Software commanded much of investors’ focus last year. According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers and National Venture Capital Association report $19.8 billion was invested in software companies in 2014, a 77 percent increase over 2013. But while the attention was on software, an under-the-radar Bellevue company was developing technology that could have a far wider reach than the latest app.
Echodyne, an Intellectual Ventures spinoff, doesn’t make snazzy gadgetry or colorful apps. Instead, it develops metamaterial technology used in radar-based products. Metamaterials are created using elemental structures that can affect waves of light or sound in a way that is not found in nature.
Casey Tegreene, vice president of Intellectual Ventures’ Invention Science Fund, uses water refraction, the bending of light waves when they hit water, to explain how metamaterials can work. A partly submerged straight item, such as a stick or a forearm, appears angled at the water’s surface because light travels through water at a different speed than it does through air. Metamaterials can make objects in water appear to angle in the opposite direction, which is known as negative refraction.
In 2006, researchers at Duk University used metamaterials to develop and test an invisibility device. The researchers concluded invisibility can’t be accomplished on a scale large enough to conceal a person, but the idea does play with the imagination. The folks at Echodyne, in collaboration with the Metamaterial Commercialization Center and researchers from Duke and the University of California at San Diego, are focused on more practical prospects.
“You can imagine if you have really good control of waves you can do things from communication to imaging, acoustics to thermal to power,” Tegreene says. “All those are areas we’ve been exploring. We’re not ready to talk about what our next area is, but we’re already working on two of them.”
Echodyne quietly announced in December a $15 million Series A funding round from investors including Madrona Venture Group, Bill Gates, and Vulcan Capital. The company is headed by CEO Eben Frankenberg and CTO Tom Driscoll, who researched metamaterials at Duke and UCSD before joining Intellectual Ventures and then Echodyne.
“I’m very excited about the market potential for our breakthrough metamaterials-based radars,” Frankenberg said in a December statement. “They stand to be disruptive to existing radar markets, but also enabling for whole new categories of radars never before contemplated or thought possible.”
Intellectual Ventures CEO Nathan Myhrvold has said the launch of Echodyne is proof that his company is on the right path in developing metamaterial technology. “IV will continue to invest accordingly in this very promising space,” Myhrvold said in a December statement.
Tegreene says Intellectual Ventures has been working in metamaterials for more than a decade, beginning “back when it was still something of a novel technology. The fundamentals were just beginning to be understood. Among many different technologies, we’ve taken a fairly thorough position and spent a lot of time and money developing the technology.”
The Invention Science Fund is Intellectual Ventures’ technology investment arm. The fund and its investors take a less common tack when investing since they aren’t looking for a quick revenue spike and a lucrative exit strategy so much as supporting research and development of innovative technology.
“We can look at technology from a very early viewpoint and bring together scientists in the area, and really explore the possibility of the technologies with the patience of our investors, understanding that we can take some time to get those products to commercialization,” Tegreene says.
Echodyne isn’t the first metamaterials company Intellectual Ventures has invested in. Prior to spinning off Echodyne, Intellectual Ventures incubated Kymeta, which develops metamaterials surface antenna technology that enables satellite-connected broadband Internet to exist anywhere in the world. The technology creates a broadband connection from an antenna on a moving object, such as a plane or automobile, to a satellite, facilitating a constant connection. The laptop-size piece of equipment is much less cumbersome than technology currently in use and is expected to hit the commercial market later this year.
In 2013, Intellectual Ventures spun out Evolv, which commercialized metamaterial imaging and detection technology used in screening systems like those in airports. The Metamaterial Commercialization Center, created in 2013, works to develop and commercialize new metamaterial technology.
“The technology platform that we developed can be commercialized in several different ways,” Tegreene says. “You can’t just take one (technology) and move it over to a different field, but the depth of knowledge allows us to work across multiple different marketplaces.”
Metamaterials might not be glamorous software, but it has the potential to change the way people go about their days, from connecting to the Internet to walking through airport security. It’s not attracting as many investors as software, but it likely won’t be as fleeting, either.