KYMETA- Affordable, electronic beam steering Antennas for satcoms

This week marks the official launch of Kymeta –a new company that aims to commercialize emerging metamaterials concepts. After more than a year of development and incubation in the Intellectual Ventures Lab, the mTenna™ has been developed, with a mission to simplify the connection between mobile users and high capacity Ka-band communications satellites. Kymeta’s mTenna™ will allow passengers on planes, trains, boats, automobiles and other vehicles to enjoy the same kind of broadband connectivity that they already have at home or in the office.

The mTenna™ is based on a reconfigurable aperture. The reconfigurability is achieved through the use of a standard PCB-like circuit board composed of several thousand sub-wavelength metamaterial resonators, each of which can be individually tuned. This PCB-like board is attached to a conventional feed structure. Thus, as the RF energy propagates through the system, individual tunable elements can be activated (i.e., turned “on”) to scatter a portion of this RF energy out of the guided mode. It is the pattern of activated tunable elements that determines the shape and direction of the radiated wave through the formation of a reconfigurable grating. Changing the pattern of activated elements changes the shape and direction of the beam. The net result is an antenna with the dynamic performance of a phased array, but without the need for phase shifters, related amplifiers and other components.

Prof. Smith’s group and Duke have had a long-term partnership with Intellectual Ventures, with numerous Duke metamaterial inventions now part of Intellectual Ventures’ intellectual property portfolio. The launch of Kymeta is thus also a success in terms of industry/university collaborations.

David R. Smith, CMIP Center Director had the opportunity to sit down with former student and friend Nathan Kundtz, Founder, Chief Technology Officer for Kymeta:

David: What will be the focus of Kymeta?
Nathan: Kymeta will be using a new type of electronic beam forming technology for satellite communications
applications. Our initial focus will be on products which can exploit the rapid growth of affordable
satellite capacity in the Ka-band (20-30GHz).

D: What role do metamaterials play in the technology you have developed?
N: Metamaterials are central to the technology we have developed. Our approach to beam forming is to
use what we call diffractive metamaterials to create a reconfigurable grating. This grating must be
resolved with sufficiently fine resolution to be effective, and so the design techniques associated with
metamaterials are very important.

D: Can you describe the highs and lows of taking a technology from research to commercialization? How
does your perspective change along the way?

N: We are walking the path of commercialization right now. The surprising thing to see to-date is how
effective a small team of engineers can be when they are given a free hand to mature a technology. The
biggest change in perspective is the necessary focus on products rather than technology as well as the
aggressive timeline. The questions we start asking quickly change from ‘How?’ to ‘How Soon?’.

D: How large (in a purely subjective sense) do you feel the opportunity is for metamaterial products?
N: I think it’s safe to say at this point that the opportunity is very large. At Intellectual Ventures we
identified a number of sizable market opportunities, so Kymeta should just be the tip of the iceberg.
There are now a relatively large number of phenomena associated with metamaterials. As creative
people begin to turn these experiments into products (a process that requires its own sort of invention)
we will see many of these technologies make it into successful products.

D: How prepared were you—based on your experience at Duke—for your present job?
N: Duke was a wonderful place to prepare for my current position. The academic training put me in a good
place to lead a team of engineers and make development decisions. At the same time Duke has a large
ecosystem of active student groups that provide opportunities for developing soft skills; which I have
found to be just as important while leading a team.

D: How did your experience at Intellectual Ventures help prepare you for this spin off?
N: While at Intellectual Ventures (IV) I have been heavily involved in the business development aspects of
bringing a new technology to market. The experience looking for capital, engaging with customers and
working on product strategy will be important to the work we will have to undertake at Kymeta. I also
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have had the opportunity to work with several former technology CTOs. I am hopeful that their insights
will help us to avoid costly mistakes.

D: What advice would you extend to the next generation of students, seeking an entrepreneurial path in a technology field?
N: There are very real opportunities out there for students who want to be entrepreneurial. My advice
would be to start thinking like an entrepreneur as soon as possible. You don’t need to take business
classes to start thinking critically about how the technology you are working on in graduate school could
become a product or a company.

KYMETA & Metamaterials

About Metamaterials at Intellectual Ventures

For nearly a decade, Intellectual Ventures (IV) has explored the potential of metamaterials – a new class of synthetic materials engineered to have properties not found in nature. For example, metamaterials can manipulate incoming electro-magnetic radiation such as light or radio waves to redirect it in a variety of potentially useful ways. While there are many exotic applications of metamaterials like cloaking devices that could make an object invisible, our current focus is on more practical applications of the technology:

  • Satellite user terminals to connect boats, planes, cars and other vehicles to broadband service
  • Dynamic cellular base station antennas to expand cell phone service
  • Dynamic antennas for home and office wireless routers
  • Collision avoidance radar systems for vehicles
  • Advanced medical devices for focused surgical procedures
  • Imaging systems for non-destructive testing of composite materials

©2012 Kymeta. All rights reserved. Kymeta is a product of Intellectual Ventures