Interview with Wendy Shu from SAGE Millimeter, Inc.

  • Wendy Shu - Vice President at SAGE Millimeter, Inc.

everything RF Interviewed Wendy Shu, Vice President at SAGE Millimeter, Inc., an engineering firm that designs and fabricates millimeter-wave products for commercial and military system applications. In this capacity, Wendy oversees activities related to business strategy, marketing, quality and customer experience, team building, intellectual property, and regulatory compliance. For the past seven years, Wendy has helped SAGE nearly double its revenue year after year by implementing tools and methods pulled from diverse industries.

Q. Can you give us a brief history about SAGE Millimeter? When was the company founded, and what was the motivation behind the formation of SAGE Millimeter.

SAGE Millimeter, Inc. was founded in 2011 by my parents, Yonghui Shu and Xiaoxin Gu. In fact, a fun bit of trivia is that we stylize SAGE in all capital letters because it is an acronym for Shu and Gu Electronics. Both Yonghui and Xiaoxin spent their careers in millimeter wave technology exclusively, and after the acquisition of their first start-up (WiseWave Technologies), they wanted to continue serving the industry that shaped who they are as professionals and individuals. They founded SAGE Millimeter after a five-year break from entrepreneurship, and their purpose the second time around was larger than themselves. Although they still wanted to supply the best products to the industry, they also wanted to create a venue where they could share their knowledge. My father, especially, felt a calling to create his dream workplace – an environment of innovation, professional development, and autonomy. I joined about one year later as a co-owner and was amazed by the impact our technology can have on the world. Today, we work to educate and inspire our team members so they too can understand how they are enabling engineers working on the technology of tomorrow.

Q. What types of products does SAGE Millimeter Develop?

One of the things that customers notice about SAGE Millimeter when they work with us is that we supply everything they could need for their systems and test set-ups. Initially, SAGE focused on active and passive waveguide components but has since expanded into the coaxial components and cables space as well as into more sophisticated subassemblies, modules, and test equipment. To continue delivering on this experience, SAGE approaches product development in two ways. One way is customer-led while the other is technology-led.

The customer-led version is more tangible, and we often involve our junior engineers in this process. Customers are encouraged to approach us with their needs, and our goal is to respond to all inquiries that fall within our frequency capabilities (18 – 220 GHz). What sets us apart is that our design process encourages engineers to think about the broadest solution possible. Rather than focus on a tailored solution that will serve only one customer, we maximize our effort so that other potential clients may benefit from the exercise as well. 

The technology-led approach focuses on innovation and the future needs of engineers in the industry. Our senior engineers are tuned into the constant device and software developments that enable the creation of increasingly advanced products. They are also thinking about how to create products that are more efficient, more powerful, and more precise. Our focus is to equip our clients with practical solutions that will impact their quality of life in the lab and on their projects.

Q. SAGE Millimeter is one of the leading manufacturers of Waveguide Products. What makes your products/service stand out from other waveguide product manufacturers?

SAGE Millimeter stands out as a subject-matter expert that is also able to deliver a quality customer experience. This is achieved by delegating the two pieces of the brand to separate entities within the company. The engineering team focuses on responding to the technical requirements of clients through great design, technical education, and robust application engineering. Meanwhile, the business team focuses on staying responsive and monitoring the quality of the customer experience at all major checkpoints from pre-sale to post-sale.

Q. What market segments do you cater to? Do you see this changing in the next few years?

SAGE Millimeter supplies to traditional customers in aerospace and government as well as to new and existing commercial players in the communications and connectivity arena. We also maintain a small group of clients who are dedicated to research and academia. In recent years, the instrumentation piece of our customer base has increased dramatically, largely due to the preparation for the roll-out of 5G. We anticipate that this segmentation will continue to evolve in the coming years as instrumentation at these extremely high frequencies matures.

Q. What does SAGE Millimeter's geographic distribution of customers look like? Do you expect this to change over the next few years?

SAGE Millimeter has a very diverse and global customer base. Over the last year, we have seen a strong upswing of domestic clients, and it has been very exciting to work with so many legacy brands and leaders of the American technology sector. Even so, I would estimate that our current business is approximately 60% domestic, with the balance spread evenly across Western Europe and East Asia. Many players in these international territories are working on similar projects as their American counterparts. Their projects also largely focus on test/instrumentation and 5G applications. We believe that these trends will continue over the next few years.   

Q. SAGE Millimeter has a large catalog of standard products? What percentage of your business is Custom vs Standard Products?

It is difficult to estimate the distribution of our business across custom and standard products because we often find that the line is blurred. We also have a third category of products that we consider “modified,” which falls somewhere in between these two groups. If I had to estimate, I would say that about 60-65% of our delivered hardware is a true off-the-shelf solution.

There are many misconceptions about offering and using COTS products. Many end-user engineers believe that their project requires a custom solution, but because SAGE designs for the broadest performance possible, this is often not the case. Our application engineers spend lots of time working with and educating clients about how our standard products can help them expedite project timelines and avoid NREs.

Another concern some end-users have expressed to us is that they do not believe a company branded as a COTS supplier can offer tailored solutions to the industry in a cost-effective way. In my experience, the truth has been the exact opposite. SAGE Millimeter’s extensive COTS offering is what makes us more able to offer customized solutions to the industry. Through designing the catalog, our engineers have a very thorough understanding of product nuances. Our vast design library also offers a baseline for design so that engineering hours are not spent starting from a blank page each time. Complemented by a well-exercised supply chain and optimized manufacturing practices, clients often discover that working with a COTS supplier like SAGE can actually help them meet delivery and budget goals.

Q. SAGE Millimeter is one of the few manufacturers to have published product pricing on their website and enabled users to easily order products online. How have users reacted to this? Why do you feel more manufacturer do not publish product pricing on their website and make it easy for users to buy these products?

The decision to standardize our vast product offering and make lead-times and pricing available publicly was received with a lot of enthusiasm by new and existing customers. This is because clients are now untethered from our team and can help themselves on their own terms. It also delivers an experience that better matches what customers are accustomed to in their daily lives. With online shopping now available for everything from vehicles to groceries, the SAGE website feels not only familiar but normal. 

I think there are two main reasons other manufacturers are not yet adopting this model. The first is that it is very administratively demanding to maintain an online platform. Manufacturers must commit to building out an extensive product offering, standardizing pricing, and engaging an entire team dedicated to the upkeep of the store. It requires a whole new mindset and quite frankly, an entirely different skillset that a traditional engineering or manufacturing organization may not have quick access to. The second reason may be more psychological: engineers working in millimeter-wave do not want to see the commoditization of their designs. Many owner-operators in our space are engineers who have built their careers by working on the cutting edge of this prestigious technology. They do not believe that the knowledge and innovation behind their products could or should be reduced to an online store.

Q. How are you approaching 5G? It is looking like the 5G Standard is going to use millimeter wave frequency bands and SAGE Millimeter has a large range of products that address this market. Are you doing any product development specifically targeting 5G?

SAGE is very focused on helping clients in their race to 5G. We have many products that are targeting 5G at 28 and 39 GHz, and in addition to Ka-Band, we are also designing aggressively in V-Band, E-Band, and W-Band. One of our most popular products designed specifically for 5G applications is our dual-polarized scalar feed horn antenna assembly (m/n: SAF-2434231535-328-S1-280-DP). The OMT enables the antenna to separate a circular or elliptical polarized waveform into two linear, orthogonal waveforms, or vice versa. The dual polarized horn also supports either vertical or horizontal polarized waveguide forms with more than 30 dB cross polarization rejections. The product is a perfect example of the efficient and versatile design style our engineers use in their approach to product development. The goal is always to offer an elegant and cost-effective solution to accelerate our customers’ project timelines.

Q. Can you tell us more about the Channel Sounder Project?

SAGE engineers really enjoyed working on this product, which has many diverse applications. They designed and delivered the TX and RX modules with a lead-time of only five (5) months. The hardware includes sector antennas, amplifiers, and switch networks and draws heavily from design and manufacturing knowledge gained through the development of our standard offering. The final application for this module was to model the 28 GHz portion of the spectrum for 5G roll-out. The assembly is motorized and can travel up to 8 mph, and it is capable of making 60,000 measurements per minute, generating an enormous amount of data with its real-time signal processing. SAGE focused only on the front-end hardware piece of the system but had the great opportunity to learn about the entire system by working with leading firms on the back-end software side.

Today, we offer the modules as off-the-shelf solutions for a variety of 5G and object detection applications. We believe that over the next few years, there will be an increasing demand for various sub-assemblies, and we are prepared to support these types of projects with our total-solution approach to engineering. Click here to learn more about the Channel Sounder Project.

Q. You were recently appointed as Vice President of SAGE Millimeter, Congratulations! How are you liking the new role? What do you find most challenging about this new role?

Thank you! The change has really energized me because it pushes me to plan for SAGE Millimeter’s future. My previous role was more focused on finite tasks and initiatives. I worked on things like compliance, partnerships, and special projects like the website. Today, my work heavily involves defining growth strategies, establishing business systems, and developing our brand. The most challenging part of the job is learning how to build a business and a culture that will scale. Millimeter wave companies have traditionally been built around individuals: extraordinary designers and extremely skilled super-techs. Now, because the marketplace demands it, leaders need to convince their teams that the important parts of the business can and must be reduced to training and process. Achieving the mind-shift is the first hurdle, but the successful implementation of these initiatives is what will bring sustainable growth in the end.

Q. When did you join SAGE Millimeter and what roles have you held at the company over the last few years?

I joined SAGE Millimeter in 2012 as co-owner, but my title was an administrative assistant because we could not find a better name for the mix of responsibilities I started with. My first project was to establish our process for export compliance, but I was also covering order entry, AP/AR, human resources, and marketing duties. Thinking back, those early years were especially daunting because I was encountering vocabulary and concepts I had never even heard of before. I still remember the time I needed to understand AESDirect and Form 941 in the same week – I was so overwhelmed!

As the team and responsibilities grew, I became Administrative Manager and then Director of Business and Legal Affairs. Both roles kept me focused on the business side of the operations, which we defined as anything aside from manufacturing and engineering. My workload generally consisted of one part daily tasks, another part addressing unplanned surprises, and a remaining two parts project-based improvements. The entire journey has been an amazing learning experience. Not only have I grown technically in both business and product capability, but I have had the opportunity to develop my leadership style and meet many extraordinary people. Earlier this year, I was promoted to Vice President, and one of the biggest changes has been my greater role in business development. I believe that I do have a deep understanding of SAGE Millimeter’s history and who we are today. With those insights in mind and a strong team behind us, I hope to take our business and operations to the next level.

Q. What is your vision for SAGE Millimeter in the next 5 years?

In five years, I hope that SAGE Millimeter will still be growing and practicing our new vision statement. Earlier this year, we graduated from the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program where we had the opportunity to redefine it. What we came up with will serve us for many years to come. Our vision is “To enable RF engineers in their journeys to create the technology of the future. And to do this with compassion for the customer and for our colleagues, always.” The first part of the vision is broad from a product perspective because we do not want to limit what we can offer to the industry. I imagine that a piece of our business will always be focused on COTS while another will be dedicated to product development and R&D. We may also develop the services piece of our business so that we are not only limited to hardware. It is all up for discussion. But no matter the scope, we know that we want to provide solutions to as many engineers as possible.

The second part speaks to SAGE Millimeter’s dedication to both the customer and the team member experience. We truly believe that thoughtful and considerate practices in business will always be recognized. These things must be ingrained in our brand and our culture if we are to make an impact on the industry and in this world.

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