Metamaterials Commercialization

For more than a decade, metamaterial science has captured the imaginations of researchers around the globe. What has been so compelling--almost addictive--about metamaterials is the ability to exert unprecedented control over the properties of a material or other device. Although metamaterials have been widely associated with patterns of metallic rings, wires or other hieroglyphic-like shapes, in fact a "metamaterial" is more of a design approach or conceptual description that allows new paradigms for controlling the flow of light and other wave excitations. The discovery of metamaterials has unleashed an enormous burst of creativity from the research community, leading to demonstrations of invisibility cloaks, negative refractive index materials, and many other exotic materials.

Yet, compelling science does not always translate to usable technology, at least not without a great deal of work. While metamaterials have brought us new perspectives and new directions for design, it is not obvious that these new tools and approaches could produce devices or components that would be better than existing technologies. At least it wasn’t obvious from the outset.

Commercialization of technology requires an entirely different set of questions to be asked and answered. Like any potential product that might be considered, it is important to know what function that a metamaterial product might perform; who would be the customers for the product; how much those customers would be willing to pay; what other existing technologies could also solve the problem; and how easy the product would be to manufacture. There are many other concerns to address that are part of the marketing and business strategy that complements the research strategy.

Currently, many small and large companies are at work developing metamaterial-based products and answering the types of questions described above. In recent years, our laboratory has worked closely with the Invention Science Fund (ISF) at Intellectual Ventures to develop several metamaterial product concepts. Some of these concepts have resulted in spinoff companies, which we describe

[Note: the companies named below are those that Prof. Smith has worked closely with and has an ongoing relationship with. The discussion below is presented for informational purposes only, not to endorse any products or imply these companies listed are exclusive in terms of metamaterials commercialization.]

Invention Science Fund, Intellectual Ventures

Starting in 2004, the Invention Science Fund (ISF) at Intellectual Ventures began building a metamaterials portfolio of metamaterial related inventions. At the time, metamaterials were extremely controversial in the scientific community, generating nearly as much skepticism as they did enthusiasm. What was clear was that new physics was emerging, including new concepts like negative refraction, which challenged decades of assumptions and beliefs. The controversy served to highlight just how unusual these emerging materials really were. Rather than being frightened away by all of the noise and commotion surrounding metamaterials, Nathan Myhrvold--CEO of Intellectual Ventures--and Casey Tegreene--Executive Vice President and Chief Patent Council of ISF--became convinced that metamaterials held potential value for commercialization and determined to invest in this nascent but incredibly active field.

For several years, the inventive team at ISF worked with Prof. Smith’s group at Duke, as well as Sir John Pendry (Imperial College, London) and several other metamaterial experts, trying to find viable applications for which metamaterials would be well suited. In the process, many new ideas were developed, always with the goal of commercialization in the background.

In 2010, with an expanded business development team and more serious marketing efforts, a concerted effort was made at ISF to identify the best commercial opportunities, and develop specific metamaterial paradigms that could become metamaterial products. ISF leveraged the substantial laboratory resources of Intellectual Ventures, forming a metamaterial study group that would ultimately design and demonstrate product prototypes. Nathan Kundtz, a former student from Prof. Smith’s group, moved to ISF to lead this study group, becoming effectively the first director of what would eventually become the Metamaterials Commercialization Center (MCC). While at ISF, Dr. Kundtz and his team developed the flat panel metamaterial antenna that they called MSA-T, and later the mTenna. The MSA-T antenna proved to be a practical device that could dynamically steer a radio-frequency (RF) beam, and could be readily manufactured as a relatively low-cost, high-performance device. Since 2010, ISF has spun off three companies that leverage metamaterials to create innovative hardware: Kymeta Corporation (2012); Evolv Technology (2013); and Echodyne (2014).

Kymeta Corporation

In 2012, Kymeta Corporation (Redomond, WA) was formed to commercialize the metamaterial antenna for satellite communications. Satellite offers far more spectrum and coverage for wireless communication than any terrestrial platform, and thus holds tremendous market potential. However, satellite communications are hindered by the antennas used to access the signal. Conventional antennas have either been dish-type antennas that must be mechanically steered to capture the satellite signal, or phased array systems for dynamic beam forming. Both options are expensive and have significant drawbacks that make them unsuitable for large-scale, consumer-driven markets. Interest in Kymeta’s alternative metamaterials based antennas has been considerable, with Kymeta having entered partnerships with companies like Intelsat, Sharp, Panasonic, Toyota, and many more. Nathan Kundtz, a former graduate student and postdoctoral researcher from Duke University (and the Smith group!) is founder and CEO of Kymeta.

Kymeta Corp. has been named by CNBC to its annual list of the World’s 50 Most Disruptive Companies in 2013 and 2014 and was selected by Future in Review as a 2014 FiRe Starter company. Some links to news about Kymeta are below:

New York Times - Kymeta Raises $62 Million in Investment Led by Bill Gates

Puget Sound Business Journal – This Redmond-Built Portable Satellite is about to Change the Way the Maritime Industry Communicates

GeekWire – Kymeta and Panasonic make a deal for shipshape, lightweight satellite antennas

GeekWire – Kymeta partners with Sharp to build satellite internet antennas with TV screen tech

At the 2016 Detroit Auto Show, Toyota revealed future plans for their Connected Car project, showing a hydrogen fuel cell Mirai sedan with a Kymeta antenna built into the roof. The satellite link would be used for entertainment, navigation and many other services.

Wired – Toyota eyes satellite antennas for data-hungry connected cars

GeekWire – A satellite antenna on your car: Toyota and Kymeta aim to make it so

Evolv Technology

In 2013, Evolv Technology was formed with the intent to develop novel metamaterial-based apertures for next-generation microwave and millimeter wave security imaging systems. Evolv’s goal has been to fuse innovations in hardware with advanced software and data processing techniques. This opportunity grew out of efforts at Duke to form a metamaterial imaging device that would leverage emerging capabilities in computational imaging and compressive sensing. Evolv is led by CEO Mike Ellenbogan, a security and imaging expert would has a long history in commercializing security screening technologies. Previously, Mike Ellenbogan served as CEO and co-founder of Reveal Imaging Technologies.

Xconomy – Bill Gates invests in Boston’s Evolv, an Intellectual Ventures spinout

GeekWire – Intellectual Ventures spinout Evolv gets $11.8M from Bill Gates and others, aims to transform security scanning

Echodyne Corporation

Founded in 2014, Echodyne is developing metamaterial-based radar systems for a variety of sensing applications. Echodyne has currently developed a Metamaterial Electronically Scanning Array (MESA) that provides radar functionality with reduced cost, power draw and weight as compared with systems based on conventional technology. The MESA radar system achieves improved metrics using an architecture that avoids the discrete phase shifters and amplifiers that are embedded in traditional platforms to achieve beam steering. Echodyne is developing radar solutions for imaging and sensing for autonomous vehicles, as well as for other maritime and aviation applications. Echodyne was founded by Eben Frankenberg (CEO) and Tom Driscoll (CTO).

The Seattle Times – Bellevue Company Develops Advanced Radar System

Fortune – This unsexy technology is set to revolutionize the drone industry

The New York Times – The waves of the future may bend around metamaterials