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Cole Brodman.
Cole Brodman.

Cole Brodman is taking on another leadership role in the telecom industry.

The former T-Mobile executive, who spent 17 years at the wireless carrier and held positions as CMO and CTO, is now CEO of M87, a mobile networking startup that today announced a $5 million fundraising round led by Madrona Venture Group, with participation from Qualcomm Ventures and Trilogy Equity Partners.

Brodman left T-Mobile in 2012 and spent the next four years as a board member for a handful of startups. One of those companies was M87, which launched out of Austin, Texas in 2014.

M87’s technology, born out of research done by founder Vidur Bhargava and Dr. Sriram Vishwanath at the University of Texas in Austin, helps wireless carriers improve network performance by creating dynamic device-to-device mesh networks. As Brodman spent more and more time advising the company, it eventually asked him to take on a leadership role.

M87, which is also relocating its headquarters to the Seattle area — home to decades of wireless infrastructure innovation — sells two software products. The first is its Edge Network, which expands network capacity for wireless carriers without adding physical infrastructure. It does this by creating what the company calls “proximate internet,” which utilizes device-to-device discovery and improves connection in poor coverage areas.

For example, imagine a large office building with hundreds of smartphone owners on the same wireless network. Those closer to the windows may have better signal, while those in other areas may have more spotty connections. M87’s technology enables the carrier to use the devices with strong signals and improve service for those needing a faster connection.

“It turns every smartphone into a network relay to benefit other devices in the network,” Brodman said.

Via M87.
Via M87.

Brodman, who helped create innovative products at T-Mobile like hotspot destination networks and WiFi calling software, sees a huge opportunity for this technology given the increasing number of smartphone owners around the world. M87 appeals to a wide-range of clients given that it works with both Android and iOS, while utilizing multiple radio frequency technologies like Bluetooth, WiFi, and others.

“We are crowdsourcing radio coverage for consumers,” Brodman explained. “We do it safely and securely in conjunction with wireless carriers.”

The second product is a software development kit for app developers to enable device-to-device discovery and connectivity in a power efficient manner. It uses the same fundamental technology as the Edge Network, but is geared toward developers that want to add direct device discovery, communication, and location services to their apps. The SDK is ideal for social media, mobile advertising, messaging, search, and emergency services apps.

For example, a messaging company could use M87’s software to help users in the same vicinity connect with one another. Or, a merchant could provide information to customers within a given distance of its physical store.

The idea is to make every smartphone a mobile, software-based beacon that can communicate with nearby devices, people, and other products using primarily WiFi, Bluetooth and BLE.

“We believe the ability to have continuous mobile discovery for each smartphone, not tied to physical locations or hardware, and have devices working together in a network application, can create opportunities for new applications to be created to discover proximate people, places, and things,” Brotman said.

App developers can create their own technology for device discovery and data transport, but it takes a lot of time and work to implement, Brodman added.

“To do this at a network scale across multiple radio technologies and multiple versions of iOS and Android, and have them all working together at scale in coordinated fashion, is quite difficult,” he said. “We remove the need for app developers to become wireless networking experts.”

Brodman, who graduated from the University of Texas and has lived in the Seattle region since 1995, said he’s excited to get back into the “operational world” after spending time only as an investor. With M87, he’s optimistic about how the company can improve the way smartphone owners access faster connections.

“It can be a really interesting business,” said Brodman, who is also a partner at Bellevue-based Trilogy. “There aren’t a lot of solutions today to help wireless carriers solve coverage capacity problems and most require them to build new cell sites. I’m excited about software-based solutions to approach this problem.”

M87, which has raised more than $12 million to date, will use the fresh funding round to double its 8-person team by the first half of next year. It will also help the company, which got its name from a galaxy called Messier 87, scale its business and further develop the technology.

“Collectively, the M87 team has an exciting blend of experience and capabilities and we are fortunate that they are moving the company to Seattle,” Madrona Managing Director Len Jordan wrote in a blog post. “We will struggle to compete with their famous ‘BBQ’ but let’s welcome them to the world of coffee, a little rain and a great startup ecosystem.”

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