Photo: (Left to right) Cognitive Systems Corp. co-founders Taj Manku, Hugh Hind and Oleksiy Kravets inside the Quantum Valley Investments building in Waterloo.

For the past 18 months, an all-star group of wireless veterans have been hunkered down inside a futuristic Waterloo office building, quietly building an all-new technology platform powered by a custom supercomputer.

Today, things will no doubt be a little less quiet at Cognitive Systems Corp., housed inside Mike Lazaridis’ Quantum Valley Investments building, as the company comes out of stealth to reveal what it’s been working on.

The company’s 50-member team has come up with a system to detect and instantly analyze all the wireless signals in a given space – a new capability that opens up countless potential applications as smartphones and other connected devices proliferate exponentially around the world.

Those applications include everything from motion detection (wireless signals are disrupted by moving objects), device identification and crowd monitoring, to wireless cyber security, monitoring of device health and analysis of spectrum usage in a wireless network.

The company’s co-founders, Hugh Hind, Oleksiy Kravets and Taj Manku, suspect that’s just the beginning of what their system – anchored by a circular device a bit larger than a smoke detector, called amera – will be able to deliver to customers.

“We are a company that is really trying to build not just a single product with a single application; we are trying to build a platform that enables us to write applications on top of this,” said Manku, the company’s Vice President of Silicon and Vice President of Business Development, in an interview with Communitech News.

“We see it as very similar to the start of the smartphone, where the main application for a phone was just the phone itself, but as it propagated, people then started writing applications,” he said.

Manku’s analogy is apt, given that most of the Cognitive team has worked together in Waterloo Region for close to 20 years, developing the technology that underpinned the world’s first wildly successful smartphone: BlackBerry.

Hind, the company’s CEO, served 12 years as BlackBerry’s VP of Wireless Technologies, and co-designed the handheld’s much-touted cryptography system and encryption protocols. He has a PhD in mathematics from Cambridge and a master’s in electrical engineering from the University of Waterloo, where he worked as an assistant professor before joining BlackBerry.

Kravets, Cognitive’s Chief Technology Officer and VP of Product Development, led BlackBerry’s Advanced Radio Systems group, which developed bleeding-edge radio frequency integrated circuits (RFICs), and was responsible for the radio subsystem that shipped in the company’s most successful devices.

Manku, meanwhile, is a serial entrepreneur and former academic who founded three companies, including Sirific Wireless, which merged with Icera before its 2011 sale to Nvidia for $367 million US. He holds a degree in quantum physics and a PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Waterloo, where he was an associate professor in the late 1990s.

A 1998 article from UW’s news bureau detailed a research breakthrough led by Manku, in which he developed a way for cellphones to operate on much less power through a new microchip design. The chip would enable a cellphone to pick out and amplify a single, weak signal from countless other wireless signals moving through the air.

The amera system launched today by Cogntive Systems is also based on a new and complex chip – a supercomputer called the R10 – which houses five processors and four broadband radio receivers that can pick up and evaluate whatever wireless signals are in the air: 2G, 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and many recently developed protocols that power connected devices on the so-called Internet of Things.

The system operates with several components. The circular amera device receives wireless signals from the air and from companion devices, called fyrefly, which can be placed throughout a space. Amera then sends the signal data to the company’s cloud infrastructure, called myst, where it is processed into usable information – motion sensed in a home, or analysis of pedestrian traffic, or network performance metrics, for example – and delivered to the user through apps. All of this happens in real time.

“…It really doesn’t matter what the signal is,” Manku said. “Internally, we can organize the system to be able to then identify these signals, understand what’s happening with them, and then use that information in some usable manner; for example, in motion detection, identifying devices or tracking motion of these devices.”

The biggest challenge, Manku said, was in building the chip to be flexible enough to accommodate the kind of processing power users might need, depending on the types of applications developers come up with for amera.

“We designed it to be as powerful as possible, but at the same time, we don’t want to make it too expensive and we don’t want it to consume too much power,” he said. “So we had to go to a middle ground, while at the same time trying to make sure that we capture the applications that we can’t even see today with regards to this platform.”

The company, the idea for which Manku and Kravets hatched spontaneously during a mundane drive to a local gas station, is working with unnamed channel partners to bring its system to market.

“We’re primarily going to be focused on the security market initially, but there are other markets that will come in time,” Manku said.

Quantum Valley Investments

Quantum Valley Investments, whose building on Westmount Road houses the Cognitive Systems office, has made an undisclosed investment in the company. QVI is led and fully funded by Lazaridis and Doug Fregin, a close friend since Grade 5 with whom he co-founded Research In Motion (since renamed BlackBerry) in 1984.

Their $100-million Quantum Valley Investment Fund launched in March 2013 with a goal of keeping locally developed breakthroughs in quantum science in Canada, and establishing Waterloo Region as the “Quantum Valley” of Canada, if not the world.

According to its website, QVI has established four businesses; two related to commercializing quantum technologies, and two in the “classical domain” to support QVI and its related research.

Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo looks at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.