Story of the UnaShield

I first heard about Upton Lai when our CEO Henri Bong kept talking about this “brilliant guy who could make anything” in our Taiwan office.

“Last thing we need is another unnecessary gadget from Taiwan,” I thought. I was the nerdy coder who has never created anything with his bare hands, who thought that only software ruled the world. And I was so glad that Upton would prove me wrong.

When UnaBiz started business in Singapore and Taiwan in Nov 2016 we had so many dreams and zero devices. We asked around for the simplest Sigfox development kit that we could offer to device makers in Asia. The kits were incredibly complex and expensive, impossible for anyone to learn Sigfox device development.

I came across the Radiocrafts module for Sigfox; the specs seemed easy enough for me to program. Thanks to Upton and the UnaBiz Taiwan team we got hold of a few sample Radiocrafts modules.

Could I make a dev kit myself? I failed miserably and learnt the hard way — nope you can’t superglue single core wires to a surface mounted module like the Radiocrafts one. I threw my plans to Upton over Slack and lamented — all we needed was to glue this Radiocrafts pin to this Arduino pin and we would have a fully functioning dev kit!

A few days later Upton (and his crazy colleagues) totally shocked me — they have created a dev kit by soldering the Radiocrafts module to an Arduino Uno! Henri hand-carried our precious new UnaShield prototype from Taiwan to Singapore. And it was perfect — all the Arduino programs worked the first time I ran them. I was truly ecstatic! So this is how it feels to create a new thing with hardware guts and software brains.

Thanks to my leak on LinkedIn, the entire Sigfox community around the world got excited about the UnaShield, a dev kit that could really make Sigfox development so much easier. We manufactured and sold the UnaShield V1 at small quantities. I thought the UnaShield was just a fluke, an “accidental product” that was never really core to UnaBiz business.

Over the Lunar New Year period earlier this year I received another surprise from Upton. Wisol had just released their new Sigfox module that was mass market, low cost. This module literally promises to make a billion dreams bloom all over the world. And Upton was the first man to make it bloom — the UnaShield V2S.

The UnaShield V2S is a dream come true for educators like me. I teach IoT at Temasek Polytechnic (School of IIT where I’m an Adjunct Lecturer) and I once dreaded the idea of every student buying:

  • A Raspberry Pi
  • A pre-imaged SD card (which gets corrupted too easily)
  • A LoRa shield for Raspberry Pi
  • A Grove Shield for attaching Grove sensors
  • Plus an assortment of Grove sensors for temperature, humidity, air pressure, accelerometer,…

But Upton changed all that. The UnaShield V2S comes onboard with all of the above sensors, plus Grove ports for connecting your own sensors. The Arduino was harder to teach than the Raspberry Pi but it’s a necessary evil — people in Singapore need to be taught to appreciate how Upton and the rest of the IoT ecosystem in Taiwan are creating useful gadgets with dumb controllers.

Today I proudly tell my students that the UnaShield is the first successful product created by UnaBiz:

  • Device makers around the world from Japan to South Africa are creating their own Sigfox dreams with the UnaShield
  • Students in many universities, polytechnics and colleges in Taiwan and Singapore are learning about Low Power Wide Area Networks for the very first time thanks to the UnaShield
  • The UnaMap, the Sigfox coverage map created by UnaBiz, uses a UnaTumbler device that contains a UnaShield. Today the UnaShield and the UnaTumbler travels all over Taiwan, Singapore and Oman. I carry the UnaShield everywhere I go to generate highly detailed Sigfox indoor coverage maps.

To date I have never met my hardware genius Upton face to face. I have never imagined that I would ever create such a successful, impactful IoT product with another man as smart and determined and stubborn as me.

But I think Upton agrees with me that the world is a slightly better place with this accidental, necessary gadget — the UnaShield.