Ethertronics Developing Active Antennas For Cornucopia of Next-Generation Wireless Services

4/30/09Follow @bvbigelow

Earlier this month, Xconomy reported that San Diego’s Ethertronics raised an additional $4 million in a secondary round of venture funding. Yesterday, I sat down with Sahil Bansal, Ethertronics’ director of strategic marketing, who explained how the company has emerged as a specialist in embedded antennas for cell phones and how it’s planning to use the new funds to move into the next-generation of wireless devices through “active antennas” for tuning into a diverse spectrum of mobile TV, FM radio, Bluetooth, and other services.

Ethertronics co-founders Laurent Desclos and Sebastian Rowson started the company in 2000 to commercialize new antenna technology known as IMD, for Isolated Magnetic Dipole. As Bansal explained it, both IMD and conventional embedded antennas are mounted on a circuit board and excited by an electric current. But with its patented IMD technology, Ethertronics can confine the current in the antenna element more effectively, which keeps energy from being dissipated through the circuit board and to surrounding components. Isolating the antenna in this way makes it more efficient, which allows for smaller effective antenna size and improved overall performance when a caller asks, “Can you hear me now?”

The innovation enabled Ethertronics to get its first patent in 2003 and its first order in 2004 from South Korea’s LG Electronics, currently the world’s third-largest handset maker. In the next two years, Ethertronics got its first orders from Samsung and Motorola.

Bansal says the privately held company now holds or has applied for more than 50 patents and ranks as a leading provider of embedded antennas for the wireless industry. Ethertronics has more than 180 employees, including about 35 at its San Diego headquarters and R&D center. Most of Ethertronics’ other employees work in South Korea, Taiwan, and China, and 80 percent of its global workforce is in engineering.

Ethertronics says it has shipped more than 150 million antennas since it was founded, with annual revenue zooming from slightly over $1 million in 2003 to more than $23.2 million in 2007—a 2,386 percent increase.

Now Bansal says the company is moving to adapt to a new trend in the wireless market as device makers add capabilities to receive mobile TV, Bluetooth, WiFi, WiMax, Wide Area Network, FM, and satellite-based GPS signals. Essentially, each feature operates at a different radio frequency and usually requires a different antenna. As multi-modes and multi-bands become more of the norm, Bansal said the challenge is developing multiple antennas, or perhaps multi-capability antennas, for handset designs with ever-smaller form factors.

In some cases, there will be multiple antennas to support different standards, such as Bluetooth and WiFi, Bansal said. Ethertronics also has combo antennas (multiple antennas co-located in the same ceramic package)that support Bluetooth and GPS in one small ceramic package, as well as products that support multiple multiple frequency bands through one high-performance antenna.

As a result, Ethertronics has been developing new techniques and technologies to create what it calls “active antenna systems” capable of providing greater performance for 4G handsets, and particularly the LTE, or Long Term Evolution standard. Bansal said the technical requirements for supporting mobile television and next-generation 4G cellular standards will be difficult to achieve with passive embedded antennas.

Beyond mobile handsets, Bansal said, is the industry’s other inescapable trend toward more capable wireless notebook computers, netbooks and other types of mobile devices. “The sweet spot with the highest value for us is in very tightly constrained designs that require multiple channels.”

The $4 million Series D venture round that was disclosed in early April is intended to help the company shift to this new market for active antennas. The investors were Ridgewood Capital of Ridgewood, N.J., Sevin Rosen Funds’ in Palo Alto, CA, and Bank of America, which got its stake through its acquisition of Excelsior Venture Partners of Stamford, CT. Ethertronics’ Chief Financial Officer, Rick Johnson, told me the company has not disclosed how much total venture funding it has received.
“It’s been a really tough investment climate over the past six months,” Bansal said, “so we’re really delighted that we were able to raise this capital.”

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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