A scene in 1993’s “Rudy” shows the main character and a friend working in a steel mill. To communicate, one walks the length of the factory, taps his friend on the shoulder of the other and yells. To one Provo businessman, this exchange is just not efficient. What if you didn’t have to yell? What if you could just talk?
Ron Fraser is the CEO of Multivoice, a walkie-talkie technology company born in a Mapleton basement. With a redesign of the common push-to-talk technology, Fraser and his team believe his innovation will not simply provide convenience but also save lives.
David Politis, CMO and co-founder of Multivoice, said walkie-talkie technology has been around since World War II but has not fundamentally changed or improved with time.
“Radios sounded boring to me. … It’s like, nothing’s changed in radios in forever; what’s all sexy about radios?” Politis said. “(But) as I got into it, it’s like, wait a second, this actually could be a really good deal.”
It all began with Fraser’s humble beginnings. Born in the “podunk” town of Yerington, Nevada, he first came to BYU for a high school track meet. He later enrolled as a non-LDS student for his undergraduate degree.
Fraser was introduced to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was baptized. Two years later, after feeling impressed during a BYU devotional to serve a full-time mission, he left to serve in Japan. “I went to a talk, and they said every young man should go on a mission,” he said. “That really got to me, so I prayed about it. I heard it many times.”
Fraser graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from BYU the year after his mission. The beginnings of Fraser’s technology interest developed from his work on electronics warfare at Texas Instruments. A fuel leak caused the Titan II missile to explode during a launch, resulting in a death and 20 injured people.
“They died and were injured … because they couldn’t communicate,” Fraser said. “They overloaded the communications, and so I went and figured out what the problem was and solved it for the Air Force.”
Fraser continued to work in contract with the Air Force while at Texas Instruments in Layton and later joined as a consulting partner with Voyager Technologies. He was approached by Porta Phone in 1995 to develop a radio system for four people to communicate without a base station. Fraser thought it couldn’t be done, but he had the problem figured out two weeks later. “(Porta Phone) basically took over the football market with that radio system,” Fraser said.
Fraser worked on a number of different projects, gaining experience and solving communication problems. But it wasn’t until three and a half years ago that Fraser decided to develop an innovation for personal use. The basement-born walkie-talkie innovation removed the need to drag around hefty cables and push buttons. Fraser first created the invention mentally, then built it, testing until it was apparent that the radio technology could be applied in a real world market.
To develop the product, “Ron basically put his whole livelihood on the line,” Politis said.
Fraser put a base system into every intercom and connected them over a wireless mesh network, allowing for eight people to converse simultaneously and more than 100 others to listen. It’s not just another radio, Fraser said.
The football world first adopted the technology, but not long after that Ron began marketing the technology for industrial environments, the military, construction, law enforcement and heavy equipment operation. “We think it will actually make you safer,” Politis said. “We think it will save lives.”
Politis said part of the genius of Fraser’s innovation is allowing workers and professionals to talk without having to use their hands to push a button and to augment what existing radio technologies can do.
Todd Rapier, acting president and co-founder of Multivoice recognizes the potential of the technology Fraser has developed.
“The type of radio that you would think of as just a walkie-talkie, that’s a $15-billion-a-year market,” Rapier said. “If we only capture a fraction of that market share, it’s a big opportunity. When we get into consumer applications … the sky’s the limit.”
Politis said the fact that a boy from “the middle of nowhere in Nevada ends up at BYU and … invented something that might change the world” gives him hope for the future of Multivoice.
“We don’t have visions of grandeur where we replace all that, but we can make (the walkie-talkies) better,” Politis said. “We think we’re going to change the world in what the world has historically known as radios.”
Rapier noted Fraser and the Multivoice company are already doing what many others don’t. “If you look at all of the tech startups, they’re almost all software,” he said. “Very rarely do you see someone actually making something Iike hardware. I think that’s neat that we’re actually producing a tangible product you hold in your hand, and it actually works.”
Multivoice’s 10-employee team is gaining even more momentum. Electronics company OTTO recently offered to fund Fraser’s project after meeting him at an industry trade show. Fraser accepted after initial hesitation, knowing he would need the funds to make the company grow quickly. Multivoice has raised $5 million in a strategic round of seeding funding. “(That’s) nothing to sneeze at,” Politis said.
OTTO, which manufactures accessories that attach to two-way radios, had been looking for a wireless intercom solution they could add to its products. With a customer list of firefighters, soldiers, police, security and SWAT, they knew people’s lives depend on reliable communication, and they’re prepared to see “explosive growth” in the application of Fraser’s technology.
“Imagine a firefighter inside a burning building carrying a child and being able to ask for help hands-free,” said Tom Schreiber, general manager of OTTO. A partner can respond from another room while a chief at headquarters can be monitoring the situation in real-time. “The scenarios for this type of ‘crew-communication’ are almost endless,” Schreiber said.
OTTO and those working with Fraser have not only benefited from his innovation but also from his character.
“OTTO’s experience working with Ron has been fantastic. It’s going on a year now, and it’s clear he’s an amazing guy,” Schreiber said. “He’s as smart and well-rounded of a technologist as I’ve come across in my 30 years of working in high tech … you name it, and he’s doing it.”
Rapier noticed similar qualities in Fraser, both as a co-worker and outside the office. The two referee high school basketball together. “Ron’s one of … actually, I’ll just say it flat out. He’s the most brilliant guy I’ve ever worked with,” Rapier said. “Ron is just incredible, a very talented man. Just from a character perspective, he has incredible integrity; he’s honest and kind and very humble. He knows he’s the smartest guy in the room, but he doesn’t act like it.”