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Pivotal Commware beams
An artist’s conception illustrates different applications for Pivotal Commware’s software-defined antenna system. (Pivotal Commware Illustration)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – Chalk up another score for metamaterials technology: Bellevue-based Pivotal Commware says it’s raised $17 million in Series A funding from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Globalstar’s parent company and other heavy-hitters.

The investment will give a boost to Pivotal’s “holographic beam forming” technology, which takes advantage of the beam-bending properties of metamaterials. The company’s software-defined antenna system facilitates easier communication with moving targets ranging from ships and planes to trains and connected cars.

One unusual angle to Pivotal’s play is that the company is already making a profit, said CEO Brian Deutsch. “The fact that we’ve had early commercial success is unique. … We’re not only post-revenue, we’re post-profit,” he told GeekWire.

Pivotal is keeping the identity of its prime customer under wraps for now, saying only that it’s an air-to-ground, in-flight communications service provider.

Deutsch said there’s more business in the works. “We have way more work than we can handle,” he said.

That’s one of the issues the new funding round aims to address. Right now, Pivotal Commware employs about 20 people, primarily at the company’s headquarters in Bellevue, Wash.

“We’ll double that by year’s end … if we can,” Deutsch said. “We’re really picky.”

Pivotal is one of four metamaterials-based ventures that have been spun out from Intellectual Ventures, a technology incubator that’s also based in Bellevue. The others are Kymeta, which focuses on flat-panel satellite antennas; Echodyne, which builds radar systems suited for drones and connected cars; and Evolv, which is working on security scanning applications.

Brian Deutsch
Pivotal Commware CEO Brian Deutsch

Gates is an investor in all four ventures. “Bill Gates is a very large part of our round,” said Deutsch, who headed up the metamaterials commercialization team at Intellectual Ventures’ Invention Science Fund before taking on Pivotal’s top job last year.

Deutsch said other investors include DIG Investment, Lux Capital, the family office of private equity investor Barry Sternlicht – and The Thermo Companies.

Thermo is the corporate parent of the Globalstar satellite company, which provides a key piece of the puzzle for Pivotal.

“Globalstar is ostensibly a satellite company, but they’re not interested in using our system for their satellites,” Deutsch said. “They’re interested in co-using their spectrum for terrestrial. … We’re very bullish on what we’re going to be able to do for Globalstar, as are they.”

Jay Monroe, who’s the CEO of The Thermo Companies as well as the chairman and CEO of Globalstar, said in a news release that he’s looking forward to “the potential of this standalone investment as well as the integrated benefits with our other telecom investments.”

Pivotal’s system relies on technology licensed from Intellectual Ventures. Thanks to metamaterials, the software-based control system can shift the focus of a flat-panel antenna without having to shift the antenna’s orientation.

Deutsch said that’s ideal for what he calls “access in motion” applications – for example, communicating from ship to shore, or from air to ground, or from connected cars. The system is also being field-tested with Tier 1 mobile operators, Pivotal says.

Pivotal Commware antenna
Pivotal Commware’s software-defined antenna system can shift its focus without having to shift its physical position. (Pivotal Commware Photo)

In a statement, Intellectual Ventures CEO Nathan Myhrvold said Pivotal’s holographic beam-forming technology “is the ultimate software-defined antenna able to improve communications products across a wide range of applications.”

The technology may sound similar to Kymeta’s, but Deutsch insisted that “there are no cracks in the dam between us and Kymeta.”

Redmond, Wash.-based Kymeta is focused on communications with satellites above rather than ground-based signals. Because of the different spheres of influence, an airplane could well be equipped with a Kymeta antenna pointing up toward satellites, and a Pivotal antenna pointing down toward the ground.

Deutsch doesn’t see Pivotal getting into the business of providing the actual communication services. Rather, the company intends to work with a wide variety of partners and customers. “We want to be the infrastructure, the spectrum behind the service provider,” Deutsch explained.

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