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The Truth About Alien Technology

No RFID company is more controversial than Alien. Questions surround its capacity, finances and deal with Gillette. We visited the company to get answers and learn about the company's go-to-market strategy.
By Bob Violino
Mar 23, 2003—March 24, 2003 - When it was reported that The Gillette Co. had placed an order for 500 million RFID tags from a little startup in Morgan Hill, Calif., called Alien Technology, the news sent shock waves through the RFID industry. For companies supporting the Auto-ID Center and its vision of a global network to track products carrying Electronic Product Codes (EPCs), it was vindication. To some conventional RFID vendors, it was a PR stunt.

Alien has been controversial from the beginning because the Auto-ID Center's controversial plan to create a 5-cent RFID tag rested heavily on Alien's tiny shoulders. That's because the company had developed something called Fluidic Self-Assembly (FSA), a unique process for placing ultra-small microchips into "straps" that could be connected to antennas and turned into RFID labels. The process involves flowing microchips with beveled edges (see photo on home page) into a substrate with holes to match the shape of the chip.
NanoBlocks being dispensed for FSA

The company has received a great deal of press attention and helped to generate much of the buzz around RFID today. But Alien is now at a critical juncture. Having innovative technology is an advantage, but the company has to deliver on the promise of low-cost tags. RFID Journal recently visited Alien's headquarters to talk with senior executives about their strategy going forward and to get answers to many of the questions that surround the company, including whether it can deliver 500 million tags (see An Interview with Stav Prodromou).

Alien traces its roots back to UC Berkeley, where a student of a professor there named Steve Smith was trying to figure out how to create light-emitting microchips. Smith started a company to commercialize the student's idea (for the full story, see Alien NanoBlocks Will Reshape RFID). Millions of dollars from venture capitalists have been spent refining the FSA process and developing a chip based on the Auto-ID Center spec.

Six months ago, Alien's board of directors brought in a new CEO. Members of the board say it wasn't because Alien was going in the wrong direction. It was simply part of the evolution that startups go through. Alien was moving from being an R&D company to one that is able to fulfill massive orders for Fortune 500 companies like Gillette. The board chose as the new CEO Stavro Prodromou, a warm, burly man who had run Peregrine Semiconductor, a company that designs and fabricates high-performance radio frequency integrated circuits and Integrated Circuit Systems, another company that makes radio frequency ICs.

Prodromou's mission was simple: commercialize Alien's FSA technology. "We are moving from an R&D phase to the commercialization phase," Prodromou says. "So we now have to be concerned about ramping up manufacturing, building a sales and marketing organization, initiating customer engagements. It's the go to market phase now. And that's what we've been focused on for the last six months."
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