Limerick on the up: Arralis CEO Barry Lunn talks about space, timing and driverless cars

Kevin Corbett

Reporter:

Kevin Corbett

Caherconlish native Barry Lunn whose company Arralis is leading the way in the technology that will enable autonomous vehicles

Caherconlish native Barry Lunn whose company Arralis is leading the way in the technology that will enable autonomous vehicles

From modest beginnings in UL's Nexus centre in 2014, Arralis has become a global player pioneering cutting edge technology with some of the most exciting applications in the world today. CEO Barry Lunn tells Kevin Corbett about space, timing, and how Analog Devices has served as an inspiration to base a business in Limerick

AS it is in heaven, so shall it be on earth. I don’t know if Barry Lunn is religious, I didn’t ask, but that little line of scripture sums up the pathway his company Arralis has taken to becoming one of the most exciting success stories in Ireland.

Towards the end of its first year in existence in 2014, Arralis signed a deal with the European Space Agency and applied its millimetre wave (MMW) technology to radars used for guidance and landing systems in orbital installations.

Far from being the final frontier, however, space has merely been the launchpad to bigger things for Arralis, which is now leading the world in one of the key pieces of technology that will enable driverless cars.

Having slipped the field in developing MMW, Arralis has brought that technology back down to earth - in the best possible way.

Such has been their success that a round of funding that closed this year yielded an eyewatering €50m. So great was the investment that many at first assumed the company had simply been sold. Not so. But it will give you an idea of just how lucrative this field is.

And it all started with those ESA contracts, explains the 39-year-old from Caherconlish.

“We developed a radar for the ESA for landing systems, now we’re using that same technology to build radars for cars and that’s what we have to get to.

“The most sophisticated radars in the world are on the front of missiles, and as we move into autonomous vehicles we essentially have missiles on wheels going around on the road, so you have to have that level of sophistication on your radar, that’s what we’re doing.”

Arralis has got the technology to a point where it could be scaled and so started selling it to the aerospace industry for helicopter landing systems in dust clouds and other such weather events. Now it is at a price point where it can be put into cars.

“Yeah, that represents a simple explanation of our business plan: when it’s bulky and expensive it goes into space; when it becomes more affordable it goes into aerospace and when it becomes more commoditised it goes into the car,” says Barry.

“The big vision joining all that is connected mobility. For example if you look at a drone, it’s connecting to satellites and also identifying where its flight path is going to be and where it lands and if you look at a car it’s the exact same thing.

“You need to be connected all the time and you need to know where you’re going. That’s our sweet spot.

“Instead of selling ten radars to the ESA we could be selling hundreds of thousands to the automotive industry, so that’s where the scale-up is.”

That is where the money is and why investors were so keen to get on board with Arralis. And with big money comes bigger secrecy.

The car companies are on the cusp of testing level 4 autonomy, where the vehicle is starting to make more of the decisions and a sophisticated radar like what Arralis is developing is what makes that possible.

“Our radar for the level 4 is being tested on the road next year, but you won’t know anything about it, it’s so secretive. The stuff you’re hearing about now is the level three autonomy, the Tesla stuff and that, but all the big guys are trying to work on the next generation, but they’re doing that very stealthily.”

He’s not averse to a bit of cloak and dagger stuff himself - “you’ll get to work on some of the coolest stuff I can’t talk about,” is one tantalising recruitment tweet from his twitter feed.

Level five autonomy where we’re being chauffeured by the car, is, however, an enormous leap - “If you think you’re going to be picked up from the pub by 2022 then forget about it, it’s not going to happen,” he adds.

These opportunities stemmed from Arralis’ work with the ESA, which has opened doors and allowed the company concentrate on its bigger picture.

“We got a big contract from ESA, at the end of 2014 and because we delivered it successfully for them we got a second contract and that allowed us to focus on our own product development so that was a huge thing.

“Now we’re on our fourth ESA contract, with a fifth one to be announced shortly and they’re getting bigger and bigger all the time as we prove ourselves and become a more critical supplier to ESA, so that has been a big part of our path.

“But, that space stuff we do, you can’t build a big company out of that, our mantra from the beginning has been you have to bring that space technology down to earth and that’s what we’ve been about and that’s the big conversion that’s going on right now. They still drive a lot of our IP development and our R&D but it’s bringing that down to earth.”

We’re speaking on what is a gloomy winter’s day in Limerick, though for Barry it is a crisp one in Vienna, where he is currently based in one of a number of Arralis offices around the globe.

Its central location is essential for a man who has spent such a huge amount of the past year up in the air. Between January and the end of July he was in a different country every single week. Now things have eased up a bit, it’s only every second week. Much of it involved pitching to investors in that aforementioned funding round which closed off towards the end of January.

Now he’s putting that money to work setting up and managing new supply chains and supervising the outfitting of a new factory in China. The company has set up a new office in Beijing, another in Hong Kong, a new sales office in LA and is looking at a location in the US for another factory. With all of that, the headquarters in Limerick, and design centres in Belfast and Manchester, there is a lot of moving around supporting customers.

Gaining new customers is the other reason for the globetrotting lifestyle - “you can’t build stuff if you can’t sell it”.

Whatever his skills as a designer and engineer, he is, in his own words, a born salesman and his provenance as such is not in doubt.

“My father was a salesman, my two brothers are in sales, I’m in sales it was bred into us,” Barry says.

So when the time came, it meant going down the CEO path, which held little fear for him. Still, his career has followed a remarkable trajectory. Few tech company CEOs, after all, would have started out in art college, but Barry went to LSAD where he did the core year and then specialised in graphic design.

“It was the late ‘90s so I got big into web design and web development and that brought me into where I am now. I would have been one of the nerdier art college people. There was a little gang of us that used to sit in the computer room late at night building websites,” he says.

“So once I got into that I started developing software and that brought me into the hardware space which was unusual.

“I was building front end for aerospace systems and got to enjoy the hardware end of it, so started studying up on millimetre waves and doing some weird stuff in there, so it’s one of those things, you never finish your career doing what you started.”

A common thread along the way would always have been sales. Now, with the injection of venture capital and the factories - planned and under construction - awaiting mass production, the challenges are different.

“It’s not just the actual product, it feeds into your entire sales and marketing strategy and the types of customers youre going for. An injection of that magnitude changes the type of company entirely.

“We’re a very different company to what we were prior to that investment you’ve more money to pay back. That money has to be put to work but it also has to have a return so there is a big scale-up going on and that’s across the board, not just the factory side, but people too. Headcount has tripled within a year so it’s interesting times for sure.”

The company is just four years in existence and despite its numerous global outlets it remains very much a Limerick success story.

Having lived and worked in a lot of different countries, Barry and wife Michelle moved back to rear their children Oisin and Oscar, (the double O Lunns) and his love for the home place was a big part of basing the company here.

“Another major thing was we were looking down the road at Analog Devices and OM Semiconductor and you’re talking about the ability to get people.

“Analog Devices in Limerick is delivering over 30% of the intellectual property of ADI international which is incredible. They’ve built an incredible company, they’re quiet, but internationally they’re a beast and we’re looking at that and thinking ‘if they can get people then we can get people’. That's a big part of it.”

The company started off in the Nexus Centre in UL: “I think we were the first client, pre-Arralis, we were in there before we got it up and running”, and it proved a good environment to start.

“I like the buzz of a building like that. I worked in a lot of different countries and I’ve always like these shared office environments.

“As well as that being near a university usually helps for the technical work that we do, even though we weren’t a spinout from UL, we were more of a spin-in. And look, I don’t care where you go, UL is one of the best campuses I’ve ever been on, a lovely place to work and that’s what you’re looking for as well, that people will want to go there, will want to work there. That was a big part of it.

“Everything we needed was there available for us and it’s there for everyone. UL and Nexus were superb to us. We said we needed a bigger office and they sorted that, but we went to them with a clear idea of what we needed.”

Managing the company’s scale-up is keeping him busy, but if it’s fazing him it would be hard to tell.

The transition from small start-up to genuine global player means some people get less responsibility, others get more and that requires the right reaction, he says.

“It’s unusual, I’ve never been one to let stuff get on top of me, I’m good at switching off too, so the challenge is there, but in the work day. And it’s not just me everyone in the organisation has to adapt and I think everyone has reacted very well, which is good.

“But we were lucky in that we had a good core team of 10 people, and those people have now scaled up each of their own sectors. Everyone has responded well and from my point of view you’re looking for just that. It’s new territory, but it’s exciting.

“You set out at the start of the company and you say you’re going to do ‘this’, but at the back of your mind you know the odds of you actually succeeding are quite high, but now we’re doing it I’m sure as hell not going to complain about it.

“What I’ve wanted to do for the last 10 years is happening so I’m just going to hold on to the reins and keep going.”

- This feature is part of a wider 32-page supplement called Limerick on the up, carried free with the Limerick Leader and in shops now