Virtual Antenna: Q&A with Ignion VP of innovation Carles Puente

Judy Lin, DIGITIMES, Taipei 0

Fractus Antennas, formed by engineers who invented the technology allowing smartphone antennas to automatically switch between different bandwidth networks and launched mini-antennas for the Internet of Things (IoT) era, has recently rebranded itself as Ignion.

Digitimes recently spoke with Ignion VP of innovation Carles Puente to learn about the new company's innovative product - Virutal Antenna - and growth potential in the IoT era.

Q: Please give us a brief introduction to Ignion. When was it founded and how big is the team now?

A: This company is actually a spin-off from a company called Fractus which we founded in 1999. Why have we decided to split the company into two independent entities? Because we had a new revolutionary technology, which will be applied on the Internet of Things in general, and that will be competing with that of Fractus once developed.

In the former company, Fractus, I am one of the leading inventors of the previous technology, which is fractal-based antennas. This is why the name "Fractus." This company was founded on the grounds of fractal antenna technology. The technology was fast adopted by a vast majority of mobile phone and smartphone makers around the world. In the year 2000-2015 about 99% of mobile phones and smartphones featured our technology based on fractal antenna. For several reasons, Fractus decided to become a licensing company, licensing its technologies and patents to the entire industry, so that everyone could use this technology that we created. Fractus got licensing agreements with most of the cellphone makers worlwide, including for instance Samsung, LG, HTC, Motorola, Blackberry, Sharp, Kyocera, ZTE and many other companies.

In that company my team created another new technology called generically antennaless technology (i.e., wireless without antennas) and branded it as Virtual Antenna, which is completely unrelated to fractals and different from the previous generation. And it has many advantages. In order to launch the new technology, we need to have a product, so we decided to spin off this new business into a new independent company in 2015.

The new company, originally named Fractus Antennas and now rebranded as Ignion, is the supplier of this new generation of virtual antenna chip components. Ignion owns the patent portfolio of virtual antenna technology and distributes and sells the new product for the IoT markets all around the world.

On March 25 2021, the new company will be rebranded with the new name, Ignion. The meaning behind the name? The new name is related to physics of the new generation of the Virtual Antenna chips, which generically are called antenna boosters. Instead of radiating on their own, those tiny antenna boosters "ignite" the radiation from a ground metal layer on the printed circuit board of the wireless device. This way, these tiny chips transfer all the RF energy to the ground which effectively radiates as a much larger antenna, so that a little component ignites a powerful radiation process that enables connectivity for any IoT device and any frequency band and wireless protocol.

We are rebranding our company because Virtual Antenna is a radical innovation unrelated to former fractal antennas and we need a new name that speaks for the innovative character and culture of the company as well. Also, we need a new brand that engages our ecosystem of partners and clients in the IoT market in this revolution we are making together. Ignion is here to let IoT solutions develop faster and easier with a technology that makes IoT engineering fast and simple in a traditional space, embedded antenna design, where technology was complex and slow to design.

Q: Please tell us more about yourself and your team.

A: I am a telecom engineer, I got my bachelors degree at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) in Barcelona. Then I went to the US and got my master's degree from University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I was awarded my PhD by doing a research in the field of fractal antennas back in 1999 again from UPC, where I have been teaching since 1994. We were also the ones to file the very first patent in the world on fractal antennas in May 1995, and went on to found our previous company in 1999. In essence, we are leaders of antenna research and have been developing antenna technologies and products for the wireless and mobile communications market over the past 20 years.

We have about 35 people in this new company. And we also have offices in the US, China and India.

Q: What differentiates your Virtual Antenna from other regular antenna module products?

A: Our Virtual Antenna chips are unique and different from competitors in three aspects. First, they are 10 times smaller than conventional SMT antennas or the same multiband cellular performance. People would thought it is impossible to get down to this size, but we have proven that even from such a small size we obtain an efficient radiation performance, as much as needed for a wireless device. And the advantage of being so small is that a Virtual Antenna chip can fit inside almost any device, so no specific antenna design for each product is needed.

We keep the component as small and simple as possible. We put all the intelligence on the circuit board by designing a clever electronic circuit, which is a bit like a filter, which will select the frequency bands to connect providing a great flexibility and freedom to designers.

Secondly, they are frequency neutral: the frequency bands of operation are not predetermined by the chip antenna component but they are selected by the electronics engineer through a simple matching circuit. This means that a Virtual Atenna chip can be used virtually for everything: from 5G, celluar IoT to LoRa, Sigfox, but also WiFi-6E, GNSS and Bluetooth, to name a few examples. One antenna for all. One antenna for any band and for any device. While competitors need more than 100 references to cover the market, we cover everything with just seven flagship parts. Conventional antennas were fixed on certain frequencies; Virtual Antenna chips can be used for any frequency band.

Traditional antennas are frequency-restricted to specific bandwidths. Our technology is completely different. We are frequency-neutral, meaning they are agnostic to frequencies. The circuits in the chip will select the matching band to be connected - that's quite unique.

Finally, they are off-the-shelf: no need for any product customization. Antenna performance optimization is done for any band and for any device with a simple matching circuit. This is why antenna design becomes "electronics as usual." Any electronics engineer can learn easily how to embed an antenna without antenna design expertise.

Q: In what ways do you shorten clients' time-to-market?

A: We help clients save time and cost and increase the predictability of design cycle results. Design cycle becomes shorter and predictable because any iteration in the design is just a change on the matching circuit. This can be done in hours as opposed to weeks.

First of all, design cycle becomes much shorter because the product is off-the-shelf: no need for creating a new antenna part every time, even for cellular. No need for prototyping, mechanical design, production tooling specific for a custom antenna.

Secondly, design cycle becomes much shorter because there are less steps in the design process. It is just as easy as ABC: A - placing the antenna in the right place (as opposed to antenna design); B - designing the matching circuit; C - testing. Also, you can use the same component for versatile applications. That makes design and logistics much simpler.You don't need to make specific design for each device. It is cost effective and have economic scale in large volumes.

Q: Your product portfolio caters to the needs of various applications markets, such as IoT and 5G. In your view, what is the most promising application in the next 5-10 years for your products?

A: IoT is certainly a very high-growth area. This technology is booming, and it is difficult to highlight one vertical, because many of them need connectivity within a small device, and through multiple communications standards, such as multiple 5G bands, LTE, or multiple LoRa or Sigfox frequency bands.

Applications such as smart home, smart meters, healthcare, or anything that need small antennas are also markets that we enjoy strong growth, but it is the multi-band applications market that we have a leadership position.

Asset tracking is one market that our technology has been enjoying exponential growth. When you need to track assets that move around the world, no matter it's on your smart watch that you wear when you ride bikes in the mountain or medical device to track the patients, you need small component to deliver the connectivity for your device in different networks, using different standards and different frequency bands. This is exactly what our technology is doing to address the problem. It provides connectivity through a tiny component, that connects either way of those global communications standards with the same antenna. Also, with our technology we can make products where a single chip antenna uses multiple different radios for: a) connecting through cellular/LPWAN to the cloud; b) connecting to the GNSS satellite to get the position of the IoT device; c) connecting via Bluetooth or Wifi to a local computer or smartphone to easily configure and operate the IoT device. This is an ideal solution for trackers that need to combine cloud connectivity, geopositioning and short range wireless operation in a single device.

Market analysts predict that there will be 25 billion IoT devices by 2025 all over the world, five billion of which will be cellular. New applications are developed to connect everything to the networks every day. So we believe the prediction by market analysts are in line with our expectation.

Q: About your business model. Licensing IP can also be a very profitable business. Why did you decide to spin off and sell manufactured products instead? Do you have EMS partners to manufacture them for you?

A: Yes we do. We are actually a fabless company. We have several partners in Asia to manufacture products as well as partners like Richardson RFPD or Digikey to distribute them all over the world for us. Our manufacturing technology is based on printed circuit board (PCB). So it is not dependent on any specific supplier nor sensitive to volatility of pricing or availability of raw materials.

We are expecting a 100%+ growth this year despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Our technology is rapidly becoming a trend in IoT. Many manufacturers, OEMs, can use the modules which use our antenna to build a whole range of IoT products all over the world. Given the high CAGR in IOT, in the next 5 years some 20 billion new devices will be shipped, we expect to be able to capture a substantial market share in the off-the-shelf (OTS) internal antennas. And as with any dominant technology our Technology Partner Program provides attractive commercial and licensing options to drive market penetration whilst eliminating single source risks. So our go-to market in fact is a dual model. We sell Virtual Antennas to maintain customer relationships and meet their requirements, enabling us to keep driving antenna innovation as we have done for the past 20 years, whilst partners can complete their solution portfolio through our licensing programs.

So far we have sold 25 million antenna chips since the founding of the company and we expect in 4-5 years, we would be selling at least 100 million antennas a year. And the actual market is much bigger than that. That is why we are exploring to license IP to partners who will supply Virtual Antenna compliant products to clients all around the world. We are foreseeing this as a dual model: we sell products under our brand name, because we want to be close to the market and maintain customer relationships to make sure that we keep up with innovation, but in terms of global reach, we are also ready to reach licensing agreements with other companies which would like to manufacture and supply similar products for the benefit of accelerating IoT deployment. Our goal is to contribute to a fast deployment of IoT worlwide with this technology.

And in order to extend our global reach, and given the importance of the Asia-based OEMS, we very much welcome Taiwanese manufacturers and IoT module makers to establish partnerships with us.

Q: Do you see any competitors in the market? And could you name some of your customers?

A: Given the uniqueness of Virtual Antennas we see other suppliers more as partners than competitors, because this technology has huge potential to revolutionize the industry. We believe other component manufacturers would also like to get off-the-shelf antennas for multiple frequencies and applications. In that case, we offer attractive Technology Partner licensing options providing access to our technology for other antenna suppliers under reasonable and transparent conditions. So other companies can enter into agreements with us and supply Virtual Antenna-centric solutions to the market and thus help accelerate the deployment of 20 billion IoT edge devices over the next five years. And as this strategy is now starting to become a reality, we see competitors more as partners and it provides benefits for everyone.

We already have shipped over 25 million solutions to clients in the tracking, smart metering and wearable markets, whereas more recently we see an uptake in Virtual Antenna use in gateways, medical and smart home segments. Another important aspect is the ever-changing wireless landscape, for example with the introduction of 5G and WiFi 6E, which is why we work closely with module makers such as Nordic Semiconductor, Sierra Wireless, Sequans and Cavli Wireless, or with unlicensed band focused partners such as Semtech and The Things Industry in the LoRa domain. For the first time, the antenna is embedded in many full-wireless IoT reference designs, because our antenna chips are so small that they fit in almost every edge device and more importantly they are compatible with all wireless protocols. The module makers want to provide a complete wireless solution to their customers, our technology allows them to do that as simple and as fast as possible.

Q: Any plans for this year? Fund raising or expansion?

A: We are not in need of external funding resources so far, despite growing 100% each year.

At this point in time our focus indeed is on expansion and growing our topline revenue, which explains why we are growing the team rapidly. In the meantime, we have further technology extensions on our roadmap to make Virtual Antennas more easy to use than any other antenna and penetrate new domains such as energy harvesting, machine learning and AI. Depending on the speed at which we can capture a substantial market share and penetrate new markets new funding might be required, and certainly an IPO is one of the options we do not exclude.

Ignion CEO Carles Puente

Ignion VP of innovation Carles Puente
Photo: Company