennheiser) and smartphone (Oppo, Samsung, Vivo) brands are designing their own products.
Tempow’s ambition is to unify this non-Apple market, by developing and licensing the most reliable and best-performing operating system for True Wireless Earbuds. Our current solution achieves outstanding battery consumption, synchronisation, latency, and stability, in addition to a series of unique features.
Hearables market to reach $80 billion in 2025
Source: The Hearables Report 2020-2025, WiFore Wireless Consulting, January 2020
When did you realise the potential of your ideas, patent them and start to think about patents as core to your business model?
When we created the company in 2016, we initially started working on synchronising multiple Bluetooth speakers. Immediately, we had the intuition that a good patent portfolio would become an important asset for Tempow, and we decided to invest early on our IP strategy.
In 2018, we pivoted the company to focus on the True Wireless Earbuds opportunity opened by Apple. The initial patents we filed in 2016 became incredibly important as they were some of the foundational bricks for our current product.
How did you fund Tempow and cover the costs associated with innovation?
We were supported by a mix of private and public funding. We raised $4.5m from angel investors in 2016, and from VCs in 2018 (Balderton Capital and C4 Ventures). Concurrently, we were selected by BPI France and won a national Innovation Competition, which provided us with significant non-dilutive funding.
Tell us more about your business model and future goals. What is your vision of Tempow and its solution range five years from now?
Tempow's long-term ambition is to power the first "Hear OS", enabling an ecosystem of embedded software partners, following the example of Google and WearOS. We are licensing our software and IP to audio brands. The first earbuds powered-by-TempowOS will be on the market during the first quarter of 2021.
The strategic partnerships we have with semiconductor companies are a key aspect of our strategy. We are working closely with a selected number of semiconductor manufacturers to bring our OS to the market, and we have established very strong relationships with them.
IP licensing and strategic partnership building are key to your business model. How did you develop the company’s skills base in this area?
We were lucky to meet with amazing people and advisors who helped us to develop our skills and knowledge. To mention a few of them: Ivan Chaperot, Christian Desert, David Kinsella, Mahesh Sundaram. Our team also got stronger. Amy Chang, who is leading our strategic partnerships, has long experience in the semiconductor industry.
How did you meet the challenge of being a start-up competing against large corporates in an established market? Did you feel daunted, and if so, how did you overcome such feelings?
We are confident in our solution. We know the value of what we have created which makes it easier to apprehend such meetings with large corporates. It was never an issue for us. Our positioning is key: being an independent and agnostic software company is a strong competitive advantage, and we know we have the possibility to develop products that are structurally difficult from others.
Tell us more about your innovation pipeline? How do your ideas come about?
We try to always start with an end-consumer insight, meaning the actual user of the True Wireless Earbuds, and not the product manager from an audio brand. Most of the time, IP suppliers consider that an idea is good if it is requested by a big potential customer. That’s not our mindset. We are establishing our own roadmap based on what we see from the market and based on our own analysis. Then, we’re proactive about pushing innovations to our original equipment manufacturer customers.
What lessons have you learned so far about IP and its strategic use?
IP is key for creating our technology partnerships with chipset and product manufacturers both because it protects our core product differentiations and because it increases our technical credibility.
It is also worth spending more time and money on the elaboration of the patent, notably to ensure the patent is aligned with our business, product and technical strategies, to search for related art, and to adapt it to the geographical jurisdiction. All this time and cost spent early in the process is compensated later by reducing the number of iterations during the examination and by increasing the patent value. From the very beginning, we privileged high-quality patents over the quantity of patents filed.
Do standards play a role in Tempow’s business evolution and do IP policy decisions affect the company’s success?
Our TempowOS for true wireless earbuds heavily relies on the Bluetooth standard to which we are contribute, so we are of course closely following all the upcoming changes in the Bluetooth specification. However, our IP strategy is focused on extending and improving the Bluetooth standard, as well as combining it with other technology layers (like audio or application) to improve performance and create unique features. So, our IP strategy is out of the scope of the standard and not so affected by it, except for the new capabilities it introduces with its evolution.
What is the next step for Tempow?
We want to continue deploying our first version of TempowOS in as many products as possible, as well as bringing unique features for next versions. Our R&D pipeline is already quite full, with many patents already filed on some unique features that will be released in coming years.
What is your advice for other inventors and SMEs?
IP is a difficult and time-consuming subject to tackle when you don’t have experience with it, which is usually the case in small startups, so get advisors early-on, define a clear patent strategy aligned with your business and structure the process to create valuable patents.
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The views expressed in this feature are those of the interviewee and may not reflect the views of 4iP Council or its members. The purpose of this feature area is to reflect thinking on the topic of intellectual property and enable open discussion.