Sofant’s Miniature ‘Smart Antenna’ Promises to End Dropped Calls

At 4 square millimetres, Sofant Technologies claims to have designed the world’s smallest steerable antenna. The miniature size belies its potential to transform the performance of smartphones and tablets worldwide.

The antenna, the result of seven years’ work by a team from Edinburgh University, is designed to cut battery consumption by as much as 90 percent and improve the signal quality by a factor of four by locking onto one strong signal rather than constantly roaming in search of the best one.

“The reality is that, until now, the antenna has acted as a bottleneck to performance in mobile devices,” Chief Executive Officer Sergio Tansini said. “As a result, every new generation of smartphone performs less well than its predecessor, resulting in dropped calls, lost signals, weak connections, slow Internet and battery drain.”

Sofant is the latest of 25 spinout companies to emerge from the university over the past five years while Edinburgh Research and Innovation, the university’s commercialization unit, has also supported 138 startup companies over the same period. As tablets and smartphones get more powerful and include more applications, the importance of reliable connectivity and improved battery life increases, Tansini said.

Still, it may take as long as three years before Sofant’s technology is widely available for use in smartphones, said Tansini, who completed the spinout last week.

Early Days

“It is early days,” Tansini, 56, said on Oct. 3 in a telephone interview from Edinburgh airport on his way to Munich. “We need to get this technology to the point of industrial quality and tested for resilience.”

There are now more smartphones than PCs, with an estimated five billion units being manufactured over the next five years, Tansini said.

The spinouts supported by the university include Wolfson Microelectronics Plc (WLF), a semiconductor maker that listed on the London Stock Exchange in 2003. Wolfson now has a market value of 230 million pounds ($370 million) and its Audio Hub technology is used in smartphones including Samsung Electronics Co.’s latest Galaxy smartphone.

Vision Group, now a unit of STMicrolectronics NV (STM), Europe’s largest chipmaker, was the first spinout from any Scottish university to be listed when it sold shares in 1995. Founder Peter Denyer designed the complementary metal-oxide semiconductor, or CMOS, sensor widely used in digital cameras and mobile phones.

In 2007 MTEM, which invented a technology designed to save billions of dollars a year being wasted on drilling dry oil wells, was bought by Petroleum Geo-Services ASA (PGS) for $275 million less than four years after becoming the largest spinout by any Scottish university.

Military Use

The technology used in the antenna already has military and space applications and can be used in connection with Global Positioning System satellites, said Tansini, who became chief executive nine months ago.

“I am at the point of my career where I am enjoying myself,” said Tansini, who was CEO of Indigovision Group Plc (IND), another Edinburgh-based technology company, when it carried out an initial public offering in 2001. “I am helping these guys commercialize it.”

Sofant moved out of the university into the Scottish Microelectronics Centre last week, said Tansini, who is seeking to raise an additional 600,000 pounds from investors on top of the 140,000 pounds it has already raised. He forecasts that the company will have annual sales of more than 10 million pounds five years after licensing the antenna.

Academics

The antenna was designed by three academics at the university. The founders of the company, Ahmed El-Rayis, now chief operating officer, Tughrul Arslan, chief scientist, and Nakul Haridas, head of engineering, are majority shareholders in the company which was founded seven years ago.

Arslan will be a non-executive director and will continue as professor of Integrated Electronic Systems at Edinburgh University. El-Bayis and Haridas were research fellows in system level integration at the university.

Edinburgh Research and Innovation has an undisclosed stake in Sofant in return for licensing the university’s intellectual property.

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter Woodifield in Edinburgh at pwoodifield@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Douglas Lytle at dlytle@bloomberg.net.

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