Kymeta Raises $62M, Demonstrates Satellite Antenna on Toyota Car Roof

Investors in Kymeta, including Bill Gates, have plowed another $62 million into the Seattle-area technology company as it aims to bring lower cost, high-speed satellite communications to automobiles and other vehicles.

Kymeta’s metamaterials-based satellite antenna technology is on display this week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where Toyota is showing a “research vehicle” with a flat-panel antenna embedded in the roof. The technology “could solve the challenge of vehicle-based satellite communications,” Shigeki Tomoyama, senior managing officer of Toyota Motor Corporation, said in a news release.

The automobile industry is exploring new solutions for moving more data to and from vehicles in real time to enable entertainment, navigation, and communications features; monitor vehicles; deliver over-the-air updates to their increasingly sophisticated and integral software; and, eventually, transition to self-driving cars. Satellites, particularly high-capacity satellites, offer advantages over terrestrial communication networks, including broad—essentially global—coverage areas, stability and security in natural disasters, and large data volumes.

Kundtz

Kundtz

“Satellite connectivity can best address the capacity, coverage, and security concerns of conventional solutions to car connectivity,” said Kymeta CEO Nathan Kundtz in a news release. “Better yet, these assets are available now. We don’t have to wait 10 years for a next generation cellular network to be invented and deployed. This will be crucial because five years from now, every car that comes off a production line should be connected. In fact, we should stop calling it the ‘connected car’, and just call it ‘the car’ because this is the future of automotive.”

Existing technology for linking up with high-capacity satellites requires a dish with moving parts to aim the antenna. Kymeta and its partners believe its technology, which has no moving parts, represents a major improvement over the status quo.

Kymeta and Toyota have been working together since September 2013. Kymeta has “an exclusive right for development and testing of the on-car antenna” and has logged some 8,000 miles of road tests of the research vehicles, during which Kymeta’s technology “automatically acquired and tracked Intelsat Ku-band satellite signals while on the move,” the companies said.

Kymeta and satellite services provider Intelsat announced a joint development program last February to produce antennae optimized for high-throughput satellites. Intelesat plans to launch its first of these, the EpicNG high-throughput satellite (manufactured by Boeing), on Jan. 27.

Kymeta has formed several technology, manufacturing, and distribution partnerships to push its technology into various applications, including one announced last week with Panasonic Avionics for the maritime market. Last August, Kymeta teamed up with Sharp to use its liquid crystal display production technology and factories to produce its mTenna flat-panel antennae.

As part of the Toyota announcement, the companies disclosed a $5 million investment in Kymeta from Mirai Creation Investment Limited Partnership, in which Toyota is an investor. Kymeta said Monday its $62 million Series D funding round was joined by existing investors including Gates, Lux Capital, The Kresge Foundation, and Osage University Partners, as well as new “undisclosed strategic partners,” one of which was Mirai. Other new strategic investors haven’t been disclosed. Kymeta, which spun out of Intellectual Ventures in 2012, has since raised $124 million.

Kymeta now has 110 employees at its Redmond, WA, headquarters.

The company’s satellite antennae consist of tiny metamaterials structures that can be electronically activated, using software, to form and steer radio frequency beams—allowing them to track a satellite from a moving platform without need of mechanical equipment to physically turn the antenna. This innovation allows significant improvements in weight, cost, and performance.

Gates, a close associate of Intellectual Ventures founder and former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold, has invested in all three companies to spin out of IV’s Metamaterials Commercialization Center, which refined and commercialized a trove of metamaterials intellectual property acquired from Duke University, UC San Diego, and Imperial College of London.

The others are Boston-based Evolv Technologies, working on metamaterials-based imaging products, and Echodyne, which is employing the technology to reduce the cost and weight of radar to unlock new applications in self-driving cars and drones.

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

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