Feature Story

NextGen RF Design Provides Custom Wireless Solutions Around the Globe 

An engineering design business in North Mankato has made quite the name for itself, not only in Southcentral Minnesota but worldwide, with clients reaching as far away as Australia and Japan. 

NextGen RF Design provides expertise in designing and implementing radio frequency (RF) solutions for clients. At its helm are President David Mitchell and CEO Luke Tholen. 

Radio frequency dates back as far as the late 1800s when Guglielmo Marconi invented the wireless telegraph. Today, wireless capabilities are available in all facets of life through everyday items like phones, computers, cars and appliances. NextGen serves all these industries and more, designing custom solutions to meet each client’s specific needs. 

“That’s where we come in,” Tholen said. “We provide the team to do the design so the customers or clients can focus on what they do best. Wireless nowadays means different things to different people. For us, a customer has a need and a product idea, but they don’t have the knowledge or resources to complete it, and that’s why they hire us.” 

The work that NextGen does is typically on a contract basis. It’s hired to meet a client’s specific development needs. “At our core, we are an engineering design business,” Mitchell said. 

Mitchell, an electrical engineering graduate from Iowa State University, got his start in the radio frequency field at EF Johnson Technologies in Waseca, a radio frequency company founded in the 1930s which developed into the largest CB radio company by the 1980s. At that time, the Waseca area was known for its radio frequency and wireless design businesses. 

“EF Johnson actually developed the cell phone with Motorola and, eventually, there were spinoff companies,” Mitchell explained. 

It was at one of those spinoffs, NextNet wireless, that Mitchell met Tholen, a Minnesota State University, Mankato electrical engineering graduate. Both men were eventually laid off from the company in the summer of 2008.  

“While it was scary, it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened,” Tholen said. “It ended up being about finding opportunities among the negative and persevering.” 

For Mitchell, who is married with two children, leaving Southern Minnesota to find an equivalent job in the Twin Cities wasn’t an option. Instead, he opted to start his own business and incorporated NextGen RF Designs in the fall of 2008. 

Mitchell said he learned a lot about being an entrepreneur from his grandfather, who owned a furniture business, and from his own time working at a bicycle shop with another entrepreneur. Both Mitchell’s grandfather and the bike shop owner were instrumental in shaping who he is today. 

“NextGen RF Designs was born out of necessity,” Mitchell said. “It was really an experiment, in the beginning, to see if it would work out. It was certainly a leap to take.” 

Like every small business owner, Mitchell needed help establishing a client base in the beginning. His first few contracts were for people he knew in the field and various friends. 

“I knew there was a need for RF design and engineering,” Mitchell said. “It’s a niche area but we’ve proven that there’s a need over the years. There are a lot of companies that don’t want to hire the types of talent it takes or buy the equipment that you need when it comes to electrical engineering. That’s where contracting helps because what would these companies do with all of this equipment they would have had to purchase?” 

Within a few months of NextGen’s incorporation, Tholen joined the company. “We knew each other really well, so I brought him on and made him my equal partner,” Mitchell said. 

After his 2008 layoff from NextNet, Tholen went to work at another contract manufacturer in the area, only to be the subject of another round of layoffs there in 2009. He received a few offers that would have required him and his family to move, and other offers that weren’t necessarily in his area of expertise. Luckily, he’d kept in touch with Mitchell after NextNet. 

“He had a contract that was just starting that I had expertise in, and I felt like it was a natural fit,” Tholen said. “At that point, I bought into the company, and ever since we’ve been partners.” 

The duo compares their working relationship to a marriage, stressing the importance of communication and compromise. They discovered they have differences of opinion just as often as they share the same ideas. 

“Luke has strengths that I don’t have, and I have strengths that complement him,” Mitchell said. “We feel it works well. Do we always get along? No, but we find a way. That’s the foundation of the company from the early days. It started with him and I knocking out contracts and thinking about how we wanted to create a business. We knew we needed to build our client list and our reputation.” 

Building a client list would require more employees. So, the partners began reaching out to their previous coworkers and, in Tholen’s words, “getting the band back together.” To date, five NextGen engineers, including Tholen and Mitchell, had worked together before at either RF Johnson or NextNet before joining NextGen. 

“The guys we previously worked with were all good engineers,” Tholen said. “They had common knowledge and the same capabilities that we did. We knew it was important to bring everyone back together to be able to perform our designs [for] a variety of different customers in a variety of markets.” 

Mitchell said NextGen tries to stay diversified because wireless designs and the products these designs utilize aren’t industry specific: “Everybody wants and needs it.” 

With clients in industries ranging from defense to medical devices, NextGen is kept plenty busy. 

“Medical implant devices need wireless and products in the industrial world do, too,” Mitchell said. “For example, even a skid loader is a device with wireless capability, which allows a construction company to keep track of their equipment, tells them when it needs maintenance and even where it’s located. So, a company will buy the skid loader and then need help developing it to its potential.” 

Wireless connectivity is utilized in many industries, including defense, agriculture, communications, industrial, public safety and critical communication fields, Tholen said. NextGen has developed applications for critical infrastructure that controls gas and oil pipelines, water and wastewater management and electrical grid maintenance. 

“All of that information needs to be secure, and it’s critical to the U.S. infrastructure,” Tholen said. “Our value proposition is when the standard off-the-shelf solution isn’t going to perform well enough or it’s not the right fit for a client’s product, we can help optimize it.” 

Mitchell said the electrical engineering and design field is a pretty tight-knit community and smaller than one might think. A majority of NextGen’s work is generated by word of mouth and comes from existing customers or customers that have moved to new jobs. 

“People change jobs and that’s another way that we grow,” Mitchell said. “A key tech person may leave a company and, not only do we retain that company, but they leave and recommend us to their new employer and the new employer becomes a client that way.” 

NextGen’s word-of-mouth approach must be working because the company has experienced 25-30 percent year-over-year growth since 2014. Its clients span the world from Japan and South Korea to Europe and India to Australia and South America. The team is often not even required to see their clients in person and is able to perform work right in North Mankato.  

According to Mitchell the businesses that hire them are often peers who don’t have the internal bandwidth to carry out a project. “They will know how to do it, but they don’t have the power, core expertise or even the equipment,” he explained. “We provide them with a well-defined process that we’ve developed specifically for them, and that’s what separates us from our competition. We’re an open book to our clients and they know exactly what they’re paying. I think they appreciate that we’ve developed our system based on integrity. We’ve learned some hard lessons on the wrong way and the right way to do things.” 

When it comes to their work, Mitchell said the problems they’re tasked to solve are 80 percent of the work and the design makes up the remaining 20 percent. 

“Dotting all of our I’s, crossing all of our T’s, getting all of the bugs out and figuring out all of the issues is where we excel,” Mitchell said. “That’s where the rubber meets the road with product development. We’re product development experts. We introduce products into the manufacturing environment and customers are able to take what we’ve developed for them and create their own business for it.” 

At the end of the day, NextGen RF Designs enables businesses to do what they do best Tholen said, and those businesses can be as different from each other as night and day. One of their most memorable examples is a drone racing league. The company approached NextGen in 2015 with a challenging problem; they were looking to develop a wireless system to fly drones in and around large venues like basketball arenas, football stadiums and outdoor plazas. 

At the time, technology wasn’t as advanced as it is today. The client had a very specific request: flying drones in front of an audience using a 3D course. NextGen’s solution was to create a distributed antenna system that operated the drones, guiding them through spaces and relaying video from a camera on board the drone back to the pilots. 

“We were able to enable their business model,” Tholen said. “… We helped the league to excel where some of the competing companies that were starting out weren’t able to perform to our same level of expertise.” 

NextGen was able to provide its client with a solution that went above and beyond. “They had grand visions about what they wanted to see done, and we were able to successfully help them achieve that,” Mitchell said. “At the time, it was unique and novel and they’re still going strong.” 

Their client has gone on to ink media deals and is now a recognized sports media company. To this day, Mitchell said NextGen still supports the company’s events. 

“It’s why we do what we do,” Tholen said. “For us, projects like that are part of the adventure. We seek it out. We love taking things to the next level, innovating and solving problems that others can’t.” 

In fact, their mutual love of problem-solving is what led Mitchell and Tholen into the electrical engineering field. 

When Mitchell was a child, he would watch his dad, a diesel mechanic, fix things at home, which led him to develop an interest in science and technology. Likewise, Tholen’s heroes while growing up were Doc Brown from “Back to the Future,” Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison. Both business owners enjoy finding new ways to solve problems. The same can be said for the rest of NextGen’s employees. 

“When I was a kid, I had this vision of being an inventor and sitting in a lab,” Tholen said. “Instead, what I’m finding while owning and operating a company like this is, we get to do so much more than what we could have envisioned. It’s exciting to see the progress we’ve made, and to see our employees have that same gratification, too.” 

For Mitchell and Tholen, the team is most important. It’s at the core of everything they do. 

“It’s not just one person solving one problem,” Mitchell said. “It’s a collective effort. Our culture here is: we work hard, but we try to have fun. Everyone can contribute, and we can all enjoy what we do and not be afraid to give constructive criticism.” 

Just as the company is evolving, so is technology. With the rapid growth in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning technologies, NextGen is looking at ways to incorporate both into its designs. It’s setting its sights on keeping pace with technological changes and adapting its approach to stay on top of it. 

“We have a few areas we’re getting into, so we expect to potentially see very large growth in upcoming years,” Tholen said. 

“We feel like we’re positioned well to grow in the next several years,” added Mitchell. “We have made strides with products we’ve developed and have been able to enable.” 

Regardless of what the future holds for the business, NextGen is dedicated to the North Mankato community. 

“The City of North Mankato helped us move up here in 2018 from Waseca and they’ve been very welcoming,” Mitchell said. “Our specific area of expertise in RF engineering is a dying breed. Finding engineers that have the capability to do that and also have the capability to do design work is even more difficult. That’s one of the reasons why we moved here — we can connect with the college to work with engineers that are being developed and that we’ll need to work with us in the future.”  

Sidebar: What is radio frequency? 

Radio frequency, or RF, is a measurement that represents the oscillation of electromagnetic radio waves from various frequencies. With the use of transmitters and antennas, an RF field can be used for different types of wireless broadcasting and communications. 

Sidebar: The Marconi Telegraph 

In the late 1890s, Italian inventor and electrical engineer Guglielmo Marconi began experimenting with electromagnetic waves to send signals across platforms. At the time, using Morse code via telegraph wire was the fastest way to send messages. Marconi designed a transmitter and a receiver to detect radio waves. His first wireless message traveled 18 miles in 1898. In 1900, he patented his system. In 1901, he sent the first radio signal across the Atlantic Ocean.  


The Essentials: 

NextGen RF Designs 

Website: nextgenrf.com 

Phone: (507) 514-6245 

Address: 2130 Howard Dr. W, North Mankato, MN 56003 

Anna Vangsness

A freelance writer from New Ulm.