CEO Interview: Isotropic Systems readies for launch
UK startup Isotropic Systems is riding a wave of interest in space technology in the UK, US and Europe.
The company, based in Reading, already has 90 people and has raised over £70m from customers and equity investors and still has a way to go. “We are a UK deeptech startup in transformational optics and our project to get to revenue is around £120m before we launch the product in the middle of next year,” said John Finney, founder and CEO of Isotropic. “We are closing a funding round this year where we intend to scale up to produce more products in parallel.”
This is the first solid state flat panel satellite antenna that can mesh signals from multiple different satellite constellations, giving flexibility of network access.
“This is true multibeam, so we are not subdividing the bandwidth so there is no degradation of bandwidth and the package is fully solid state with the antenna, modem, power, self installing and essentially connects to many satellites at once,” he said. “We’ve cracked that.”
With SpaceX and UK-based OneWeb already deploying constellations of thousands of satellites in low earth orbits (LEO) to deliver high speed broadband connectivity from space, and Amazon’s Project Kuiper planning to do the same. Satellite connectivity is expected to skyrocket 35 fold by 2027, fuelling a $400bn potential industry says investment fund Seraphim. Last week it launched a dedicated space fund, with Isotropic as one of the investments.
Isotropic is also riding the wave of support for space companies in the UK and across Europe and the need for satellite terminals.
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“When I look at the ecosystem Europe is developing I couldn’t be happier,” said Finney. “There seems to be an insatiable appetite to put new satellite systems in orbit regardless of demand. Europe is thinking about manufacturing and lots of other things and you could argue that building another constellation is not necessary, but what’s happening is LEO is becoming a strategic asset around the world so its inevitable drive to have single antennas that can connect to all.”
The Isotropic technology is an optical lenses that bends radio waves in the 10 to 60GHz frequency band. “This is not a metamaterial which uses dispersive and lossy materials,” he said. “The problem is you need as much or all the signal as possible, so we use fully isotropic materials that radiate equally in all directions and are practically lossless so we get the same amount from the top to the bottom for the transmit and receive path.”
Next: Isotropic material optimisation tool
This is a combination of material science and computational science defined by space, frequency range, weight and size. The lens has lots of material types with different properties, with the elements tuned to the lens requirement. This is achieved with a cloud-based optimisation tool.
“We have an optimiser that has been built from the ground up and with as many Amazon cores as we can afford we go from a process of ray tracing to narrow down the design, testing with millions of simulations to within 0.1 percent accuracy” he said.
This is an alternative to phased array antennas as the isotropic lens doesn’t have to duplicate the phase network to create beams in multiple directions. “That’s where we have changed the architecture, there’s no limitation to the number of beams. Instead it’s a question of the RF ICs behind the lens. 40 is probably the upper limit but we don’t see a use case above three.”
This opens up offering ‘beams as a service’ to three different satellite networks with the same terminal. “For example, you have a Geostatioary link, you call us and want another link, we send a software key to provide a second link, then a third,” he said. “This is a platform, not just an antenna.”
This requires a whole new architecture for the RF chips. “We are developing the world’s first RFIC ASICs switching between the two dominant bands and we do everything in a software defined domain so the terminal is a multi software defined radio and that allows us to host added value features, with hosted waveforms, sky mapping, blockage detection that can only be delivered on our hardware,” he said.
This supports the Ku and Ka frequency and the company is looking at the X-band. “We designed the ASIC so we don’t need another ASIC and our end game is multifrequency and multibeam and we believe we are on a firm path in late 2024, 2025 for this,” he said.
The first customers are the US and NATO military that want to combine their secure milirtary satellite systems with other broadband links. “We are in the next generation programme with the US army, all NATO forces as we are a strategic enabler to combine military and commercial systems with the lowest latency, but then we can provide enterprise mobility, yachts, coaches, buses and eventually for connected car and consumer applications. We will say a lot more as we get to the product launch. For example we can make antennas for Starlink and Amazon cheaper than they can and that means they don’t have to deal with the capex cost of terminals.”
All of this focus on defence applications requires a supply chain that is secure in many different ways.
“You have to look at our investor base and that includes Boeing, satellite operator SES with a massive government services business, we mean NATO and nothing else. All of our investors are incredibly precious about where the money comes from,” he said. “The bottom line is there is a cold war, what does that mean, it means pick a side. We have a healthy sense of paranoia,” he said.
“The other factor is the supply chain as the software will be ITAR [restricted] for US government and NATO governments and our exit path ultimately is either IPO or a defense contractor acquisition so we have to make sure we are clean. All I will say our chips come from a source that doesn’t contravene these issues. It’s the biggest challenge in the company by far.”
“There isn’t enough of those resources in the UK and that creates its own challenges but despite all of that we are on plan and on schedule but we are still hiring – but its not necessarily attractive to go to other countries and we need to be aware of the nationalities of the people that we hire. I see us hiring for 250 to 300 jobs in the next two years. Manufacturing will be in a Five Eyes country [Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK and US] and we are actively talking to UK government for UK and with Space Florida,” he said.
Machine learning for the optimiser is a key future direction. ”We see a natural evolution into deep learning of the datasets with the million of datasets and deep learning takes us into a better understanding the relationships of the data sets to update the optimiser, that’s the next path and a few years of development and then we look to quantum and AI.
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