The satellite dish has long been a symbol of space-age communications and a really good TV package, but the bulky antenna may be nearing its expiration date. For couch potatoes, it’s a difficult-to-install eyesore. The smaller antennas mounted on many trains, ships, and airplanes can hamper aerodynamics and drive up costs. “There’s a shared hatred for the dish,” says Nathan Kundtz, the co-founder and chief technology officer of Redmond (Wash.)-based startup Kymeta. He’s working to replace the satellite status quo with a flat-panel display as small as a laptop.
The first prototype of Kymeta’s flatscreen satellite device, the mTenna, is dotted with thousands of circuits. It aims a radio signal toward a distant satellite, providing a stable broadband link that’s three to four times faster than that of a traditional antenna, Kundtz says. The mTenna can maintain a signal even when it’s on a moving vehicle, and the device is small enough that Kymeta hopes to market it to war-zone reporters and disaster-relief workers. “It will be revolutionary in some areas of the industry,” says David Smith, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Duke University who was Kundtz’s doctoral adviser.
The mTenna owes its portability to metamaterials, manmade substances that boost signals while taking up little space. The metamaterial surface can reposition a transmitter electronically rather than mechanically. Kundtz, 30, first worked with metamaterials in Smith’s lab, where he analyzed their ability to render objects invisible to microwaves. He became interested in semiconductor applications while an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve University. “Every time I peeled back a layer, there was more underneath it,” he says. His fascination with scientific puzzles dates to high school, when a sledding accident left him with a broken leg and a lot of time spent with a math teacher during gym class.
Kundtz, whose doctorate is in physics, was recruited in 2010 to brainstorm uses for metamaterials patents by Intellectual Ventures, the patent licensing and research company headed by former Microsoft (MSFT) Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold. Kundtz began developing the mTenna that year, and it attracted enough investor interest that Intellectual Ventures spun the business off this past August, though Myhrvold’s company retains a stake. Kymeta’s 25-member team has received $12 million in funding from venture capital firm Lux Capital, broadband provider Liberty Global (LBTYA), and individual investors including Bill Gates. “We find and fund things pushing the envelope of possibilities,” says Josh Wolfe, Lux Capital’s co-founder and managing partner. “And Kymeta’s technology is doing just that.”
Kymeta hopes to release its first commercial product in 2015. Kundtz and his team are still working out pricing. For investors, the bet on a satellite revolution isn’t coming cheap, or without risks. “It was not the lowest-risk technology to take on,” Kundtz says. “It’s not like someone else has already done it.”