Executive Interview: Yonghui Shu, President of SAGE Millimeter
Tell us what motivated you to start SAGE Millimeter, when you formed the company and how you chose the name.
My career began in 1985 and has always been focused on millimeter wave technology. The experiences I have had in academia and in industry have helped me understand the technology and its applications. Because of the unique characteristics of the millimeter wave spectrum, I always trusted that it would find its large-scale commercial opportunity someday. I have always been patiently waiting for that golden era. So in 2011, five years after releasing my first company, WiseWave Technologies, I decided to start another company to catch the undeniable wave that was coming. I had learned so much from building WiseWave that I was confident I could do it again — this time even better.
I wanted to capture that confidence when I was thinking about a name for the new business, and I wanted to continue in the brand and tradition of WiseWave: innovative engineering, high quality, superior performance, sensible pricing and on-time delivery. The word “sage” and the word “wise” have similar meanings, but “sage” has an even deeper meaning because it suggests total mastery. And a little-known fact is that “SAGE Millimeter” is stylized with all capital letters because it conveniently serves as an acronym for “Shu and Gu Electronics.” My wife is my long-time life and business partner, and Gu is her maiden name.
How is the market different today, compared to when SAGE Millimeter was formed? Did you expect such a dramatic transformation driven by society’s demand for bandwidth?
The industry has changed tremendously in the six years that SAGE has been in business. Millimeter wave technology has finally found its way from traditional clients and applications in aerospace, military and academic/research institutions to the commercial — and even consumer — world. Leading the change is the race to 5G, which has easily garnered the most clout, speculation and attention. Yet, we would be remiss not to mention that many of the most exciting technologies currently being developed, like last mile networks, automotive driver assistance systems, WiGig, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and the Internet of Things (IoT) have also contributed to this shift.
As you have responded to the steep growth in the market, what have been the challenges you’ve overcome in strengthening product development and adding manufacturing capacity?
Our challenges are shared by many of our peers in this industry, and the two main ones never seem to go away: technological advancement and skilled personnel development.
In terms of technological advancement, our industry is no different from any other industry. We need to continue to study, innovate and improve. Some specific goals include developing higher frequency and higher performance semiconductors, designing and implementing better packaging and manufacturing techniques and reducing cost. As long as we have a team that is curious and passionate, we can face this challenge steadily.
This bring us to our second and more pressing challenge: the shortage of experienced and next-generation RF and microwave engineers and technicians who are practical and ready to address technology, product development and realization challenges. We’re addressing this by investing in our team and training from the ground up. Fortunately, the work that we do can be very inspiring for the right people, and we are proud to be open minded in our search for and development of key personnel who are able to understand the critical and tedious requirements in the RF and microwave manufacturing environment.
SAGE Millimeter offers a wide range of catalog products — virtually every function in the block diagram of a millimeter wave system. What is your product development strategy and where do custom products fit?
Thank you for acknowledging our mission to be the ultimate “one-stop shop” for millimeter wave components and subassemblies. SAGE works hard to offer total component solutions to the industry, so that rapid prototyping and proof of concept demonstrations can be achieved in a cost-effective and time-sensitive manner. We figure the best way to do this is to have mature designs ready for purchase. These designs are largely initiated and funded internally.
Our large design library, amassed over decades of academic and industry experience, allows for rapid design cycles. We also take advantage of every custom opportunity presented to us by our customers to add to that foundation. Some of our new product lines have empirical origins and were inspired by marketplace needs. These custom products are a great way to push innovation and stretch our team’s creativity. And we know that our extensive understanding of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components makes us better able to work closely with our customers to design custom modules and subassemblies.
The technologies used in millimeter wave products range from the old — waveguide — to the new — RF CMOS. What excites you on the technology landscape?
The most exciting technology is still in the area of semiconductors and multi-function modules. These products are absolutely pushing the limits of technology. Whether it is the latest GaN chip or a complex integrated transceiver, they are the reason we are seeing more volume and more growth in the commercial sector of our industry.
On the other hand, I never take for granted the humble waveguide. It is not “old” technology, per se, and we cannot forget that it is one of the highest performing transmission structures for millimeter wave components and subassemblies. At high frequencies, especially at 40 GHz or higher, the circuits or components based on waveguide structures can deliver superior performance over many other transmission line structures, such as microstrip lines.
By combining waveguide structures and new device technologies, many components and subassemblies can be realized to fulfill stringent system requirements. SAGE uses both the old and the new to develop these high-performing products for system applications.
The SAGE Millimeter website is like Amazon.com tailored for millimeter wave products. Discuss the relationship you’re hoping the website will build with your customers.
We want our customers to know that we’re on their side. I am first and foremost an engineer. I know the pressure of delivering projects by deadline and the unnecessary stress created by long lead times and unpredictable quality. Our new website is the manifestation of our company’s understanding that a sense of urgency is one of the keys to success. Manufacturers in our industry used to joke that customers always want their parts yesterday, and with our new website and our model of keeping inventory on hand, we’re able to get pretty close to delivering on that wish.
Our website also allows us to work more intimately with the engineer or technician who will be using our product. Often, the procurement process is drawn out and confusing, with too many players and not enough communication. The pricing, designated datasheets and STEP (a standard for the exchange of product data) files that customers can find on our website allow customers to do their research upfront and on their own time before approaching us with questions about only the final details.
We are very excited to be the pioneer on this front in the millimeter wave space. Our customers’ initial reaction has been very positive a few weeks in, but it will take the industry some time to become comfortable “shopping” for off-the-shelf millimeter wave products.
Inc. magazine named SAGE Millimeter the 17th fastest growing private engineering firm in 2017. What are the capabilities and competencies that are represented by this award?
We are very proud that SAGE Millimeter was named one of the fastest growing private engineering firms in the United States. This acknowledgement is awarded based on revenue growth over a three-year period and is only granted to companies that are privately held, U.S. based and independent.
The healthy incline is a great indication that the millimeter wave market is expanding and that SAGE Millimeter has put together a great team of individuals who understand the importance of continuous improvement and personal accountability. Often, growth in the early stages of a company can only happen with good communication and good processes. We will continue to strengthen our team with new talent and scale in preparation for new opportunities.
You’ve built your business in Southern California, which is not the lowest cost area for manufacturing. Commercial applications and higher volume are demanding lower prices. How does SAGE Millimeter remain competitive?
We love Southern California and appreciate all that the area brings to our business. It is a hub of microwave and millimeter wave and a base for many aerospace and defense companies. We’re surrounded by top universities, and there are many talented people who call this area home.
In the meantime, we try to be cost-conscious in other ways by focusing on our core competencies — design, assembly, testing and customer service — and clearly defining our value proposition. Sometimes, we are tempted to vertically integrate but then realize that becoming 100 percent self-contained may not be the best strategy. Instead, our goal today is to leverage the resources available to us. With this in mind, we have developed many partners domestically and internationally who also know to focus on their core competencies. They help us to lower our manufacturing and material costs while we help to bring them into the world of millimeter wave.
This culture of teaching and sharing is also practiced among our team members. We stay open minded about the experience candidates have had and instead focus on their potential looking forward. We have unlocked an enormous amount of hidden talent with training, opportunity and encouragement. This has been one of the most rewarding things about my role at SAGE Millimeter.
Historically, many millimeter wave applications have been military, the technology considered sensitive and exporting products from the U.S. restricted. Do you feel current export regulations allow you to compete on a level playing field for international opportunities?
It is still true that millimeter wave technology is a dual-use technology. SAGE Millimeter has a very systematic and rigorous exporting control process to satisfy the EAR and ITAR regulations. The current export regulations do eliminate some opportunities. Due to the swift technology development overseas in countries like China, it would be beneficial if current regulations could be reviewed more regularly to help American manufacturers stay competitive in the global marketplace.
If you had a quote on the wall of your office that summarizes your business philosophy, what would it be?
“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives — choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”