Metamaterials Moguls: Gates, Allen Back New Radar Startup Echodyne

Microsoft’s co-founders are backing a Seattle-area startup that wants to apply proprietary metamaterials technology to radar.

Bill Gates is co-leader with Madrona Venture Group of a $15 million Series A funding round for Echodyne, which will seek to commercialize the metamaterials technology portfolio of Intellectual Ventures “for a wide range of new radar applications,” Gates says in a news release. Vulcan Capital, the investment vehicle of Microsoft’s other co-founder, Paul Allen, is joining the investment, along with other investors including Lux Capital and The Kresge Foundation.

Intellectual Ventures (IV), the controversial patent holding and invention shop co-founded by former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold, has now spawned three companies focused on different applications of metamaterials—artificial materials often assembled in patterns and with structures engineered to have specific effects on light, sound, radio, or other waves.

Gates and Lux Capital are also among the investors in Kymeta, the best-known IV spinout in the field, which is applying metamaterials to satellite antennas. The Redmond, WA, company earlier this week announced a $20 million funding round, on top of $62 million it had raised since spinning out of IV in 2012. It also installed co-founder and CTO Nathan Kundtz as interim CEO as it looks for a permanent replacement for Vern Fotheringham, who is stepping down at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Evolv Technologies, based in Boston, is applying related technology to advanced imaging, and last year raised $11.8 million.

Frankenberg

Frankenberg

The latest spinout, Echodyne, is co-founded by Eben Frankenberg and Tom Driscoll, who had senior leadership roles at IV. Frankenberg, Echodyne’s CEO, was previously in charge of IV’s efforts to spin out companies and was its chief operating officer. Driscoll, who is CTO, directed IV’s Metamaterials Commercialization Centerdescribed as “a team of engineers, physicists, and scientists dedicated to furthering the development and commercial readiness of our metamaterials inventions.” Driscoll also researched metamaterials at Duke University and University of California, San Diego, with which IV has collaborated on the technology.

Driscoll

Driscoll

Metamaterials promise “electronically scanned radar systems that are less expensive, smaller, thinner, lighter, and less power-hungry than existing devices,” according to a description from the Metamaterials Commercialization Center, which shows a picture of unmanned drone aircraft and a passenger car on the road. [Editor’s note: Shortly after Xconomy posted this story, the page from which this description was taken—http://www.metamaterialscenter.com/applications/radar-systems— was removed.]

“Radar is a pervasive technology that touches almost all aspects of society today, including civil, defense, commercial, and consumer applications,” the description continues. “Radar is essential to weather forecasting, aviation, maritime navigation, and national defense. Within the next decade, radar will be integral to autonomous vehicles, which promise to dramatically reduce the number of traffic accidents and fatalities.”

“I’m very excited about the market potential for our breakthrough metamaterials-based radars,” Frankenberg says in the news release. “They stand to be disruptive to existing radar markets, but also enabling for whole new categories of radars never before contemplated or thought possible.”

Bellevue, WA-based Echodyne, not surprisingly, isn’t saying much more about its specific strategy, making a pun about this stealthy, under-the-radar startup irresistible.

Suffice it to say that Seattle’s richest and most successful technology entrepreneurs have decided to bet big on this technology, and to place those bets on companies based locally.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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