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Two Decades of Pathway Connectivity

Mike Wharton • July 2021Milestones • July 9, 2021

From left (back): Robert Bell, Scott McKay, Maurtis Van der Hoorn, Brian Evans (front): Ty Frederick, Bernie Rooke, Dave Ciccarelli, Kevin Loewen, Kerri Pitts

Company Celebrates 20 Years since the Launch of their Flagship Product

By the time LDI 2000 opened its doors that year, the world had safely traveled past concerns about the Y2K bug disrupting computer operations after collectively holding its breath on New Year’s Eve. The Millennium Bridge in London had finally opened by June of 2000, months late, after a “wobbly” debut. Meanwhile, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, a small team was steadfastly working on the debut of a sexy little device called the Pathport. It would go on to be named New Product of the Year at the LDI show that fall, with its first shipment the following spring.

2021 marks the 20 year celebration of the launch of Pathway Connectivity’s flagship product. David Higgins, the owner of the company known as Gray Interfaces at the time, and the visionary behind the Pathport, saw that the broad highway of data transmission through the Ethernet was the way of the future. As a manufacturer of DMX distribution products, he was aware how entrenched DMX was in the lighting industry, but admits its days may be waning.

“Pathport is a vital bridge between the DMX and Ethernet worlds,” he said at the time. “It gives facility designers an affordable way to lay the foundation for the Ethernet future, while at the same time expanding the functionality and life of existing DMX equipment. Pathport will allow facilities to migrate to the new protocol without changing hardware.”

Building that vital bridge “began in earnest on January 1, 2000,” says Higgins, “when I hired a young, smart engineer named Shaun Jackman as an intern and tasked him to take the lead.” He would go on to do most of the programming and initial work while hitting walls and restarting from scratch. The project was supported by a small engineering team, including Kevin Loewen, Gary Douglas and Sandy Twose. Production was led by Shawn Vike, while Graham Likeness headed up all the marketing.

Dave Higgins with 2000 Product of Year. Photo: Graham Likeness

A Family of Firsts

Robert Bell, now Director of Product Market at Pathway, recalls the monumental tasks he was making back then while at Cast Lighting, “desperately trying to get DMX into a computer,” and the huge metal boxes resulting in those efforts.

As a fellow Canadian and friends with Higgins, he stopped into their booth at LDI 2000. “I was on the consumer end at that time, looking to solve this problem. At ten feet away I knew what I was looking at. The thing just looked cool, and I knew if David had put that much effort into the industrial design, its insides were going to wow me. This little, tiny thing was gonna do what we had tried to engineer.”

Kerri Pitts, now Marketing Manager, was a university student who was just filling a receptionist role when then-owner David Higgins offered her a full-time job upon graduation, handling customer care and inside sales for the company. “At the time, I was totally new to the lighting industry. I have to admit, I did not know what or how different it was, let alone understand the technology. On a personal level, I knew how much Dave and his wife Mary Lou had riding on this and how much they were risking putting this product out there. It was stressful and exciting at the same time.”

It was clear to her also the high regard everyone that worked there had for the Higgins’s. “Everyone had this commonality and really meshed. Since the beginning, the people of Pathway have always been like a family and enjoyed each other’s company inside and outside the workplace. David and Mary Lou fostered a sense of community within their team and loved to host company parties and fun outings. Even now, though we have team members spread out across Canada and the USA, the family feel still holds true today.”

“If you just list off firsts,” says Bell, “you realize this was a huge gamble for the Higgins’s. It was the first time someone in our industry decided to write from scratch their own TCP/IP stack; the first time anybody outside the telephone world decided to integrate Power over Ethernet properly and not just put 48 Volts on the wire and hope you don’t blow up anything.”

“And it was the first time something looked so cool for just being a circuit board,” laughs Pitts. “The lead-up to LDI is always a special time, but that year, everyone was like ‘Whoa, this is it, it is all about this!’” With both manufacturing and new business protocols in place to produce and market Pathport, Gray Interfaces, the strictly data distribution and interface company, was reinventing itself to become Pathway. Aluminum casting, external paint finishes, and surface mount technology were added to the pick-and-place machines now operating.

Additionally, Higgins decided to license their protocol so that other manufacturers could speak to the Pathway line; the first company ever to make that move. “The forethought David had that companies like ETC or MA will one day want to natively talk to Pathport way predates sACN or Art-Net,” marvels Bell.

The Classic C Series Pathport

Evolving to Meet User Needs

Kevin Loewen, currently Engineering Manager at Pathway, was one of the original primary contributors working on circuit board layouts for the prototypes and first production runs. Loewen points out that the feature set of the Pathport line has changed over the years. “Much of the original spec for the feature set we launched with was driven by the capabilities of ETCNet2 and Strand ShowNet. As the product evolved, many additional features were added as a response to the needs of the end customers.

“When we first brought the product out” Loewen continues, “there were really only two companies in the industry making DMX-over-Ethernet products. Their products were large and needed a fair chunk of wall space dedicated to their home. In retrospect, I think that is what shocked the industry is just how much we managed to pack into such a small space.”

Kevin Loewen

Consoles and Ethernet Switches

Ten years into the journey, while the company was still privately held, Higgins began dabbling with unmanaged Ethernet switches, but never created a product line. It cost too much and did the same thing as off-the-shelf (i.e., cheap) consumer grade switches. Unfortunately, these had a feature called Broadcast Storm Control (BSC) which wreaked havoc with entertainment lighting. Suddenly customers were complaining to Pathway that their products did not work, when in fact it was the BSC feature in the off-the-shelf switch.

All the excitement from 20 years ago of PoE simplifying DMX distribution was about to be killed by these consumer switches. The halls of Pathway were echoing with gnashing of teeth and beating of chests, “It was such a good idea!” roars Bell. Loewen immediately went onto an extremely deep dive and “learned far more about managed Ethernet switching than I ever dreamed,” emerging with the VIA10.

Around the same time, Acuity Brands was simultaneously performing due diligence on Pathway and Horizon with an eye towards purchasing both. The conglomerate was transitioning to LED in all their product lines and was looking for fast control through DMX. Bell was working for Horizon at the time, building the Strand Light Palette. “This was all being architected by Van Rommel from Acuity,” recalls Bell.

Their latest product the eLink was introduced at the beginning of 2019. Disney had a need to bridge two local area networks (LANs) but wanted the capability of them remaining separate. They needed the ability to hand-pick a subset of one control system and feed it to a completely different network. Boasting support for the most popular DMX-over-Ethernet protocols, the eLink converts, links, merges, prioritizes, holds, fades and much more.

A month later, when Covid 19 decimated the industry, “we were very, very nervous,” says Bell. Their most powerful markets were in the arena touring and Broadway segments. “But the demand for Netflix and HBO went way up. Because of that, the television studios, which are usually behind the curve, are also in need of Pathway’s family of products. So, we are very excited about this fall, hoping to deliver a 1,2,3 punch with the return to touring, live events and the studios.”

Despite many attempts of imitators to follow the path laid out, Pathway has retained their unique identity and stayed ahead of the field. “Even today there are competitors that can’t support our feature set,” says Bell. And they are implementing cyber security with all their product line networks. At the other end of the spectrum, Pathway Connectivity is opening up their networks in a sense with cloud base control by collaborating with SixEye.

As the world catches up with LED, architectural lighting depends on Dynamic Color Lighting. “And that’s what we specialize in,” beams Bell. Pathway is now building another bridge product between energy compliancy and dynamic lighting control. It will be released in the fall for the commercial and industrial market.

“Over the years, we have added a lot of different form factors and adapted to all of the manufacturer specific protocols of a vast majority of the big companies,” says Loewen. “We stick around as first or second choice partially because of our reputation. There are very few things we have not run into, and people know we stand behind our product.”

Ron Fisher and Shawn Vike

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