Bill Gates Backs Fourth Metamaterials Spinout, Pivotal Commware
Pivotal Commware, a year-old metamaterials startup built inside patent licensing and invention business Intellectual Ventures, has raised $17 million from investors including Bill Gates.
If that sounds familiar, it should.
Pivotal is the fourth Gates-backed company to spin out of Intellectual Ventures armed with software-driven radio-wave bending metamaterials technology. Like its sister companies in satellite antennas (Kymeta), security scanners (Evolv Technology), and radar (Echodyne), Pivotal promises improvements in cost, size, weight, and capability over incumbent technologies in its target markets, including broadband wireless networks and air-to-ground systems.
Obviously, Pivotal Commware—like its metamaterials predecessors—is not a startup in the same way that a company built by independent tinkerers in a garage is a startup. It’s the result of a deliberate, well-funded, and so far, at least, highly successful machine within Intellectual Ventures (IV) designed to acquire, develop, and apply a suite of intellectual property covering a fundamental breakthrough in electromagnetic physics. IV was co-founded in 2000 by former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold, and pursues an eclectic range of businesses from patent acquisitions and licensing to modernist cuisine to global health.
Strategic investors were attracted to Pivotal and its exclusive license to the metamaterials technology for use in the terrestrial communications industry. Leading the round are The Thermo Companies, a majority owner of satellite company Globalstar, and DIG Investment, a European private equity fund that was an early backer of companies such as Lyft and Spotify. The family office of Barry Sternlicht, the real estate and investing magnate behind Starwood Hotels and Resorts, also invested, as did venture firm Lux Capital, which, like Gates, has invested in IV’s other metamaterials startups, which have raised more than $290 million collectively.
Leading the Bellevue, WA-based startup is Brian Deutsch, a long-tenured wireless communications executive who has been developing the technology and its potential market applications within IV’s Metamaterials Commercialization Center—part of its Invention Science Fund—for the last four years.
Deutsch says a metamaterials antenna represents the final frontier of digitization of the wireless communications technology stack, which he’s been working on since the mid-1980s when he helped develop early portable cellular devices at Motorola.
“All we really thought about was spectral efficiency and throughput,” he says.
In the ensuing years, digitization of the various components—such as radios and voice encoders—plus the steady progress of Moore’s Law, resulted in continual improvements, pumping more bits of information through each slice of radio spectrum so that today we take applications such as mobile streaming video for granted.
“But we’ve come to the end of that rainbow,” Deutsch says.
In the always-connected, high-definition digital world, the imperative for evermore throughput remains. The final piece of the wireless world to be eaten by software is the antenna itself. Enter metamaterials.
A metamaterials antenna consists of a flat, printed circuit board covered with a grid of tiny, specially shaped metal cells that act as individual antenna elements. Each one can be activated or tuned in a software-driven pattern to create a steerable radio frequency signal beam.
Deutsch refers to the technology as holographic beam forming or simply “a software-defined antenna.”
He offers a couple of useful analogies to help understand the utility of metamaterials in the world of wireless communications.
Picture a conference room with 100 people paired up in conversation. Those 50 conversations pollute the room so no one can hear their conversation partner. “The same is true with radio systems and radio waves,” he says. It’s a concept called “spectral hygiene.”
In the conference room, if everyone had a length of PVC pipe going from their mouth to their interlocutor’s ear, “you could easily have 50 conversations because each one of those [channels] keeps the spectral noise and purity intact,” Deutsch says. Moreover, the conversations would be easier for each partner to hear because the vocal energy is directed rather than dispersed into the open room.
In this analogy, the PVC pipe is the metamaterials antenna, which creates a narrow beam that can be directed in real time to a desired target.
This arrangement maintains the “spectral hygiene” while increasing the number of times a given frequency can be reused at the same time and place. “In doing so, you’re applying more signal to the subscriber so you can raise his throughput, too,” Deutsch says.
“Rarely in life, especially in engineering, do you get a two-for-one,” he says.
House Lights vs Spotlights
Another analogy to help explain how this improves on the status quo in cellular communications networks is in a theater, where there are house lights illuminating the seats and spotlights shining brightly on the stage.
“A house light is very much how cellular works now,” Deutsch says. “They light up an entire sector with this frequency and you can only use it once. It almost seems silly on its face, but it’s the only technology they had at the time. So they’ll take an eight-block area and light it all up, so that your phone, my phone, everybody’s phone hears the same exact thing. It sends out the signal and whoever’s phone is supposed to listen, listens.
“That’s great, except [wireless] spectrum is very scarce and very expensive, so it’d be much better if you can slice it and dice it and make these spotlights”—the radio frequency beams formed by the metamaterials antennas—“and then as an added side-effect, these spotlights have higher intensity than the house lights.”
In commercializing the technology for terrestrial communications, Pivotal benefitted from being the fourth IV company out the door. So much so that it was at risk of owing income tax at the end of 2016 after eight months of operation—a rare circumstance for a technology startup.
“We had such incredible reduction to practice and value engineering already done for products that we were able to go out and get a flagship customer to pay us, actually quite a bit of money,” Deutsch says.
Pivotal is the prime contractor on an air-to-ground communication system for an as-yet unnamed customer that intends to compete with the likes of Gogo Inflight Internet, set to roll out late this year or early in 2018.
That early business traction made raising the Series A funding round easier than it otherwise would have been, Deutsch says.
The funding will support development of four distinct markets:
—Access-in-motion applications, such as the air-to-ground communications system. This is perhaps the perfect fit for the technology. “If you can form a beam and direct it in space, that means you can track moving objects” including planes, trains, and automobiles. (Drones, too, for both navigation and information backhaul.)
Pivotal Commware intends to provide full systems rather than just software defined antennas in this market, Deutsch says.
It’s also the market that comes closest to one of the other spinouts, Kymeta, which provides metamaterials satellite antennas for vehicles such as yachts, cars, and jets. Deutsch says the two companies have divided the market at the mesosphere—the zone in the upper atmosphere where the air’s too thin for most jets, and too close to the earth for orbiting objects to stay in orbit.
—Radio access networks, essentially the wireless connection between the cellular tower and the end-user’s handset. (This is the house lights versus spotlights analogy.) On a 4G network, Pivotal’s antenna would replace an existing sector antenna that sends signals to a large fixed area with three dynamically repositionable sectors. During a Mariner’s game, for example, mobile network operators want to flood Safeco Field with as much radio frequency energy as possible to provide access to the mass of people in the stands. It’s something they’ve struggled to do with existing technology because of the size of antennas and the difficulty in repositioning them in real time, Deutsch says.
“Now they can,” he says. “And in fact they can do it in such a way that it can be self-optimized.”
In another scenario, a software-defined antenna on a downtown building could blanket the streets and sidewalks below during morning and evening commutes, and then turn its beam onto an adjacent building to improve coverage there during the workday.
—Broadband wireless network optimization. When new small cell sites are added to a network, it takes a lot of work to precisely position them in alignment with existing sites for information backhaul—the part of the network that connects to the rest of the Internet. Deutsch says Pivotal’s antennas can optimize these connections automatically, without a lot of hands-on installation work.
—Civilian and military tactical communications. A software-defined antenna suspended from a quad-copter or other platform over a theater of operations could serve as a communications hub with lots of tactical advantages. The narrow, targeted beams are less susceptible to eavesdropping or spoofing, and can be turned on an adversary for jamming.
Deutsch says the Metamaterials Commercialization Center and the Invention Science Fund more broadly “will stand up as a model into the future of how you can do technology incubation.”
More than a decade ago, Intellectual Ventures acquired pioneering patents “that moved the Earth” on this technology from Duke University, Imperial College of London, and UC San Diego, he says. But the bulk of the patents covering how the breakthroughs are refined for different applications were written inside IV, he says. And the Metamaterials Commercialization Center continues to do basic research on applications in acoustics and optics, for example. Deutsch says another spinout company could be on the way.
Another advantage for these startups: the patent prosecution chops of IV, in terms of both pushing new intellectual property written in the Metamaterials Commercialization Center, and in enforcing patents against potential infringers.
“IV was absolutely perfectly positioned to do this,” Deutsch says. “They’re making a big go of this. I think you’ll see them try to promulgate this model in other deep science bets they have that you’ll see coming in the future.”