July 2010 Executive Interview
Ulrich Jakobus received Dipl.-Ing. and Dr.-Ing. degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Stuttgart, Germany, in 1991 and 1994, respectively. He completed his Habilitation in 1999 and became Privatdozent at this university. His main areas of research included numerical techniques in electromagnetics, antennas, electromagnetic compatibility, and bioelectromagnetics.
Since 2000 he has been with EM Software & Systems in Stellenbosch, South Africa, and founded EM Software & Systems GmbH in Böblingen, Germany, in 2002. Dr. Jakobus has published extensively on computational electromagnetics and related topics, and received several awards for his research, including the ACES Outstanding Paper Award and the Heinz-Maier Leibnitz prize by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. He is a member of URSI commission B, several IEEE societies, the German VDE/ITG, and of the Applied Computational Electromagnetics Society (ACES).
MWJ: EM Software & Systems is a group of companies. Can you briefly outline each one and its activities?
Jakobus: We indeed have different companies in the EMSS Group: EMSS Antennas focuses on the development of antennas and is currently very actively engaged in research for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and Karoo Array Telescope (KAT) projects. EMSS Consulting delivers services to mobile phone operators regarding compliance with national or international exposure guidelines and standards, and out of these activities also the compliance tool IXUS emerged.
EMSS-SA is responsible for its flagship product FEKO, and is supported by EMSS USA and EMSS GmbH for serving the local markets in North American and Europe, respectively, along with a network of distributors and resellers for other regions and countries. In 2008 MAGUS was established as a spin-off from EMSS-SA focusing on the antenna design tool Antenna Magus.
MWJ: Do the four companies tend to operate separately or is there a degree of overlap and collaboration?
Jakobus: Although the various companies in the EMSS Group have different management and staff, there is a strong collaboration, with the sharing of resources in terms of office space/buildings. Similarly, certain functions like IT/HR/accounting are provided centrally. Also, on a technical level, collaborations take place as all activities are concerned with electromagnetic engineering. For instance EMSS Antennas is using FEKO for its antenna design projects.
MWJ: In particular where does FEKO fit into the mix?
Jakobus: FEKO is developed, supported, and marketed by EMSS-SA, from which, over the years, the other EMSS Group companies were split off, so that each entity can focus on its goals and objectives.
MWJ: EMSS is headquartered in South Africa but you began working with the company back in your home country of Germany. Please explain how your involvement came about?
Jakobus: Historically, I started to develop the core algorithms of FEKO (Method of Moments and various high frequency hybrid methods) in 1991 as part of my Diploma, PhD and Habilitation theses at the University of Stuttgart in Germany. This was, at that time, pure academic research, I had not envisaged that a few years later these algorithms would be so successful in a commercial tool and used by thousands of engineers around the world.
Independently of my research, in 1994, Frans Meyer and Gronum Smith started EMSS (one single company at that time) in Stellenbosch, South Africa, to provide electromagnetic engineering services to local clients, such as antenna coupling investigations for the South African Navy. They read one of my publications in 1995 and we agreed in 1996 that EMSS may use my MoM/PO hybrid code for their projects. In 2000, when my contract with the University of Stuttgart expired, I joined EMSS full time. This is how the exciting FEKO venture started!
MWJ: Explain briefly how FEKO has developed since those early days?
Jakobus: FEKO has become a leading MoM code with various hybrid and high frequency extensions, with an ever increasing user base all over the world. Also our company, EMSS-SA, has grown steadily to support the development of FEKO – marketing and support and other related activities. We typically have one major FEKO release each year, where many new features to the kernel and the user interface are added, making FEKO not only faster and applicable to a broader range of problems, but also more user friendly and intuitive.
MWJ: Are you still the driving force behind FEKO’s technological development and what is your current role?
Jakobus: In my roles as Director of EMSS-SA, along with Gronum Smith, and FEKO Product Manager (responsible for all aspects of FEKO), as well as Managing Director of EMSS GmbH – our German subsidy responsible for Europe – I am involved, to a large extent, with management activities and do a lot of travelling these days.
I do, however, still hold the FEKO Kernel Team Leader position and am responsible, with this team, for all the electromagnetic algorithms and aspects like parallelisation, GPU computing, etc. Unfortunately, the time where I still do hands-on code development and extensions has been reduced significantly, but I still enjoy this part.
MWJ: Explain the significance of the consultancy side of the business.
Jakobus: In being active not only developing and selling engineering software, but also using the software ourselves for real-world consulting projects, we get direct first-hand internal feedback of new requirements and possible performance improvements. That is in addition to getting feedback from existing customers, of course, which is also always welcome and appreciated. We see the offering of integrated solutions to customers, such as assisting them with modelling projects, both in terms of software and services as a viable business model.
MWJ: Does being based in South Africa have a bearing on how the company is perceived by prospective customers?
Jakobus: Sometimes the first impression of customers is that they are a bit surprised that EMSS is based in South Africa, as the country is not really known for exporting highly specialised engineering or technology products. However, we have, in South Africa, world renowned universities where we can recruit excellent engineers who are well trained in electromagnetics or computer science. So, the location is not a disadvantage in our opinion.
From a customer perspective, being ‘far away’ for most of them is not really an issue either as we have local subsidiaries or distributors in most countries close to customers, in the same time zone, and speaking their language.
MWJ: How have you managed to spread the company’s message worldwide?
Jakobus: These days we advertise in international journals and attend many exhibitions worldwide or organise road shows/customer visits/webinars etc., to reach the international market. Interesting, though, in the early phases of FEKO the spreading of the word came more from the customer side: Our customers were highly satisfied with FEKO and in particular the service, technical support etc., and thus recommended FEKO to their co-workers, collaborating companies etc.
MWJ: Geographically are you targeting specific regions to strengthen your share of the market or are there emerging markets that you are aiming to enter?
Jakobus: We have, over the years, adjusted our marketing strategy to make sure that we are present in the traditional markets of North America, Europe and Asia, but we are also not neglecting other emerging markets, of course, and appoint local resellers in such countries on a continuous basis.
MWJ: There are a number of companies offering EM software. What is FEKO’s strategy for staying competitive and developing its market share?
Jakobus: The strategy we follow with FEKO is to offer excellent service along with the software and we try to always be ahead of competition in the areas we are strong at, such as open radiation and scattering problems. For instance, FEKO was the first commercial code to offer the MLFMM (multilevel fast multipole method) in 2004.
MWJ: Explain how FEKO supports engineering education.
Jakobus: One of our missions is to support students in understanding electromagnetic phenomena and getting them used to electromagnetic simulation software and, of course, employing FEKO for their study projects. An advantage is that with FEKO students get exposure to a whole range of different electromagnetic algorithms (FEM/MoM/UTD/PO etc) and can learn their strengths and weaknesses.
To this end, we have a whole educational program consisting of an annual FEKO Student Competition with attractive prizes, free classroom licences or highly discounted FEKO research licences for academic institutions.
MWJ: What are the company’s key strategies that it is employing to ensure success now and into the future?
Jakobus: The key strategy we follow is to keep customers satisfied by communicating with them and listening to their needs and requirements and if possible implement efficient solutions for such market requirements in FEKO ahead of the competition. Although we have substantially grown over the years, we are still quite flexible and have shorter turnaround times than most of our competitors.
MWJ: On a personal level you are now settled in South Africa with your family. What are the attractions for living in the country?
Jakobus: I am, at present, resident in both Germany and South Africa and travel a few times a year back and forth, but my ordinary place of residence – to use the correct legal terminology – is South Africa, where I also got married last year to Michelle.
South Africa is a beautiful country with magnificent nature reserves and game parks, the mountains and the sea, and just so many days of sunshine a year – very different from the often cold and rainy Germany! Cape Town with Table Mountain is regarded by many as the most beautiful city in the world. And, of course, just across the road from our offices in Stellenbosch are wine estates, and a nice glass of red wine is certainly not to be disregarded after a hard day of work!
MWJ: Finally, did you support Germany or South Africa in the recent World Cup?
Jakobus: I am not that big a soccer fan but the competition has been great for both South Africa and the African continent. To answer your question though, as both teams played in different groups, I was actually supporting them both in the first phase. Unfortunately South Africa’s Bafana-Bafana got kicked out after the first round, so my support was then for the German team.