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Mister Beacon Episode #179

Unveiling IoT Innovations with SODAQ's Ollie Smeenk

November 14, 2023

This week on the Mr. Beacon Podcast we are joined once again by Ollie Smeenk, the co-founder of SODAQ. The Netherlands-based IoT hardware company is celebrating their 10-year anniversary with new announcements on the horizon.

SODAQ is focused on tracking and sensing devices, and they've developed thin-powered tracking and sensing tags that revolutionize how we monitor everything from medicine usage to valuable assets. Ollie sheds light on how their technology ensures that medicine is used within the proper time frame, with precision and efficiency.

We delve into the world of IoT communication protocols, comparing NB IoT with regular cellular networks like 5G and LTE. Ollie explains the unique characteristics of NB IoT, which offers one-direction data transfer, reducing module costs and simplifying communication, making it an ideal choice for IoT applications.

Ollie walks us through SODAQ’s approach to pricing and how the cost compares to other alternatives.

Looking to the future, Ollie shares his vision for printable solutions in IoT tracking technology. He envisions a world where every mobile phone becomes a gateway for a diverse array of beacons, unlocking endless possibilities in the realm of IoT.


  • Steve Statler 0:00

    Welcome to the Mr. Beacon podcast. This week, we are going to be rejoining one of our favorite guests, Ollie Smeenk from SODAQ. SODAQ are really interesting company, they do custom engineering, but they also turn some of that custom engineering into products. They've got into a lot of sustainable IoT products, we're going to be talking to them about a smart label that they've produced, which has been used by a major drug company to transport things around the world. And it uses cellular networks and NB IoT, so we're going to be asking, what is NB IoT? And how do you make something that is the thickness of a few sheets of paper, work on a cellular network while the applications are? And I think we'll get some interesting insights I know we're gonna get some interesting insights from from all these great world traveler, a globetrotter. He is calling us from Singapore. Enjoy. The Mr. Beacon ambient IoT podcast is sponsored by Wiliot, bringing intelligence to every single thing. Ollie, welcome back to the Mr. Beacon podcast. It's a pleasure to have you on again. Second time.

    Ollie Smeenk 1:29

    Thanks for having me again. So it was a pleasure talking to you Steve.

    Steve Statler 1:32

    Well, I've always been drawn to you and your company SODAQ because of the environmental sustainability aspect to your mission, but you're also really geeky, into the depths of creating radio devices, IoT devices. And I saw that you had a paper thin tag, which can be used for tracking things, which is obviously you know, that's that's the space that that I work in on light from my day job, but your tag is different. It's it's a wide area tag, it uses NB IoT. So I want to talk to you about that. Maybe you can explain to us what NB IoT is. And we just want to check in with House House. So that is during any interesting projects and what your perspective is on the industries that you, you focus on, you've been into the pharmaceutical space, agro chemical, I guess. And, and others. So you you talk to a lot of different companies really get into the details, understand IoT, I thought it'd be good to catch up sound. Okay, perfect. So maybe for those people that haven't seen the first episode, where I interviewed you, can you give us a quick summary of who SODAQ are, give us an intro to your company.

    Ollie Smeenk 3:07

    So SODAQ is a company based out of the Netherlands. And for 10 years now, we just had our 10 year anniversary, we've been developing hardware products for the internet of things. So our strength really lies in the hardware development, finding the latest technologies when it comes to how to print certain technologies or make thinner or lower power devices that lasts longer in the field. And we do this for different industries. So we develop tracking devices, we develop sensing devices. And we've done over 250 different custom hardware engineering projects. In the last five years, we added a few products to that. So we converted some of those developments into our own products that we also offer to the market with a service. And those are all in the domain of tracking. So track and trace of things ranging from shipping containers, to air freight containers, airport equipment, seed bags, all the way down to cardboard boxes. And so in that space, you need different form factors, different battery life, different features. And so SODAQ stands for Solar Power data acquisition. So there's solar is a core element in there. And we have always built solutions with solar panels. And so one of our let's say flagship products is a solar powered tracking device that lasts for more than five years with just continuous updates of its Keishon and temperature and motion conditions. But about four years ago, we were approached by one of the largest agriculture and pharmaceutical companies in the world, there to develop a label that would autonomously send its location, temperature and motion information. But that wouldn't be so bulky as to not be sticking out or protruding from, from the surface of, of whatever it's tracking. So we set out to develop a label, which of course, you're very familiar with what labeling needs to be like. But for for them, it needed to connect directly to the cellular network. So we needed quite a large battery. And, yeah, we were fortunate enough that at around the same time, printed batteries that could give enough power to send a signal through NB IoT or LTE em would be possible. So NB IoT and LTM are basically the lowest power consuming technologies of the 4g 5g kind of cellular GSM. spectrum. And so with, with these beautiful type of thin batteries, while others you can, these are from two different suppliers, you can basically send a cellular, yeah, 4g 5g message, which is not our invention, but it's a Yeah, it's a fantastic invention. Because it Yeah, it previously wasn't possible to do that with anything that was thin, basically.

    Steve Statler 7:00

    And what are these printed batteries made of? Because obviously, there are all sorts of issues with sending batteries through the post. Yeah, presumably the materials you're using. avoid that.

    Ollie Smeenk 7:12

    Yeah, so these batteries are based on zinc. And one of the types is zinc in combination with carbon. The other one is zinc with manganese oxide. These are all safer than lithium, for example. And, and, and so it's not possible to puncture them, it's not possible or you can cut through them, basically, without making them explode. Yes, they're not obviously jenama playing not flammable. Exactly, yes. And the manufacturers of these batteries even go as far as to say, you could technically eat them like a vitamin. But I wouldn't go that far myself.

    Steve Statler 7:58

    No. So what are the routes that these packages? So So what are these things going on? What what is it that needs tracking like that?

    Ollie Smeenk 8:09

    So one of my favorite examples is something we actually been been building in a bit more recent times. It's this one. So this is a smaller version of the of the label, it also has a similar printed battery inside, it's a bit thicker, because it's stacked. Okay. And so these go inside the medicine boxes, so you have this medicine box. And basically, it goes in with the medicine. And then it's in the factory placed in the box of the medicine. So that the entire journey from production all the way to consumption, the temperature is monitored. And actually the opening of the package is monitored as well. So that for example, the moment of consumption is seen to be either before or after the expiry date, for example. And with this tracking, they can prevent parallel trade, counterfeiting. And pharmaceuticals are the most interesting field for this type of tracking because the value and the sensitivity of the product are significantly higher than any other industry. And therefore the price can be a bit higher of the service of tracking.

    Steve Statler 9:47

    Are these tags going into every box? So it goes into the secondary packaging for the medicine. Is it going into every single one, or is it sort of going into One and in a case of, so you sampling or you, you basically part of the sterilization of every single thing.

    Ollie Smeenk 10:10

    If the, if the medicine is of high enough value, then the intention is to track every, every single one of them. But there's plenty of medicines that are not high enough value. And there, they would be applied to a carton or a larger box. And then the individual packages would potentially use another technology to be tracked in that way, having some sort of serialization.

    Steve Statler 10:42

    Okay, and then how do you know whether the box has been opened? How does the sensor figure that out?

    Ollie Smeenk 10:48

    In this specific device, we've placed a light sensor as well as a, an LED saw a light, and we can see the color change if the box is opened of the light that's emitted.

    Steve Statler 11:10

    That's really that's, that's really cool. So it's tamper detection in a way or opening detection without having to break a fuse or anything so much easier to manage. You just stick one of these things in the in the carton. And you're and you're good to go. Exactly. Very good. Okay, so And where is that? How far have you got in this? In this deployment? You've obviously got a product developed, or it looks like you've got a product developed? Is it is it deployed yet?

    Ollie Smeenk 11:45

    So the current state is that we are producing the first few 100 pieces now. And going into trials with some of the top five largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, that are actually using it in their, their their real life shipments.

    Steve Statler 12:10

    With my employer, my actual my day job, we got some experience with tagging individual vaccine violence. But the challenge that we had was, you know, it's a complex supply chain. And you know, we, we, our Bluetooth devices, talk to Bluetooth infrastructure. And so when you gotta get out into clinics, and that sort of thing, odd to know whether that infrastructure is going to be there, you don't have that problem. Basically, anywhere, presumably, anywhere, there's a cellular service you can communicate, is do you have like worldwide coverage?

    Ollie Smeenk 12:51

    Not global. So not all countries have an active network for this specific low power technology. But we are selecting specific routes. So for example, our customer wants to send things to Turkey or India from Germany or so then we make sure that the connectivity we have is enabled on those networks. For example, right now, large parts of Africa are not don't have such networks available. And so we have to wait until it's deployed in those countries before we we can actually track shipments to those places.

    Steve Statler 13:36

    So it seems like NB IoT is not globally deployed. But there are there's enough countries where it is where this is viable. Exactly.

    Ollie Smeenk 13:48

    And we do foresee that that it will grow the network, especially as these types of applications become more widely adopted.

    Steve Statler 14:00

    And can you tell us a bit more about NB IoT? You know, how is that different from regular cellular communications? How does it differentiate?

    Ollie Smeenk 14:15

    So the frequency that is used, so the specific way in which the radio modulates to send signals over the antenna at a certain frequency is different than with the type of LTE or 4g 5g that you would use with your cellular phone. Also, the signals go one way so there's traffic basically going from the device to the cell tower, and then it could send something back but it cannot do it at the same time. Whereas your phone typically has two antennas that can send and receive at the same time, okay, which Which all decreases the cost and the complexity of the modules, as well as the complexity of communication and the energy consumption?

    Steve Statler 15:08

    And then, you know, what is the cost of the communications? Like, it's not like where I have to buy a sin for my phone and you know, that has a bunch of setup costs and that sort of thing. How do you? How do you typically pay for that Lt. E, M, or NB IoT connection? And how in turn do you pass that on to the drug company or whoever, you know, the shipper? They does this just to pass through? Or how is it built?

    Ollie Smeenk 15:42

    The way in which it's charged is since it's a device that is used once the cost is a lifetime cost. So you basically pay a certain fee, one time on the moment that it's activated. And after a certain duration, it will be automatically deactivated again. So there's no setup cost, there's no billing based differences based on where it goes or how much how much data is consumed. Because it's so limited in its scope. And then we actually charge the customer for, in a similar way for just using the device once. And it's it's included, the connectivity is included in there. And then we charge for additional services on top of the simply getting the data from the device for insights, gaining more control over the supply chain, and things like support to resolve certain issues.

    Steve Statler 16:58

    And what can you tell us about how much all of this costs, maybe not be as specific as you can only be as vague as he must be?

    Ollie Smeenk 17:09

    So you have to think in the range of for now 20 to $30, depending on whether you get the smaller or the larger label.

    Steve Statler 17:28

    So that's how much the label costs. And then And then what about the service costs? What's What's the ballpark for that?

    Ollie Smeenk 17:38

    So the labels include a basic service, so connectivity, access to data, etc. Within that $20 mark. And then all the other services on top, they become relatively cheaper, the more devices that that that are purchased, because these are, in a sense, costs that do not marginally increase in the same way, or do not scale and cost, the number, the larger the number of devices that are purchased.

    Steve Statler 18:10

    Very good. Well, it's a super interesting area. Is there anything that I didn't ask you about those should have asked you about the typically people do ask about those labels? I know there was one thing I did want to ask, what do you do about airplanes, because airplanes, they don't like it when you start operating radios or airplanes. And that's always one of the things that Bluetooth and Bluetooth communities or is very proud of is you can use Bluetooth on a blocking. But as we all know, they don't like you using your cellular radios on a plane. That's why they're always reminding us when we're taking off. But I remember going to a meeting of the Bluetooth special interest group where we had the guy who actually rode on the planes and did the first test with Bluetooth and convinced the FAA that the Jets were not going to fly out of the sky when when the Bluetooth signals were used. But how do you overcome that aversion to non Bluetooth radios on planes?

    Ollie Smeenk 19:16

    So we're not allowed to transmit on the plane, that's for sure. And so the device needs to go into an airplane mode. And we can either in a very simple way, use the motion sensor to detect whether it's moving so whenever it's moving, it doesn't transmit. And whenever it's in a plane, it is always slightly moving or moving a lot. So that's one technique that costs the least that only requires to use the motion sensor which is in there anyway. But it's also possible to expand that With other inputs, so whether it be a barometer sensor that detects changes in pressure, or using the radio module to detect changes in signal strength and things like that, you can apply some intelligence to Yeah, make use of the device when it's not flying. But we prefer to stick to the just a motion sensor approach.

    Steve Statler 20:33

    Who do you have to convince that this is meets the regulations? Is there kind of some kind of FAA certification? Or is it down to the airline or the the transportation company or using how have you had to approach that.

    Ollie Smeenk 20:51

    So, the first thing that you need to do is, or we needed to do was get a, d o 160 G certification. And with that, we have to convince every single airline or airline group individually of being allowed to transport these products on their, on their planes. So it's quite a lengthy process. Which of course, in the case of Bluetooth, you don't have to go through any of that.

    Steve Statler 21:24

    And then how, how's that going? How far have you got with that negotiation with all the airlines.

    Ollie Smeenk 21:35

    So ourselves, we have a good relationship with DHL, as well as Lufthansa. So these are airlines that we do multiple different types of projects with. But for the pharmaceutical industry, we actually work very closely with a company called controlant. And they have been shipping loggers for many years, so they have all the connections to the airlines. And they are doing the certification process with the airlines for the smaller pharmaceutical label. And we hope to be able to leverage that in the future for for our other products as well.

    Steve Statler 22:21

    It's very cool. Good. Anything else we should cover on the on the label front?

    Ollie Smeenk 22:28

    Yeah, it's not related to cellular. But there's a Yeah, a trend, I would say or a future technology. There's there's two things. One is, I think we were both at a at an event recently about printed electronics. And I take flick Right, exactly. Yeah, I really foresee the the industry moving towards additive manufacturing. So I also have here like these examples that I was given of temperature sensors, different types of, of modules that can be printed. In the future, we really want to print all of the solutions that we have. And right now, we're still using what you'd call subtractive technology. Which is kind of a yeah, in a way a waste of materials, harder to recycle. And also actually costlier at volume. So that's a an area that we're working with manufacturers on to make conversions for.

    Steve Statler 23:45

    And could you just explain that additive what what does that mean?

    Ollie Smeenk 23:49

    Additive means that you have a base layer that you use, let's say plastic, for the flexible electronics. And then you print like it can be like a printing press, like the way that a book is printed, for example, the using a stencil, you can print the actual copper layer or another type of metal that's conductive, that connects the different chips basically with the intelligence together in order for it to become a functioning device, whereas subtractive is where you have a base layer of copper and you actually use lasers or another type of technology to cut away parts of the copper in order to create kind of the pathways that are conductive and then the bathrooms that are not conductive in order to make the the electronics function.

    Steve Statler 24:47

    It's that etching process where you're cutting away obviously you have a huge amount of waste which is not good for the environment and not good for cost either. It's actually something that we we've been looking at for our own products too. To reduce the cost, and we're looking at essentially printing antennas on cardboard boxes, sticking chips on to, in order to reduce layers reduce carbs, make it more sustainable, lower the carbon footprint. And so how is the business going with regards to the solar powered devices, that core use case, I think a lot of them were going on shipping containers. And I think this is one of the big trends that's gonna start growing explosively is not just tracking the container, but tracking what's in the container. That's the thing that I'm interested in. But if you're going to track what's in the container, then you need to have the container online. And so having some solar powered collectivity is really handy. How would you say the state of the nation or the state of the world is with regards to that use case?

    Ollie Smeenk 26:08

    We are using these solar power devices indeed, to track two types of, or three types of containers, we have containers with seeds inside, we have containers that go on airplanes, so air freight containers, and then shipping containers. And the units are both able to communicate their own position temperature, motion information, as well as listen for signals from Bluetooth transmitters and for their information as well. So you can have temperature information from different and motion and location information from different packages or goods within the larger shipping or air freight or seed container. That that way, having more density of information, but also more more value. Because sometimes, you need to know what's going on inside the container in order to ensure that the goods are properly transported in a safe and at the right temperature approach.

    Steve Statler 27:18

    I think that's really cool. It's an very exciting development seeing that start to scale.

    Ollie Smeenk 27:28

    Yeah, would would like to close off with just one thought. isn't so we've been working on these Bluetooth tags that are our active that I think the main thought around them is that there is just such a global network of mobile phones that are in continuously everywhere that I see the future being that one day, all mobile phones will be gateways for all types of beacons. Because why install another SIM card in the in the each individual device and waste costs? waste energy? And so I'm sure you're on a similar vision there. And yeah, we'd love to see where that where that goes.

    Steve Statler 28:32

    No, I agree with your forecast of the trend, we are starting to use more and more mobile devices in stores and warehouses to well almost crowdsource the, the signals that we get from from tags and there's a lot of benefits to having a mobile reader rather than fixed infrastructure tends to be lower cost, you also tend to avoid kind of the black spots because you're moving around and constantly getting different angles for the radio waves to permeate and and get to the cloud. So I agree. So why is it that interesting shape the thing that you showed me?

    Ollie Smeenk 29:20

    Well, we're actually using these for a very specific use case that will soon become public. So I'm not allowed to give away the business case. Yeah. Which is a good thing in a way. But yeah, it's quite large because it needs to be visible. But soon, maybe on the next conversation, I'll be able to share more on the actual use case of those. But not track it's not tracking.

    Steve Statler 29:50

    Okay, so for those of those people that are listening, which I think a lot of people do, then this is a who is hexagonal or It's It's multisided how many sides is that? It's 64660. Yeah, yes. Some kind of printed circuit board thing. Very intriguing, very colorful. As are you. So, again, I always enjoy our conversations, Ollie. Thanks for coming on the show. And we'll move on to the next. The next partner.

    Ollie Smeenk 30:27

    Thanks for having me.

    Steve Statler 30:29

    So, Ollie, you've been on the show before. Last time I asked you about music. We agreed we would give music arrest and you are one of the most globe trotting people I know. You're supposedly based in Holland. But you're not in Holland at the moment. Where are you?

    Ollie Smeenk 30:50

    I'm in Singapore. Okay.

    Steve Statler 30:52

    How do you like it? My wife was actually just in Singapore. She's now hiking the Himalayas. Last time I saw her. She was in Kathmandu. So out. But she's showed some amazing pictures of Singapore. How do you like it?

    Ollie Smeenk 31:07

    Singapore is beautiful. So it's really green. It's all very modern, and well kept, actually went to the Singapore City Gallery yesterday, where they lay out all the plans for the future and where it came from. And it's just amazing to see how the city has evolved and how much investment they put in making sure that things run smoothly, because it's one of the most densely populated places on the world. And it's just all operates so efficiently. And it's safe. Amazing food. So it's a it's really a nice place.

    Steve Statler 31:48

    Yeah, I think I mean, the original development was driven by the East India Company. So not not a great history from that perspective. But the result is this amazing kind of safety net for people that want to peek into Asia. And I love the Singapore slang and raffles and then you walk down the road and there's like, very small, authentic Malaysian restaurants. So what we agreed we were I would ask you, it was I don't know if you remember but what your top three places that you visited rather than top three songs top three places. So yeah, what what what are they?

    Ollie Smeenk 32:34

    I think number one is Rio de Janeiro.

    Steve Statler 32:39

    Never been would love to go.

    Ollie Smeenk 32:41

    I love Rio. It's like, developed in some parts. But at the same time, quite chaotic in other parts. So it has a an amazing balance and that sense and just a very vibrant culture and people are very engaged with each other. Anyone could pass as Brazilian. There's no. Like, you cannot look Brazilian or not Brazilian. So everyone's welcome. It's culturally my favorite place.

    Steve Statler 33:16

    So very kind of melting pot accepting. That's good. What's number two.

    Ollie Smeenk 33:24

    Number two is Mexico City. Allah. Yeah. I was. I was very surprised by Mexico City. So I think just after I saw you, earlier this year, I in San Diego, I went to Mexico City, because it was kind of the closest I had ever been to Mexico. And yeah, it was beautiful. It's surprising how safe and how calm certain areas of the city are. Yeah, where the image that's portrayed sometimes externally about it, is that it's quite a hectic place over overly packed. But it just has so many of these nice neighborhoods. And beautiful art scene. A lot of creatives from the US actually moved down to Mexico City to live there.

    Steve Statler 34:21

    Cheaper to live by I assume it's the cost of living is a bit lower.

    Ollie Smeenk 34:25

    Way lower. Yeah. So it's it really it's a bit of a slower life in a way as well. And if you want to get access to the hustle and bustle of the city, you can you can as well so it's again, I think there's something to do with my upbringing that I mean, I grew up in Dar Salaam in Tanzania, which is also just like a Yeah, a wild place. Yeah. And sometimes can be quite A chaotic and unorganized, which I think adds really an edge to a place. But then funnily enough, I would say my third would be Singapore now. Totally, totally the opposite. There's there's no chaos here.

    Steve Statler 35:15

    No other. No, no throwing your chewing gum on the pavement. Definitely don't want to be caught smuggling in any other substances.

    Ollie Smeenk 35:27


    Steve Statler 35:29

    I once wrote a screenplay for a movie, which has never been made, really, which is set as it has as a scene in Singapore, where one of these high tech executives is set up by his boss, and is caught with marijuana in his suitcase when he's going through customs. And it's basically a way of finishing him off. So then I've given away a key plot point for outrageous options, which has not been made yet. But if anyone wants to make it, and I'm open to open to Office, I'd love to read it be up there with with beacon technologies, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Becosystem which has been turned into a book but probably will never be turned into a movie. Well, three amazing cities. I have been two of them. My members of Mexico City were the food was incredible. It was pretty cosmopolitan. And I remember seeing a bunch of guys spinning around a pole. They were spinning around a pole, they were elevated in the air and there was I it's weird that you get these images. But it was some kind of celebration, but great cities. Great to hear some of the fruits of the globe trotting that you do, Ollie. Thanks for coming on the show.

    Ollie Smeenk 36:53

    Thanks for having me again.

    Steve Statler 36:56

    Thank you so much for staying with us until the end of another episode of Mr. Beacon. We really appreciate your listening. I get a huge amount of pleasure out of bumping into people who listen to podcast, occasionally getting your notes so please do give us feedback. Let us know if there's any subjects you want us to cover. And until next time, thanks again. And of course, thanks to Aaron Hammock, editor, and Brooke Ellsworth who makes sure that the episode gets gets published. See you next time, be safe.