• airpuls: 5G solutions from research

A newspaper interview provided the impetus for founding the start-up airpuls. The company, whose founders include three scientists from the Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute (HHI), offers tailor-made open 5G solutions for private 5G mobile networks that can be used in industry, but also in research and teaching. Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Slawomir Stanczak, Head of the Wireless Communications and Networks Department, Scientific Research at HHI, Professor of Network Theory at Technische Universität Berlin and founder of airpuls, explains what makes the start-up founded in 2020 special, what challenges the four-person founding team had to overcome and why Brain City Berlin is a good location for scientific spin-offs.

Prof. Dr. Stanczak “Private 5G for everyone” is the slogan of airpuls. That sounds somewhat abstract to outsiders. What exactly does your company do? 

This is of course a bit exaggerated, because not everyone is allowed to operate a private 5G mobile network. Licences are required for the use of radio frequencies between 3.7 and 3.8 gigahertz. With this slogan, we mean that our solutions are cost-effective and tailored to the needs of potential users of 5G campus networks. In other words: With our support, every company or institution can afford a tailor-made 5G campus network. In Germany, private 5G mobile networks are referred to as “5G campus networks”

What is special about the services provided by airpuls?

As a business idea, we pursue the goal of adapting selected open source solutions and the latest findings in the radio access area to industry-specific requirements and application scenarios of private mobile networks – especially industrial 5G campus networks. 5G campus networks enable important new industrial applications such as teleoperated driving in depots or car parks. They can also be used on construction sites to meet increased communication requirements or to network driverless transport vehicles in production facilities. We offer our applications alone or in co-operation with other network equipment suppliers as part of an overall solution. The airpuls products will be usable within the framework of an Open RAN ecosystem (RAN = Radio Access Network) currently being established in Germany, i.e. within an open radio access network. Our focus is on specific modules of an open radio access network. There are currently hardly any comparable companies in Germany.

How did the business idea come about? 
In Germany and Europe, there are still only a small number of providers for RAN solutions in open 5G campus networks. This is primarily due to the extremely high complexity and specific technical requirements of this technology. These challenges require a high level of expertise and technological competence. Our four founders have many years of professional experience in this field. In addition, services and special requirements that are needed in campus networks have so far been inadequately catered for. This creates a gap in the market that airpuls is entering with innovative Open RAN solutions. We rely entirely on open source applications and bring them to product maturity, including the necessary customer service. airpuls thus assumes the role of a system integrator that makes open source solutions professionally and commercially available. In addition, we will develop industry-specific open source applications for selected RAN modules and functions.

The airplus team is made up of scientists from the HHI and an experienced entrepreneur. How did you get together – and how are the tasks distributed within the team?  

That is an interesting story: I gave an interview for a newspaper and the journalist asked me what I wanted to achieve in my life. I replied that I would like to set up a company. I had a good idea, but I didn’t know how to implement it. Günther Braut, himself an engineer who had just left the company he had founded and managed for decades, read the interview. He called me and suggested to me over the phone that we could start the company together. I agreed immediately because he knew exactly how to build up and run a business. I asked two other colleagues from the Heinrich Hertz Institute, Dr. Martin Kasparick and Dr. Renato Cavalcante. And then the four of us sat down and worked out the business idea. In the meantime, the team has of course grown beyond the four founding members. 

What have been the biggest challenges in founding airpuls so far?
At the beginning, some administrative hurdles proved to be major challenges. Finding suitable employees is also not easy.  As well as allowing the company to grow organically – without selling significant parts to investors. 

How have you financed the start-up so far? 

Providing innovative and efficient solutions that meet strict standards and safety requirements requires significant investment in research and development. Our financing relies on private and public funds as well as income from the sale of our products. Funding from the StartUpConnect initiative of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is particularly important in this context.

What sectors do your customers come from? 

So far, we mainly have customers from the research sector, but we are also implementing our first projects in industry, for example with a steel company. Our target group is small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) from various sectors, such as production and logistics. But it also includes a large number of institutions and organisations, such as hospitals, authorities, universities and research institutes.

How do you reconcile your work for airpuls with your scientific work at the HHI and the TU Berlin?
I work for airpuls in my free time, but my role is mainly advisory. The boundaries between free time and work are very fluid for me during the week, so I find it difficult to estimate how much time I actually spend on the company. I don’t consider many of the jobs I do at airpuls, the HHI and the TU Berlin to be work in the traditional sense. Rather, they have become an integral part of my life.

Why is Berlin a good location for start-ups with a scientific background?  

Berlin is regarded as a cosmopolitan city of science, culture, media and politics. Berlin is fascinating, colourful, diverse, open and above all breathtaking. Berlin is one of the most attractive cities in the world and that attracts the best minds. We have three major universities and numerous research institutions. There is also close networking between research, business and the international start-up scene.

What qualities should founders have in order to launch a start-up from a scientific background successfully? 

As I am still relatively new to this field, I am constantly expanding my knowledge and experience. I look forward to being able to give sound advice in the future once I have familiarised myself further.

What vision do you have for airpuls – and where do you want the company to be in five years?

Our mission is to bring the latest research results in the field of radio communication into practice. airpuls will develop professional software and hardware products and implement promising concepts from research in the context of Open RAN and campus networks. Our goal is to establish a sustainable company in Berlin that specialises in the mobile and campus network market. I hope that in five years we will be able to look back on many successful campus network projects in various companies. (vdo)



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