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Why Bill Gates is betting on this mobile Wi-Fi revolution

A Bill Gates-backed mobile Wi-Fi bet
A Bill Gates-backed mobile Wi-Fi bet

Imagine driving cross country in a car with such good Wi-Fi, you'd be able to binge on your favorite Netflix shows along the way — assuming, of course, that you are in the passenger seat. Kymeta, based in Redmond, Washington, is proving the concept doesn't have to be a pipe dream.

The company has created a flat electronically steered satellite antenna that's out to revolutionize the world of mobile communications. The company was launched out of Intellectual Ventures — the venture capital firm of former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold — in 2012.

Kymeta replaces dish technology with a flat antenna that can be steered electronically and, as a result, track a moving satellite. It aims to eventually replace the spotty Wi-Fi available today in, for example, the air, on cruise ships and more — places where it is clunky and more expensive.

The start-up's goal is to "solve the global mobile communications problem," said CEO Nathan Kundtz, adding, "Most of the world doesn't have global mobile connectivity."

In January, Toyota announced their decision to partner with Kymeta to use its satellite technology for its next-generation connected vehicles.

The Toyota 4Runner recently took a 20,000-mile cross-country road trip, stopping along the way to demonstrate its technology to partners, potential partners and universities.
Ross LeClair | CNBC

"We were very excited to learn about Kymeta, because their flat antennae technology could solve the challenge of vehicle-based satellite communications," said Toyota's senior managing officer, Shigeki Tomoyama, in a statement.

To test-drive the technology, Kymeta's mTenna was embedded into the roof of a Toyota 4Runner, which zigzagged 20,000 miles throughout the country to show the antenna's connectivity capabilities. The SUV is now covered in stickers and signatures from potential partners and fans of the tech.

"We're doing a few firsts with this trip," Kundtz said. "We are combining transmit-and-receive into one panel. That has never been done before in an electronically scanned antenna."

Kymeta claims it has raised more than $120 million in funding, including $62 million in January. Investors include Bill Gates and Lux Capital.

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The company continues to work with Toyota to experiment with different antenna sizes that may eventually fit into their vehicles and bring data into the car, according to Kymeta's chief commercial officer, Bill Marks. Kymeta is manufacturing its products today in partnership with Sharp Electronics in Japan, and prototypes can be assembled in as little as a day in Washington.

"Satellite connectivity historically has been difficult to manage and is kind of mysterious to people," Marks said. "It's expensive, and acquiring the capacity is difficult. We are trying to make this a relevant product to the masses."

The first product the company will take to market will be used in the maritime industry, thanks to a partnership with Panasonic ITC. The deal will provide them with antennas to put on container ships, yachts and more in 2017. Other pipeline projects include antennas in the aviation industry and aftermarket automotive, Marks said.

The company declined to disclose costs to the companies they partner with, as they vary by market. But Kundtz said the are "much lower cost" than traditional options in the antenna market that can cost up to $2 million.

And while the technology is not currently available direct-to-consumer, eventually Kundtz would like to bridge that gap.

"I would like to be able to make an antenna where you can overlay a solar panel and antenna together so you can get something in the mail, throw it on top of your roof and have Wi-Fi with no other connections," he said.

Featured on in 2014, Kymeta today has 110 employees.

Kevin O'Leary of "Shark Tank" and Robin Chase, co-founder of ZipCar, are among the business leaders appearing in person at iCONIC in Seattle on April 5, 2016. Join more of America's most influential entrepreneurs at the next iCONIC stop, in Denver, on June 15.