Profile: OnRelay Bets Big on Voice

A young startup thrives amid global tech giants.

While investment was pouring into mobile data technology, OnRelay spotted opportunities in mobile voice. Their vision: an integrated mailbox for mobile and desktop office phones. A single number that could ring or dial from anywhere, mobile or desktop, anywhere in the world. A way to literally mobilize all the assets of the corporate infrastructure—logging, forwarding, and billing.

Now, "things are getting fun," says OnRelay cofounder Marie Wold. "It's like skydiving—it feels great when you land." OnRelay has formed strategic partnerships with some of the world's largest telecom technology providers. And the company recently received its first patent for the core of its MBX technology, the software that integrates mobile phones and private branch exchanges, or PBXs.

It hasn't always been easy. OnRelay bucked convention by pursuing voice instead of data and by (gasp) having a woman at the fore. "I was attending a standard industry event in London last year," relates Wold, "and when answering the basic 'So what do you do' question, I was laughed at and told 'You are not a founder of a high-tech company—women don't found IT companies. Impossible.'"

Five years ago, OnRelay was just an idea. Wold came from a wireless strategy background, while cofounder and CEO Ivar Plahte specialized in VoIP. Together, they envisioned a future in which the PBX would resist an all-mobile takeover, and mobile phones would run on a widely available and open standard operating system.

The corporate world would need a way to integrate the underutilized desktop phone with mobile phones running client/server applications. And yet fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) drew little attention at the time, overshadowed in the rush for data innovation. Wold later recalled, "As the hype continued to increase around mobile data, I just didn't see the wallet size of consumers/corporates increasing four-fold overnight to pay for all the new bells and whistles that everyone was so excited about."

Mobile voice, on the other hand, presented a long-standing need and a large market for a solution. Users have always wanted a way to unite mobile and landline under a single integrated mailbox and number. And many employers, particularly in the financial industry, are required by law to record all client calls. Such companies can either integrate mobile calls into their infrastructure, or prohibit employees from doing business over cell phones.

Meanwhile, an estimated 50 percent of all corporate calls in Europe now bypass the corporate infrastructure. "It's becoming a big problem to manage and control mobile telephony. The MBX offers a cost-effective way of reusing corporate infrastructure," says Wold. She explains, "the mobile phone operates as an exact duplicate of your desk phone. When you place a call to someone, it appears to the person you are calling as if the call originated from your desk phone—no matter where in the world you placed the call."

Even if a user doesn't have a desk phone, MBX can still put the call through the PBX infrastructure, logging and recording as needed. An MBX-enabled phone can also toggle between personal and business settings, complete with different numbers and ring tones.

Independent vendors such as MCK and PBX vendors such as Cisco offer similar products or pieces of the FMC puzzle such as forwarding engines or VoIP over wireless LANs for in-building networks. But they don't offer a platform-agnostic solution that extends to public mobile networks. "We are glue among hundred-million-dollar companies. It's a nice space to be in, and it could be a very standalone space," comments Wold.

If OnRelay's unique technology has helped it grow in a difficult business climate, so has its approach to competition. Instead of confronting them head-on, the company has formed strategic partnerships with giants like Nokia, Cisco, and IBM—the last of whom is OnRelay's principal global channel partner. Enterprise customers can purchase MBX through IBM or as a solution hosted by a mobile operator. This kind of partnership soothes customer concerns about purchasing vital telephony technology from a small startup.

Throughout its relatively short life—the company was founded in 2000—OnRelay has made focused, strategic choices. Instead of offering a suite of mobile telephony solutions, it offers one unique solution. Instead of accepting VC investment and risking diminished control, it has worked only with angel investors. Instead of battling in the data space during the lean early years of this century, it claimed a space it could have virtually to itself.

"Some of the more successful high-tech companies founded in the last 20 years have been founded by women," says Wold, citing Cisco and eBay. "Women might not found high-tech companies often, but when they do, it can be big."

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