Nexus Engineering - Overview and History
Leadership and Innovation during BC's early tech days
Nature of the business
Nexus Engineering was a developer and manufacturer of cablevision infrastructure equipment, founded in 1982, which was acquired by Scientific Atlanta in 1992. Nexus Engineering was part of the Nexus Group of Companies, which was created as part of a strategy to use the corporate overheads of Nexus Engineering to foster and incubate a number of related spin-off technology companies. These other companies were also sold off during the 1992-1994 period.
My position as General Manager and VP of the mid-tier cablevision development and manufacturing team within Nexus Engineering was my first opportunity to be responsible for over-all corporate P&L and administration of a technology business, with 75 employees in development, manufacturing and admin positions to over-see. Nexus was a transition point in my career away from performing and managing product development activities, to running an over-all business, with all of its challenges and diverse set of issues to manage.
I had been recruited to join Nexus Engineering by Alastair King, who was running one of the Nexus Group of Companies - Amplifier Solutions, in the summer of 1991 while I was working for Motorola's wireless data division (see Motorola - Overview and History). I had previously hired Alastair while at Integra Systems (see Integra Systems - Overview and History) to run Integra's production line in 1988. Alastair put me in touch with Peter van der Gracht, President of Nexus, and later on, Dr. Basil Peters, its CEO (see www.basilpeters.com/Basil_Peters_Full_Bio.html for more info on Basil).
Nexus had recently landed two important new product development and production contracts from General Instrument Corporation (since acquired by Motorola) and were required as part of those contracts to implement the '6 Sigma' quality program that Motorola was an early adopter of - and something I had been heavily immersed in during my time at Motorola as a project manager. I was hired to run Nexus' new mid-tier cable-TV infrastructure product line group, responsible for the new General Instrument product line and business relationship, as well as the development of a new line of low cost computerized cable-TV modulators, and satellite receivers.
History of Nexus Engineering
While Basil and Peter were at UBC in engineering school in 1980-1982 (with Basil completing his PhD and Peter completing his Masters degrees) they were put in contact with Tom Holgate and Marc Philips, who ran a small cable-TV distribution company called Channel One* and who had approached the UBC engineering faculty in search of young graduate engineers who wished to help them develop a line of cable TV modulators (the devices that encode TV signals to broadcast on specific channels). Basil and Peter signed up to the challenge and soon prototyped their first product dubbed the VM-1 modulator.
With the proof of concept for the VM-1 completed and initial sales inquiries looking highly promising, Tom, Marc, Basil and Peter sat down to work out a plan of arrangement that was suitable for everyone's needs - and Nexus Engineering was born, with Basil as CEO, Peter and President, Tom and Marc as advisors and board members, and the Channel One product distribution company as a subsidiary of the new company.
Within a short period of time the VM-1, as part of an expanding Nexus 'Series 1' product line, grabbed considerable market share as a result of its high performance and modest cost, and Nexus shortly thereafter expanded its product offerings further to also include a low-end 'Series 5' product line. Within 10 years time Nexus had reached considerable heights, with more than $30M in annual revenues, 300 employees, and a host of subsidiary technology companies under one roof:
- Statpower (the fore runner of other local power product companies)
- Amplifier Solutions - FM radio broadcast amplifiers
- Photon Systems - analog optical cable-TV broadcasting equipment
- Channel One - product distribution
- Nexus Engineering - the core cable-TV infrastructure group
- Satellite Receivers
- PCS Microcell - distributed antenna array products for the cellular phone industry
Basil and Peter had literally become the 'ones to watch' in the new, fast growing BC tech sector. They were media darlings as they showed the rest of the tech community locally and internationally how to foster innovation in many distinct areas: incubator/umbrella corporate structures; employee health, empowerment and compensation arrangements; high-tech building design and layouts; and seriously fast revenue and market share growth for its product lines. The awards and press clippings from this golden era for Basil, Peter and Nexus corporately are too long to list here but include:
- Entrepreneur of the Year awarded, BC Business Magazine, 1991
- Silver Medal in Entrepreneurship, Canada Awards for Business Excellence, 1990
- 40 under 40 - selected as one of Vancouver's top business achievers under the age of 40 by the Business in Vancouver newspaper, 1990
- Gold Medal for Industrial Innovation, The British Columbia Science Council, 1988
- Certificates of Merit in Entrepreneurship, Canada Awards for Business Excellence, 1987, 1988 and 1989
- The Successors - Canada's Emerging Business Leaders selected by Canadian Business magazine, August 1986
- Canada Awards for Business Excellence Finalist in Entrepreneurship, 1985
Anyone who visited Nexus in those days will remember the open office layouts (no offices or dividers at all) and the huge colorful banners hanging from the ceiling at 7725 Lougheed Highway - the old 'jam factory'). Nexus was different, and Nexus was a huge local success. It was a very intense experience working for Basil and Peter - one I will never forget.
Nexus / General Instrument Products
I ran a team of about 70 people that were developing and manufacturing the two General Instrument satellite receiver products, the ESPN remotely retunable unit and the DSR-1000 Digicipher digital video unit, both of which were designed to handle the task of receiving satellite signals and reformatting them for cable-TV distribution.
The ESPN receiver was designed to allow for local sports broadcasting blackouts that could be controlled from the transition source while the DSR-1000 Digicipher receiver was the world's first digital video capable unit - with the ability to cram 6 or more digitally encoded TV signals into a single analog satellite channel - thereby improving the quality of TV broadcasting while dramatically lowering the transmission costs.
Both products were designed from the start with '6 sigma' in mind and were therefore utilized 100% surface mounted components and computerized assembly. Here is a photo of the DSR-1000 main panel boards (both products used the Motorola 68HC11 micro controller, in-circuit reprogramable flash memory, and a 2x40 character LCD with 'soft keys' - hot new digital technologies for those days):
The General Instrument/Motorola DSR-1000 PCBs:
The completed DSR-1000 units:
Nexus Series 2 Mid-Tier Cable TV Products
My first priority was the development and production of the above mentioned GI products, and once we had successfully completed those projects for GI, my team set about applying many of the same technology innovations towards the pending Nexus Series 2 Mid-tier cable TV products. We developed some sexy looking product mockups for trade show demonstrations but never got the chance to complete the product development work as Nexus Engineering was sold to Scientific Atlanta in the middle of the development effort in the summer of 1992.
Here is a 'Series 2' product concept front panel design that I made for this product line on my computer at home: Nexus Series 2 Front Panel Layouts
Nexus / PCS Microcell Products
While at Nexus I worked along side Dr. Andrew Beasley who ran the PCS Microcell division - the group that had created the distributed antenna array technologies which were eventually acquired by PCS Wireless. Rogers Communications in Canada (a large customer for the Nexus Series 1 product line) had originally asked Basil if Nexus would work with them to develop distributed antenna arrays to support their vision of a CT-2 cordless telephone network across Canada (CT-2 phones were low cost cell phones with less transmitting power and therefore much shorter distance - requiring fairly closely spaced 'microcells' to communicate with). As an innovator, Nexus agreed and the RAD/MEX product line was launched.
The Breakup of the Nexus Group of Companies
The board of Nexus decided to sell off the core Nexus Engineering division to Scientific Atlanta in the summer of 1992 and then the rest of the subsidiary companies over the course of the next 2 years. Given that General Instrument and Scientific Atlanta were competitors, my business unit was sold to GI and I moved on to co-found PCS Wireless and acquire the PCS Microcell division of Nexus in 1993. Basil helped Ralph Scobie, Greg Peet and I with that transaction (see PCS Wireless - Overview and History) and Basil later joined forces again with PCS Wireless in 1997 to arrange for and assist with its eventual merger with Unique Broadband Systems.
* For historical reasons relating to early broadcast TV RF spectrum allocation conflicts with FM radio, with there is no longer a 'channel one' TV signal - hence the play on words