Cavendish Kinetics, a Silicon Valley radio chip design company, has raised $36 million to make chips that it says could transform the performance of smartphones.
The funding is a rare event in the semiconductor industry, a $335 billion business that is dominated by gigantic chip companies such as Intel and Qualcomm. Triquent Semiconductor, a division of Qorvo, participated in the round as a strategic investor.
Cavendish Kinetics makes radio frequency micro-electro-mechanical systems (RF MEMS), or chips with tiny mechanical devices on top of them that are used in radios such as those in smartphones with processors that use the Long-Term Evolution (LTE) standard.
Current chips based on silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technology are used in LTE smartphones, but they’re running into bottlenecks. Cavendish Kinetics believes that its RF MEMS devices are the answer.
Cavendish Kinetics plans to use the money to accelerate the development of its next generation RF components. Cavendish’s new generation of RF components fully leverages RF MEMS technology, and it adds a range of virtually lossless RF MEMS switches to its growing portfolio of industry leading RF MEMS radio tuners. That means it can provide better-quality radios with improved antennae, filters, and power amplifiers.
“There is a critical need for low loss RF switching as [manufacturers] design radios for 4G and 5G capability, and commercializing our ultra-low loss RF MEMS switch to meet this need is a major focus for Cavendish, now that our first generation RF MEMS tuners have fully ramped and are shipping commercially,” said Paul Dal Santo, CEO of Cavendish Kinetics, in a statement.
He said that SOI switch technology is fundamentally limited. Dal Santo contends that his company’s RF MEMS switches will deliver metrics 10 times better than what SOI switches can achieve, and will transform the way LTE radios are designed.
Samples of Cavendish’s new generation RF MEMS components will be available in the first quarter of 2016, and ramp into volume production in the second half of 2016, the company said.
Cavendish was founded in 2006 and has 46 employees. Rivals include Qorvo, Skyworks, Murata, Infineon, and Qualcomm. The early ideas and intellectual property came from Charles Smith at the Cavendish Labs in Cambridge, England.
The first Cavendish RF MEMS devices are being used in eight commercial smartphones today. Modern LTE smartphones have to support 40 different spectrum bands to be able to operate around the world. By comparison, older 3G smartphones only had to support five spectrum bands. The antennae required to support all 40 spectrum bands does not fit in a super-slim smartphone, resulting in very poor radio performance.
The RF MEMS tuner from Cavendish allows smartphone antennae to be tuned, which means that a much smaller antenna can be electrically manipulated to tune into different frequency bands as needed. This kind of tuning enables twice the radio performance of conventional antennae.
Typically, an antenna works most efficiently if the frequency of the LTE signal matches the resonating frequency of the antenna. With the ability to change the resonating frequency of the antenna, the radio will always send and receive signals with the best possible performance.
Cavendish said that a new strategic investor in the round isn’t being identified. But a filing by Qorvo acknowledges that its Triquent division invested $25 million in Cavendish. Existing investors are Tallwood Venture Capital, Wellington Partners, Celtic House Venture Partners, Qualcomm Ventures, and Quadia.
To date, Cavendish has raised $105 million.