Gates Backs Intellectual Ventures Spinout: Antenna Maker Kymeta

8/21/12Follow @curtwoodward

Updated 11:20 am, see final paragraph
Intellectual Ventures, the patent-licensing firm headed by former Microsoft technology chief Nathan Myhrvold, has spun out a new company that promises to make fast broadband Internet available almost anywhere.

The new company, named Kymeta, is the second to emerge from Intellectual Ventures. It debuts amid continued criticism that Intellectual Ventures is mostly a “patent troll” that doesn’t contribute enough of its own inventions.

The first Intellectual Ventures spinout was TerraPower, a nuclear power startup that uses spent fuel or natural, unenriched uranium to produce electricity. Both companies are financed in part by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, a longtime supporter of Intellectual Ventures.

Kymeta employs something called metamaterials, man-made substances that can bend energy waves in ways that natural materials can’t. These metamaterials are sometimes mentioned as a possible source of a science-fiction-sounding cloaking device, but their more practical application is to create an advanced kind of antenna.

Because metamaterials can bend energy waves with precision, they can essentially steer a signal in whatever direction you want. When arranged in a circuitboard-like structure and used as an antenna, they could keep in constant contact with a satellite or tower that is transmitting a broadband connection, without having to use external motors to move the antenna around. That opens up the possibility of creating strong, fast Internet connections in airplanes or other moving vehicles.

Kymeta’s first showcase is actually a portable broadband hotspot. It’s about the size of a laptop, and Kymeta says it could be useful in situations such as “remote news gathering, exploration, disaster response, and other applications where high speed Internet access is essential.”

Mining and defense are probably among the first types of customers, but consumers would no doubt also be happy with the idea of popping out a small device that provided a strong broadband connection without having to be in range of a cell-phone tower.

The new startup has landed a $12 million financing round from Gates, Liberty Global, and Lux Capital. Kymeta, headquartered in Redmond, WA, employs 15 people and plans to add another 75 employees in the next year. Kymeta says it expects its products to be commercially available by 2015.

Bellevue, WA-based Intellectual Ventures is a lightning rod for controversy because of its use of patents to make money. Intellectual Ventures has said it owns more than 35,000 patents, which have earned the company some $2 billion in licensing fees. The company’s investors include big technology companies like Adobe, Apple, Cisco, and Microsoft.

Myhrvold and company say Intellectual Ventures’ mission is to create a more liquid market for intellectual property, essentially making patents into commodities that are accessible by people outside the huge technology companies and legal firms.

But the company’s intent and its patent-licensing tactics have been heavily criticized within the technology industry, particularly by early stage companies and investors who say the U.S. patent system is broken and stifles new ideas from blooming. A big problem in this area has always been a lack of transparency, including claims that don’t hold up upon further investigation, such as This American Life’s in-depth report last year.

One way Intellectual Ventures has defended itself from criticism is to point to its research and development arm, which is bankrolled by its own investment fund. In fact, the metamaterials antenna was one of the projects I profiled last year in a visit to the Intellectual Ventures Lab in Bellevue, where they’re also working on laser “fences” that can zap mosquitos and containers that can keep vaccines cold for months with electricity.
[Corrected source of investment in research and development arm of Intellectual Ventures.]

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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