By Eric Peterson | Dec 05, 2022
Colorado Springs, Colorado
LiFi and power over ethernet (PoE) products
"I've always been in communications," says Roark, who worked for L3 and other telecommunications companies after retiring from the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command in the early 1990s.
He founded Terra Ferma after developing "a data center in a giant suitcase" with Omega Systems and voice over IP (VOIP) projects with Rivada Networks. "I say half in earnest, half in jest, I kind of got tired of making everybody else lots of money," laughs Roark.
Terra Ferma began as a consulting and integration firm. "We were getting little jobs here and there to keep us busy," says Roark. "A lot of the stuff we were doing, parts were generally coming from China. Back then, I said, 'If China ever decided to shut off the spigot, we're in deep trouble.'"
As of 2017, power over ethernet (PoE) was an emerging technology Roark says he "saw that the government uses lots of radios, cameras, sensors, all kinds of stuff, and that stuff could all be powered by PoE."
It follows that Terra Ferma launched a line of PoE products that the company has since expanded and iterated, receiving three patents in the process . It now represents more than 90 percent of the company's revenue. "The PoE has really blossomed," says Roark. "We sell probably 20 percent of it to NATO forces, and that's growing right now with that's going on [in Ukraine]."
Major customers include the Department of Defense, Department of Transportation, and other federal entities operating in extreme climates or vibration-prone locations. "We're really good in harsh environments," says Roark.
In 2021, Terra Ferma diversified into LiFi technology, which uses light to communicate instead of radio frequency signals, and invested in France-based Oledcomm to facilitate the move.
"It's just like PoE," says Roark. "The government likes it, the military guys like it, different folks within different entities in government, they like it, but it's new and they don't do a whole lot of brand new. They need it to be tested, tried, and proven. So that's what we're doing now: a lot of projects where the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, and other agencies are all trying it."
Roark sees a broader market for LiFi compared to PoE. "I really think in 2023 it's going to take off," he says. "There's a lot of genuine interest. It probably, to be honest, will be a bigger business than our PoE is."
Part of it is based on a first-mover advantage, he notes. "The Ciscos of the world, they already sell PoE to the general public, so we really have no edge there. We can't compete with Cisco. But you go to the LiFi, and we have all of these patents that the Ciscos and the Moxas, none of those guys are in that space yet."
Terra Ferma is based out of a 5,800-square-foot space on the north side of Colorado Springs. The company's key contract manufacturer is Vergent Products in Loveland, supported by metal fabrication and coating shops in Colorado Springs. "Most everything is made in Colorado, with the exception of the true electronics," says Roark. "They're made in California and New Jersey."
After averaging 100 percent growth on a year-over-year basis, Terra Ferma saw a big drop in 2020. "We started out great, doubling every year, then we hit the pandemic and we kind of halved," says Roark. "This year, we're right back to where we were. We're probably a little bit better than 2019 and next year looks like potentially doubling again."
Challenges: Supply chain issues have been intertwined with cash flow hiccups. "Constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul," says Roark. "Maybe we only needed 50 power supplies, but we would go and buy 200 because they were available."
Opportunities: Roark sees LiFi as the long-term opportunity for Terra Ferma. "The next big thing for it is to get it certified and accredited for use on government networks, so that's our big push next year ," he says, citing NIST and FIPS 140-3 certifications as essential for government adoption. "Right now, there's always that hesitation: 'What if I spend all this money on this technology and it doesn't pan out?'"
Needs: "People are the next one," says Roark, citing needs for engineers and procurement talent.