Anne Lauvergeon is chairman of the board of Sigfox, a French startup that wants to be the Ma Bell of the Internet of Things.
Anne Lauvergeon says her first husband used to say, “‘The problem with Anne: she has no ambition.” And while Lauvergeon claims to agree with him, the ambitions of her company tell a different story. Indeed, Sigfox, where Lauvergeon is chairman of the board, aims to be no less than the Ma Bell of the Internet of Things.
Sigfox is building a key piece of the architecture for connecting intelligent devices. Its network is unusual in that it costs little, requires little energy, uses towers that reach a very long way and passes easily through solid objects.
Sigfox works on what it calls “ultra narrowband.” In short, it’s using free parts of the radio spectrum. While telcos are working hard to develop the tightest, tiniest waves capable of carrying the largest data payloads (known as 5G wireless), Sigfox is going in the opposite direction, using the biggest waves.
The downside: Sigfox devices can’t carry a lot of data. It can handle about 12 bytes (roughly 12 letters) per message, and 140 messages per device per day.
The upside: A huge number of connected devices will work fine transmitting very simple messages. For example, devices reporting that vents or manholes are closed or open. Or alarm systems that report which entry points have or haven’t had an alarm tripped. Simple stuff, but useful to monitor continuously.
When the company reconstituted its Board of Directors in order to improve its strategic depth, Sigfox CEO Ludovic Le Moan asked Lauvergeon to take his place as board chair. She joined the now six-year-old startup in April 2014, bringing with her the connections she built while serving at a high level in the administration of former French President François Mitterand and as the CEO of major nuclear company, Areva.
Lauvergeon also serves on the board of Airbus and runs an innovation committee convened by French President Francois Hollande. In 2009, Fortune ranked her #4 on a list of the ten most powerful international female leaders.
With Lauvergeon’s assistance, SigFox was able to raise $115 million in its third investment round, in February. She explained that the company actually had more interest from investors than it needed, so it was able to choose its backers strategically. SigFox focused on telcos, large companies with lots of devices and financial institutions. Intel also increased its stake, she said.
“We don’t want to compete with our clients,” she told Fortune. “We want to create an ecosystem with a lot of different applications. But ourselves, our duty, is to deploy the network.” The Toulouse based firm is at its strongest today in its home country of France, followed by Spain. It’s also launched in other European countries, and was approved for deployment in the US and Canada this year. San Francisco moved quickly to give the company access to key points in the city.
“For SigFox I think the main difference versus other systems is it is very low cost,” she said. Deployment in France cost something like 12 million euro, while deployment in the US would be about $100 million. That’s for the whole country. By comparison, in 2010, one 4G cell site ran around $130,000 to construct and America had some 50,000 cells by 2012. In Europe, the company charges about a euro per connected device right now.
Devices on the network use so little energy that they don’t have to be connected to power. A battery can last years, an obvious advantage for security systems, for example. Securitas, she said, is switching over all its systems in Spain to Sigfox now.
These advantages are why, in Lauvergeon’s opinion, the company has nothing to fear from the deployment of 5G networks. That network will be necessary for the more demanding devices, like cameras and drones, but not for more numerous simple devices, like those measuring the currents or depths of water, electricity usage or fire alarms. 5G mobile will never be able to compete on cost, or logistical ease, Lauvergeon says. In fact, in her mind, Sigfox’s ultra narrowband will simply come to be seen as a facet of 5G, much as Wi-Fi collaborates with wireless today.
To cement itself as the leader, however, it needs a commanding footprint. Lauvergeon’s coming on just as the company gets aggressive about deploying internationally. Either Sigfox will build the network or it will partner with local companies to do so, but customers will see no difference, she says. A Sigfox device will be able to roam anywhere Sigfox has been built, whether the company owns or leases the tower.
Since it wants to build fast, SigFox is seeking partnerships with companies that already have footprints. Lauvergeon was reluctant to speak too much about the difference she’s expected to make for the startup, but when pressed she told Fortune that she can help the company “go to the top,” she said, “to speed up negotiation…Especially for the strategic countries like the U.S., like Brazil, Japan and Germany.” Globally, SigFox will compete against Huawei, which acquired a British startup in the same space in last fall. That said, the Chinese telecom can’t operate in the U.S.
“I am very ambitious for Sigfox,” said Lauvergeon, who, in a refreshing shift from most American executives, arrived at her meeting with Fortune alone. Her ascent to become one of Europe’s top CEOs and, today, a connector across industries, was accidental, she says. “I am not very optimistic about myself,” she said. “I have always a feeling every day that everything has to be restarted. For me, never it is achieved. It’s always a new beginning.”
Note: This story has been corrected to reflect a more accurate estimated cost of SigFox deployment in the U.S.