Kymeta Raises $50M To Upend Satellite Antenna Business

Satellite antenna maker Kymeta may be only a year old, but with a $50 million financing round and the technology backing of Intellectual Ventures, the company can hardly be called a startup.

The Redmond, WA, company—which uses patented metamaterials to make antennae that it says will beat existing technologies on size, weight, power requirements, and cost—raised the Series C funding from Osage University Partners and The Kresge Foundation, which joined existing investors Bill Gates, Lux Capital, and Liberty Global, in what president and chief operating officer Bob McCambridge describes as an oversubscribed round.

Kymeta has raised a total of $62 million since spinning out of Bellevue, WA-based Intellectual Ventures last August, and now has enough cash to operate until it begins generating commercial sales from its own branded products, which McCambridge says should occur in early 2015. It is already bringing in revenue from agreements with satellite companies such as Inmarsat, with which it is developing an antenna for delivering high-speed broadband access to jets.

Kymeta is the second stand-alone company to emerge from Intellectual Ventures, the controversial—and lucrative—effort of former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold to acquire intellectual property and license it to technology companies, or sue those who violate its patents.

For the last decade, Intellectual Ventures (IV) has been amassing a metamaterials “intellectual property treasure trove,” McCambridge says, primarily from Duke University, University of California San Diego, and Imperial College of London. “It’s a very massive new field and one that IV was quite prescient in thinking would be very important and valuable,” he says.

McCambridge offers this “non-technologist’s” definition of metamaterials: “A category of synthetic materials that have properties that don’t occur naturally in any organic state.” For Kymeta’s purposes, this means properties that “create a holographic image that can be used to acquire a satellite signal and then track it without any mechanical parts.”

Kymeta offers further detail on its Web site of the Metamaterials Surface Antenna Technology. The flat antenna is like a printed circuit board with “several thousand sub-wavelength resonators that can be individually tuned” in a software-driven pattern to form and steer a signal beam. This eliminates the need for mechanical systems to point the antenna, reducing weight and power needs.

The technology is still being proved, but earlier this year the company notched what it called a first satellite link to a Ka-band satellite using its metamaterials antenna.

McCambridge says the size, weight, power, and cost advantages of Kymeta’s technology open potential markets in mobile broadband access where no broadband infrastructure exists.

Initial products include a portable satellite terminal that would compete with Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) and very small aperture terminals used today by journalists, oil field workers, relief organizations, and others who need access in far-flung corners of the globe.

The agreement with Inmarsat is to develop another mobile product, the Kymeta Aero Antenna, which McCambridge says could deliver data to jets in flight at rates up to 30 megabits per second, sufficient for full-motion video.

Kymeta's Bob McCambridge

Eventually, the antennae could be used for satellite-to-satellite communication, as well, he says.

How would Kymeta compete with other efforts to bring broadband to remote places, such as Google’s Project Loon?

“What we’re doing enables them to do what they’re doing,” McCambridge says. “Whether it’s a satellite, or whether it’s a blimp, or a balloon, or whether it’s an airplane, if it’s going to be sending and receiving signals while it’s moving, an antenna has to track that.”

The company has made no announcements with Google, he adds. “We are very excited about the opportunity to work with them and think they’re doing some really groundbreaking work… We see them as a future leader, just as we see Microsoft and other companies, who understand the value of mobile broadband.”

Kymeta has 56 full-time employees and a dozen contractors. It is hiring and aims to have more than 90 employees next year and more than 120 by the end of 2014, McCambridge says.

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