Catching Up With Industry Innovator Pier Benci

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Have you ever wanted to be part of something that matters? To work on a product that could actually change the world and make it a better place? My friend Pier Benci is working on such a product right now—the rTablet®, a software-defined radio that can reach every corner of the world and allow for greater communication. It was a delight to spend time hearing about his company, his new product, and their worldwide mission to reach all corners of the globe.

Dan Beaulieu: Pier, great to talk to you again. It seems we connect every five years or so—too long between talks. I want to know the name of the company and all about it.

Pier Benci: I agree, Dan, it’s always good to talk with you. The name of the company is Titus SDR Inc. “SDR” stands for “software defined radio.”

Beaulieu: What is that? What does your company do?

Benci: Titus SDR designs digital radio receivers to replace the analog units currently used worldwide. The United States mandated a similar transition for TVs in 2009, which is why analog TV sets—with rare exceptions—are no longer used today. Manufacturers of digital TV sets greatly benefited from that mandate, as consumers had no choice but to make the switch.

Beaulieu: So, this is a digital radio receiver. Tell us what that is and why it’s important.

Benci: Our rTablet (“r” for “radio”) is a ruggedized Android tablet that receives digital radio transmissions (sound, text, and images) in DRM and DAB mode. This all started when our Titus II digital radio receiver unit (now called rTablet), was introduced at the High Frequency Communication Committee (HFCC) conference in Miami, Florida, in August 2016. For the first time in digital radio history, music that was broadcast in DRM mode from the Vatican Radio in Rome was received in Miami. The sound quality was excellent. A big round of applause followed our Titus II demonstration.

Digital radio has many advantages over analog radio. Digital radio very efficiently utilizes the radio band spectrum, it offers a significant reduction in the electric power consumption of radio transmitters (theoretically 1/8, in practice 1/6), and has clear sound reception (no crackling). Digital radio signals are either very clear or there is no signal at all. 

Implementing digital radio worldwide is not an option, as it is mandated by the majority of governments according to a preset schedule. For example, on Dec. 13, 2017, Norway completed the shutdown of all analog FM in favor of digital radio (DAB standard). Today, a “conventional,” i.e., analog FM radio receiver, simply does not work in Norway. The listener must buy a new digital radio to receive a signal, as analog radio receivers now in use are incompatible with digital signals. 

Beaulieu: Pier, what is your background and how did you get involved with Titus?

Benci: I am a scientist and an entrepreneur. I had an academic career at different European universities before being invited to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to perform research in structural chemistry. 

I left academia in the ‘80s to join the private sector. I still remember my first job as Senior Scientist at Chester Engineers in Pittsburgh—it marked a big transition in my life. After that, I held senior/executive positions in various technology-based companies. I did participate in the pioneering development of business incubators in Pittsburgh following the shut-down of the city’s steel plants. I transferred the incubator concept and its implementation to Eastern European countries following the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Introducing capitalism to Poland and Hungary in 1989–90 was not an easy task, but that’s another story.

Prior to joining Titus SDR, I was general manager at Compunetics, a world-class manufacturer of complex PCBs. 

Beaulieu: Very good. Regarding your product and this market, what type of competition do you have?

Benci: We have some very well known competitors, as almost all digital radio manufacturers belong to either the DRM or DAB consortiums. 

Beaulieu: What makes your product stand above the rest?

Benci: A combination of two main factors sets our product apart: outstanding features not available in competitors’ receivers (e.g., over-the-air images reception on conventional radio frequencies), and compatibility with both DRM and DAB standards in addition to conventional AM and FM bands. Our rTablet is a universal unit that can be viewed and heard in all countries where DRM and DAB are implemented: India, Europe, China, Pakistan. As we speak, six powerful shortwave DRM compatible transmitters located on Ascension Island (in the South Atlantic Ocean) provide a lifeline to Africa, beaming programs in dozens of languages to 30 million listeners in North, West, and Central Africa. The Titus rTablet will add text and images to those broadcasts.

Beaulieu: What is the price point of your product?

Benci: $120. Another low-cost Titus digital receiver is under development.

Beaulieu: So it’s affordable.

Benci: Yes, that’s the idea—it must be low cost to help the countries it serves.

Beaulieu: How are you producing this?

Benci: We have a pre-production, fully functional unit on hand and ready for manufacturing. This is not a product stuck in either the concept drawing or early prototype stages. It’s a reality.

Beaulieu: I assume you are looking for partnerships?

Benci: Yes. As our market is global, we need additional resources. A synergistic partnership with an established technology-based company, e.g., in electronics, would be the ideal “next step.” The required additional resources can be either financial or in kind (manufacturing), or a combination of the two.

Beaulieu: Are you looking for a company to manufacture the product?

Benci: Yes. Where applicable, we will utilize to the largest extent all resources available in the country adopting digital radio, including manpower and receiver components.

Beaulieu: What are your future plans? 

Benci: Titus SDR is an outlier company, a kind of Black Swan. We don’t plan to limit ourselves to designing and manufacturing an advanced consumer product. We intend to have a positive social impact in both tele-education and telehealth.

Beaulieu: Pier, I love the altruistic aspect of your product. Can you give an example?

Benci: Most of the world is not Times Square or the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Approximately 33% of the world population has no internet access. Digital radio (sound, text, and images/videos) can reach that underserved population. For example, broadcasts of programs on radio short waves can propagate to the Earth’s northern regions currently out of reach even by equatorial orbit satellites (e.g., Alaska’s Aleutian Islands). Implementing the internet in places like the Amazon or Central Africa presents major difficulties, both technical and financial. Similarly, providing vital information via wires, optical fibers, and cell phone towers to large archipelagos—some of which are composed of over a thousand islands—is very difficult. These considerations and examples are at the foundation of the Titus rNet “Bridging the World” concept for wireless terrestrial information distribution.

NGOs, philanthropic foundations, the World Bank and its affiliates, and large corporations aiming to “make money while doing good” should be interested in our videos, which can be received on a Titus rTablet anywhere in the world, and cover important topics such as: how to properly wash hands, plant corn, prevent malaria, combat alcohol and drugs addition, inform the public of emergencies like epidemics and natural disasters, etc. 

Beaulieu: Where do you want to be in five years?

Benci: We want to be a major player in over-the-air information and data distribution, including in regions where the internet is underdeveloped or non-existent. We want our digital radio receivers to secure a well-recognized presence in countries that have adopted or are adopting DRM and DAB radio transmission modes. Inclusion of HD for North America is under consideration.

Beaulieu: Are there other, related products in development?

Benci: Yes. Titus has plans for other products and applications “in a drawer,” ready to be accessed at the opportune time. Our priority is securing outside resources for the manufacturing and sales of our rTablet. Being pragmatic, we will start with what we have ready “at hand.”

Beaulieu: As we conclude, is there anything you would like to add?

Benci: Yes, I want to reiterate that we at Titus don’t see ourselves as limited to the design and manufacturing of an advanced consumer product (a digital radio receiver). We will keep envisioning products and applications based on digital radio that complement the internet—albeit in a one-way direction only—and will keep finding ways to propagate that technology in very remote areas that cannot be reached by the internet.

Dan Beaulieu is president of D.B. Management Group.


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