UCI Faculty Startup Addresses Broadband Scarcity with Innovative Radio Technology

In The Ecosystem
April 19, 2018 By Hai Truong

According to the Cisco Visual Networking Index, a standard for broadband insights and trends related to spectrum, global mobile data traffic began to increase sevenfold in 2016 and will continue until 2021. Spectrum refers to the proportion of frequencies that communications, including television, radio, and internet-enabled devices depend on to transmit information. As an example, consider the case of radio stations, where no two stations in the same region can share the same frequency. The amount of available frequency is contingent on the number of towers that can relay those signals.

In 2016 alone, over half a billion mobile devices and other spectrum-dependent connections were added by consumers worldwide. Spectrum demanded by these devices is likely to outstrip capacity, leading to spectrum congestion, which will result in slower data speeds, dropped calls, and increased prices for both consumers and providers.

Demand for spectrum continues to grow rapidly with few solutions that can provide traction at a system-wide level for all the stakeholders involved. Creating additional spectrum is a complex challenge as it requires building more towers and is contingent on available land, rights to build and other factors that effectively make spectrum a finite resource. Access to spectrum is highly regulated through federal license-granting institutions such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

Given spectrum scarcity and demand, securing more of it at favorable frequencies without additional towers necessarily would be extremely valuable. Professor Ahmed Eltawil, founder of Lextrum, Inc., and his team have found a way to do so. Currently deployed communication systems share one frequency band by taking turns talking to each other, or using two separate frequency bands to send and receive at the same time, which limits spectral efficiency. The Lextrum team has developed a technology that allows these systems to both listen and broadcast simultaneously on the same frequency, thus doubling the spectrum usage. This communication system technology known as full-duplex is an attractive proposition to internet service providers, cellular carriers and other stakeholders involved in products and services related to spectrum usage. Eltawil explained that “Full duplex not only doubles spectral efficiency, but allows for much easier network deployment strategies, reducing cost and time to market”

Eltawil’s journey from researcher and faculty member to entrepreneur and founder can be traced back to the completion of his Ph.D. in Integrated Circuits and Systems at UCLA in 2003. From there, he joined UCI’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering as a professor and Samueli Faculty Fellow in 2005. While pursuing his Ph.D. and during the interim time before accepting his role at UCI, Eltawil actively engaged with multiple startups in the area of wireless systems, including Newport Media, a company developing radio frequency system-on-chip solutions for broadcast communications, wireless connectivity and cellular markets; Silvus Technologies, a company providing multiple antenna radios for transmission of high fidelity video, voice and data in harsh wireless conditions; and Innovics Technologies, one of the first companies to develop a 3G multiple antenna-enabled mobile receiver.

Seeing the value of both an academic and entrepreneurial career, Eltawil continued his affiliation and support of startup companies as an expert consultant while excelling in his faculty position at UCI. His role within these companies would provide the foundational experience to help him start Lextrum 12 years later in 2015.

Lextrum’s beginnings originate from one of Eltawil’s research projects for the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research and development (R&D) arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. In this project, the NIJ established a consortium of companies and universities to solve the communication systems challenges between different federal agencies. This research led to the development of software controlled radios that could adapt to the conditions in which they were deployed. The radios reconfigure themselves and coordinate resources to optimize the connection between users and improve their experience. The result of that project would carry over into his next project, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), exploring full-duplex systems that allow both parties in transmission to receive and send simultaneously. Applications of full-duplex range from cellular to WiFi to infrastructure, thus covering a broad range.

Exploring solutions to the spectrum supply shortage problem, Eltawil and his team combined reconfigurable directional antennas with a full-duplex system and used both analog and digital cancellation methods to remove any resulting interference. “Using full duplex, communications systems can benefit from higher rates, longer range, better coverage and lower latency, essentially improving all key metrics of quality when evaluating networks,”  Eltawil said. Experimental testing showed that the proposed platform could achieve twice the spectral efficiency of currently deployed systems that inherently have to either take turns in time or share spectrum resources.

Given the results of the experiments, Eltawil saw an opportunity to commercialize the technology and met with Senior Licensing Officer Doug Crawford from UCI Applied Innovation to file patents, resulting in two issued patents, and two that are currently pending, and have been licensed by Lextrum. Crawford also encouraged Eltawil to participate in ZAP!, an entrepreneurship boot camp based on Lean Startup methodologies and the NSF’s I-Corps program. The program hosted by UCI Applied Innovation at the Cove @ UCI. Additionally, Eltawil worked with UCI’s Conflict of Interest office to help him navigate founding a company while maintaining his role as a researcher at the university.

Paving the way to create Lextrum, Eltawil received a Partnership for Innovation (PFI) award from the NSF. This award allowed Eltawil and his group at UCI to address the technology gaps needed to commercialize the technology and eventually led to a successful launch of Lextrum in late 2015. Lextrum opened an office at the Cove @ UCI and also was accepted into the EvoNexus incubator, one of the leading tech startup incubators in Southern California. Lextrum then competed in the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and received a Phase-I SBIR grant to expand its activities. Furthermore, UCI Applied Innovation supported the company application to receive an award in the first round of what would eventually become known as Proof of Product (POP) Grants.

As the company developed, one of the key strategic investments in Lextrum came from Transform-X, a long-term vision company building a portfolio of technologies to enable true 5G. Transform-X’s investment allowed the company to scale up its R&D efforts and Lextrum was eventually fully acquired by Transform-X in late 2017. Now a subsidiary of Transform-X, Lextrum has access to Transform-X’s other portfolio companies to expand its market reach and capacity. “These types of arrangements are highly conducive to breakthrough, collaborative discoveries in addition to rapid integrative work. We are all very excited and incentivized to bring this technology to fruition,” said Eltawil, adding, “We [also] look forward to continuing our collaboration with UCI Applied Innovation as we advance our commercialization efforts.”

About EvoNexus: EvoNexus is a non-profit technology incubator with locations in San Diego and Irvine. EvoNexus startups receive mentorship, access to capital, alignment with strategic corporate partners and facility infrastructure. Its startups enjoy Class A office and lab space provided by California’s leading real estate developer, Irvine Company. EvoNexus is financially and strategically supported by some of the largest multinational corporations in the world. In just over 7 years, EvoNexus portfolio companies have raised over $1.3 billion in funding and outcomes and 18 startups have been acquired.

About TransformX: Transform-X is a communications company dedicated to obtaining and developing disruptive, market-dominating technologies for the fifth generation (“5G”) wireless and far beyond.