9 Types of Metamaterials and Metamaterial Applications
If you’re like us, when you first hear about a superior material like graphene, your inclination would be to invest in it. Right? Haven’t you heard that if you took a sheet of cellophane made out of graphene and made an elephant stand on it while the whole thing was under a pencil point, that the pencil would not poke through the graphene?
That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to cool facts about graphene, yet investors today are left wondering why it hasn’t been properly commercialized yet apart from some premium sports equipment. The lesson learned is that just because you have a cool nanomaterial, it doesn’t mean you can commercialize it. Fullerenes and carbon nanotubes fit that same bill.
Now it just so happens that there are some very interesting materials out there being commercialized that you don’t hear people talking about much. They’re called “metamaterials”, and here’s the textbook definition from Wikipedia:
A metamaterial is a material engineered to have a property that is not found in nature. They are made from assemblies of multiple elements fashioned from composite materials such as metals or plastics.
So, how are these metamaterials made?
How Metamaterials Are Made
After some cursory searches on Google by our most astute MBAs, we have to say that the answer isn’t obvious. It’s easy enough just to say that any company which creates a metamaterial that’s commercially viable isn’t going to be super keen on sharing it with the world. Unless of course, they’re academic researchers, like those who announced earlier this year, a method to systematically design metamaterials using principles of quantum mechanics. That’s not a rabbit hole that we think anyone should start going down, so let’s just get right to the point and look at 9 types of metamaterials and metamaterial applications that venture capitalists have decided were worth funding.
Metamaterials and Intellectual Ventures
The first four companies we’re going to talk about all have something in common. They’re all based on technology provided by a firm called Intellectual Ventures (IV) which specializes in licensing the more than 95,000 patents and patent applications accumulated since the year 2000. In fact, IV has an entire website dedicated to “metamaterials commercialization” which has resulted in at least four successful startups being spun out which have collectively raised $308 million in funding so far. Given these success stories, maybe some of you MBAs out there can have a chat with them and see if there’s any dry powder left. In the meantime, here’s a look at the four startups that they’ve already helped put together.
Vehicles With Mobile Broadband
We first came across Kymeta in an article we wrote on 6 Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) Communication Startups back in April of 2017. That article was published just weeks after they raised just over $73 million with Intelsat as a lead investor, bringing their total funding to a whopping $217.6 million in funding. All that money is being used to develop lightweight, slim, on-the-move communication systems – like flat-panel satellite antennas that provide always-on mobile broadband. Here’s one on top of a Microsoft patrol vehicle:
Maybe soon, all vehicles will become Wi-Fi hotspots and our long-term dream of being able to work while puttering around in our Unimog on the steppes of Mongolia will come true.
Update 08/25/2020: Kymeta has raised $85.2 million in funding to speed up growth of its satellite-cellular antenna tech. This brings the company’s total funding to $302.8 million to date.
TSA, Go Away
Founded in 2013, Massachusetts startup Evolv Technology has taken in $29.8 million in funding to develop solutions for the security industry. It’s a company we first came across in our article on 6 AI Startups Doing Physical Security. Their flagship product, Evolv Edge, is a fully automated high-speed visitor screening solution which can handle 500-900 walkthroughs an hour. It comes with walkthrough firearm and explosive detection with face recognition for high throughput event and soft target protection:
They count Bill Gates as an investor so expect to see these on Microsoft campuses around the world.
Tracking Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Speaking of Microsoft, our next startup is based out of Bellevue Washington and has taken in $44 million from investors that include Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. Echodyne, like Kymeta, has also developed a radar vision platform. An article by Geekwire spells out how capable this platform is:
Recent tests show that Echodyne’s smartphone-sized system can track a Cessna plane at a distance of up to 3 kilometers (2 miles), a DJI Phantom drone at 750 meters (half a mile), and a palm-sized drone at 200 meters (650 feet)
The same article goes on to say how they have actually begun shipping units to customers which means they’re well beyond proof-of-concept. In addition to flying objects, the radar can also detect ground objects at the same time with vehicles tracked at two miles distance and pedestrians at almost one mile.
Holographic Something Something
Founded in 2016, Pivotal Commware is also based in Bellevue Washington and (surprise, surprise) also counts Bill Gates as an investor. The startup has raised $17 million so far to develop antennas and radios that use holographic beamforming to increase network speed and capacity. Holographic Beam Forming (HBF) enables wireless service providers to continuously reuse the same band of spectrum, at the same time, within a given spatial region. We’re not really sure what that means either, but it translates into something that is 50X cheaper than solutions in place today. So, we see how these four startups we’ve talked about so far are related in more ways than one. Let’s move on now to looking at other startups that aren’t part of the Intellectual Ventures clique.
Update 02/11/2021: Pivotal Commware has raised $50 million in Series C funding for R&D and to distribute its millimeter-wave 5G network infrastructure products. This brings the company’s total funding to $91.7 million to date.
Wireless Charging with Metamaterials
Founded in 2016, Oxford England startup Metaboards has taken in $5 million in Series A funding so far which closed just this past June. Remember how we talked about those tools that are peddling “nanocrystal electricity” as an investment theme? Well, Metaboards hopes to use their technology to develop wireless charging such that devices can be charged without having to plug them in. “We already have interest from companies looking into licensing the technology in the next six to 12 months,” said the CEO to Tech Crunch. Let’s hope their working prototype works better than “nanocrystal electricity”.
Seeing Around Corners with Radar
If we’ve learned one thing this past year it’s that you can use artificial intelligence for just about anything. One Silicon Valley startup called Metawave has taken in $17 million in funding to develop a radar system that marries artificial intelligence and metamaterials so they can do cool stuff like see around corners. The main applications for this technology are autonomous driving, and that’s reflected in their investor base which includes names like Toyota, Denso, and Hyundai. With 5G expected to be about 1000x faster than 4G, and that’s what the Metawave platform is being designed for.
Founded in 2013, Canadian startup Metamaterial Technologies was featured in an article we wrote way back in 2014 on how nanotechnology is being used to combat aircraft laser strikes. Since that article, the startup has raised almost $18 million in total funding and also made several acquisitions. They now offer a selection of products powered by metamaterials including an invisible metal mesh that can be used for touchscreen devices, a laser glare protection solution for commercial aircraft, a method to make LEDs more efficient, and a solar film that they are developing alongside Lockheed Martin (LMT).
This Sounds Effing Cool
Sometimes we come across technology applications that sound so cool we can’t help but talk about them. One such application comes from an English startup called Metasonics which has taken in an undisclosed amount of funding to develop “the first technology to dynamically shape and sculpt soundwaves in real-time.” From the University of Bristol:
Earlier this year at CES 2018, a global tech show in the US, the Metasonics team conducted its first public demonstration of the sound-proof ‘invisible window’ that lets in air but not sound. This technology could be used to redirect sounds from traffic or building construction. It could also help reduce late night noise pollution in pub gardens.
Other use cases might include car audio systems that let each passenger listen to something different or advertisements in stores that could target a different message to each customer.
A Website That Hertz The Eyes
Founded in 2001, Cambridge UK startup TeraView has taken in $15.5 million in funding to develop “terahertz instruments which can generate, detect and manipulate radiation to characterize a wide range of materials.” While not one penny of that funding was used to build a decent website, that didn’t seem to bother Samsung, as they were the lead investor in Teraview’s latest funding round of $10 million that closed in October of 2015. If you’re wondering what terahertz refers to, wonder no more with this handy diagram:
A key application of their technology is in the area of defect and fault detection, and some of the products on offer include a device that can detect how many layers of paint are on a car and various devices that are used to find defects in the semiconductor industry.
This is hardly an exhaustive list of all metamaterials startups but rather a sampling of cool things being worked on by companies dabbling in metamaterials. If you have a cool metamaterials startup that wasn’t featured in this list, don’t panic. Just send us an email telling us how incompetent we are for having “missed” your diamond in the rough, and we’ll try to get you sorted out. Providing free research to the masses isn’t cheap, so don’t be afraid to throw us a few bones if you’re a PR firm with paying clients. We can also be plied with top-shelf booze and/or hard drugs, just make sure to bring enough for the whole office.
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