Keyssa Promises to Let You 'Kiss' Your Cords Goodbye

Tony Fadell-backed startup Keyssa has quietly developed lightning-quick wireless data transfer
Illustration by 731

You need almost a minute to copy a high-definition, 1080p version of the movie Avatar from a USB stick to a Microsoft Surface tablet. Eric Almgren and his colleagues at secretive Silicon Valley startup Keyssa can do it much faster. To demonstrate, Chief Executive Officer Almgren positions a hard drive implanted with the company’s wireless connector a few millimeters from a similarly equipped Dell tablet and taps them together, initiating a high-bandwidth data exchange. The movie, which had been saved on the hard drive, is on the tablet within five seconds.

Keyssa is trying to bring a new level of wireless transfer speed to consumer phones, laptops, and home appliances. After five years of working in secret, the company is unveiling what it calls “kiss connectivity.” Keyssa says the technology—essentially a complex radio that uses high frequencies—will provide a faster alternative to today’s tangle of wireless network equipment and cords, which often produce signals that interfere with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Keyssa aims to replace plugs and ports with low-power wireless connectors that use the extremely high-frequency (EHF) radio band used mostly by astronomers.

The connections are fast enough to make huge files such as ultrahigh-definition movies and photo libraries easy to share. Keyssa’s backers include Intel Capital and Samsung, and its chairman is Nest Labs CEO Tony Fadell, father of the iPod. If Keyssa can sell device makers on the concept, it could fundamentally change the devices, too. Coupled with technologies such as Bluetooth and wireless charging, Keyssa could make it possible to build a smartphone that has no ports at all—one that’s sealed up, waterproof, and never plugged into a bulky dock or a power outlet. “For the last 25 years, I’ve had to struggle with delicate metal connectors that put unsightly holes in otherwise beautiful products,” Fadell said in an e-mailed statement. “I expect kiss connectivity to spark an immediate wave of industrial design innovation.”

Keyssa’s connectors transfer up to 6 gigabits of data per second via EHF waves when two devices are held about a centimeter apart. As smartphones have shrunk and file sizes have grown, Wi-Fi and physical connectors, such as USB and HDMI cables, haven’t kept pace. The latest Wi-Fi standard has a top speed of 1.35 gigabits per second—and that’s if no one else is using the network. The fastest USB standard, around since 2008, tops out at 5 gigabits per second. Because it requires a large internal connector, it isn’t widely used. Near-field communication, the 15-year-old technology that powers Apple Pay, has a top speed of only about 400 kilobits a second—enough to transfer encrypted credit card numbers and little else.

The startup’s path to market has been a long one. Keyssa traces its origin to 2009, when Frank Chang, an electrical engineering professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, met with Gary McCormack, a veteran of boutique chipmakers Tektronix, TriQuint, and Vitesse. McCormack, now Keyssa’s chief technical officer, says he was looking to replace slow physical connectors, because they often led to data logjams and “caused me so much pain at my previous jobs.” Chang, who runs UCLA’s High Speed Electronics Laboratory, says he was experimenting with data transfer via high-frequency radio signals. He started to think about ways to eliminate connector ports and make mobile gadgets waterproof after he dropped his phone in the toilet.

Their startup, first called WaveConnex, received early backing from NantWorks, a medical technology company. NantWorks’ founder, Patrick Soon-Shiong, says he saw the potential to quickly transfer large health files such as CT scans, X-rays, and genome data between doctors and patients. The turning point came in 2011, when WaveConnex attracted the interest of San Francisco venture capital firm Alsop Louie Partners—and, through it, Fadell. The now Keyssa chairman “saw pretty quick that if this thing works, you are looking at the holy grail,” says Jim Whims, an Alsop Louie partner. Both Fadell and Alsop Louie invested, and Fadell started advising the startup on product strategy. He also opened doors to major manufacturers and helped recruit Almgren, who previously worked to develop the HDMI standard, as CEO.

Keyssa has now raised $47 million and has 40 employees working in offices in Portland, Ore., and Campbell, Calif., west of San Jose. For the last 16 months, Almgren says, the technology has been in the hands of top-tier manufacturers and should start appearing in devices sometime next year. (He won’t name the companies.) Eventually, Almgren says, consumers with Keyssa-equipped devices will be able to download movies and music albums almost instantly from kiosks at airports and venues such as concert halls. When the connectors are further integrated, users will be able to transfer enormous files between devices without exposing private data to the cloud.

The company won’t say how much its products cost, so it’s unclear how manufacturers will deal with the added expense—or risk. While the zippy download of Avatar worked great, the technology hasn’t yet been mass-produced. And although Keyssa says it has filed for some 100 patents over its five years in stealth mode, companies such as Apple and Sony may be developing similar technology. “Apple likes to do its own thing. They might be a hard sell. And Samsung is not going to have one source of supply that they are then reliant on,” says Dave Pheteplace, a senior vice president at research firm Bishop & Associates who was briefed on the technology and says he’s generally optimistic about it.

One obvious way to win over companies is to win over consumers. That’s why Keyssa is playing on fatigue for cords and connectors and pitching its alternative in familiar terms. “This is all about kissing two devices together,” says Almgren. “It’s a human experience.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE