Finding Cisco’s Next Big Thing

Marthin De Beer has one of the coolest jobs around.

As senior vice-president of Cisco Systems Emerging Technologies Group, De Beer’s job is to find the Next Big Thing — to unearth those technologies that may eventually become significant businesses for Cisco. Effectively, he’s a gambler looking to deal his company its next royal flush.

De Beer has had a hot hand so far. He and his group not so long ago discovered TelePresence, the dynamic video conferencing system that makes you feel like you’re actually having a conversation in the same room when you’re in fact bridging individuals that may be scattered across a continent. The application has emerged as one of Cisco’s most exciting new technologies.

Emerging technologies is an intriguing new direction for Cisco as the company relentlessly scours the IT industry for new market opportunities. The Emerging Technologies Group was formed approximately two years ago. Today, it is a key element of the networking company’s strategic direction forward.

“My team is about coming up with a great business idea, hiring the founders and growing an in-house solution,” De Beer said.

The group searches for startups that may be working on a bright idea or two. If he likes what he sees, De Beer is apt to seed a project through Cisco’s research and development funding. When the time is right and a product is ready for market, Cisco might then look to outright acquire that company.

Often, these start up ideas may be combined with Cisco’s own homegrown creations. In two years, De Beer and his group have identified nine emerging technologies, including four that have so far been brought to market: TelePresense; a digital media system that De Beer describes as a sort of “YouTube for business,” which allows companies to create and manage their video content and distribute it to desktops and Websites; a physical security offering that includes real-time video surveillance and intelligent physical access products such as badge readers and door lock systems; and a communications, interoperability and notification solution that enables open communications for emergency radio systems, broadcast on a broad frequency spectrum.

De Beer won’t reveal the five other emerging technologies in the works, but admits video is a key area of focus for many.

“Video is exploding in the consumer space,” he said. “It’s a $10-billion opportunity for us. We’ll be working on many more business video applications.”

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De Beer’s Emerging Technologies Group is already rolling out an end-to-end video surveillance solution — a market opportunity he said is particularly large. “It’s expected to explode to more that $45 billion in five years,” De Beer predicted. “Currently $13 billion is spent on physical security, including $7 billion on products and the rest on services.” Cisco today offers an authorized technology partner program for its physical security solutions. The program has invited a total of 50 participants and the focus is to help these partners build their practices. To highlight the magnitude of the opportunity in this business space, De Beer said that a $125 million physical security contract has already been established with an entertainment company and includes $25 million in video surveillance equipment, with the remainder allocated to network infrastructure upgrades.

There never seem to be enough emerging technology ideas and De Beer continues to be on the lookout for the next great thing. Cisco operates an internal wiki that asks employees to contribute new ideas. The company recently ran a contest that garnered more than 1,200 emerging technology concepts from employees around the world. In May, that list will be narrowed down to a final 10. The winner is expected to be announced at the end of May and will receive a $250,000 signing bonus plus $10 million over the next two years to invest in developing that emerging technology idea.