Collin Arocho
9 November 2021

With more than 60 years of experience in antenna metrology and RF designs, a group of TUE researchers spun out to create Antennex and commercialize the technology. Now, as the 5G rollout continues to accelerate, the company is aiming to bring its cutting-edge measurement techniques to the market.

Even though the highly touted rollout of 5G continues to pick steam, so far, the transition is little more than a basic evolution of the 4G network. One thing is for sure, there’s still some ground to cover before we hit the promise of 10Gb/s speeds offered by the high-frequency, millimeter-wave bands. But as semiconductor companies continue to develop and prepare for what’s to come, Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE) spinoff Antennex is looking to leverage its combined 60+ years of RF and antenna expertise to help with the measurement and characterization of the chips that will make it possible.

Opening its doors in March 2021, Antennex consists of a team of TUE researchers that took notice of two major developments in the domain. One, there seems to be a gap, as there are very few testing facilities capable of performing these cutting-edge measurements on new antenna technology. Which led to two, a growing number of companies reaching out to the university to perform specialized measurements and help characterize integrated circuits that are combined with antennas. The problem with this, however, is that such work doesn’t really align with the academic, rather than commercial, business model of the university.

BvOF 2021_0624_ABX Antennex team
The Antennex team, with co-founder Bart Smolders on the far left. Credit: Bart van Overbeeke

“Semiconductor companies like for example NXP and others don’t have the experience or the know-how to do some of these over-the-air measurements. That’s why they turned to the university. At the TUE, we’ve spent the last 20 years at the forefront of developing these techniques for metrology, beam steering and characterization of phased arrays used in 5G and car radar systems,” explains TUE professor and Antennex co-founder Bart Smolders. “But as these requests poured in, it didn’t really fit because TUE is not a company. Their focus is on research and development, not commercialization, so spinning out was the best solution to serve the market.”

Electromagnetic structures

Part of what makes these measurements and characterization of antennas so difficult are the overall trends in the technology. According to Smolders, much of it lies in the complexities stemming from increased demands from the chips. “As we shift to higher frequencies, antennas become increasingly smaller. At some point, semiconductor companies will want to integrate them in packages, but we’re not talking about just one antenna anymore, but maybe 100 antennas in a package,” illustrates Smolders.

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In addition to these antennas, however, there’s still the combination of 1-2 ICs, both analog and digital, which adds another layer of complexity. “In this case, what you have is bits coming in and electromagnetic waves going out with beam steering, and so on. Or in the case of radar, bits go in to be processed and then more bits come out,” describes Smolders. “This increased functionality is a real game-changer because we’re moving past just electronic circuits and evolving toward complete electromagnetic structures. The challenge is that these aren’t so easily measured, and characterizing these complex packages has to take place on a system level, which traditional methods can’t achieve.”

BvOF 2021_0624_AJT license TUe Antennex reverberation chamber
Antennex’s reverberation chamber, which the company specially adapted for millimeter-wave testing. Credit: Bart van Overbeeke

Test facilities

While its unrivaled experience in antenna metrology and characterization was a driving force in launching the company, Antennex has much bigger ambitions. The primary goal of the startup is to leverage its expertise in the domain to develop a series of testing chambers – known as test facilities – that it plans to take to market. So far, the company has completed prototypes of three different test facilities.

These facilities include its spherical anechoic chamber, which can nearly cover a full sphere in each direction to test IC packages that include antennas and provide beam-steering capabilities. Second is the reverberation chamber, which the company specially adapted for millimeter-wave testing, that offers a more stochastic means of characterization and is designed to complement the anechoic chamber. Finally, the startup built a third testing facility that’s used for the characterization of dielectric materials, like PCB materials, or packaging material substrates, and how their properties work with high-frequency millimeter waves.

“As 5G continues to grow, and the subsequent 6G, we’re expecting a large increase in production. But because of the serious lack of test capabilities, we believe that taking our test chambers to market will help semiconductor and telecommunication companies to access our specialized techniques for on-site testing,” suggests Smolders. “We’ve been focusing on this type of technology development already for two decades, when we started working at 60 GHz in a research group. So now, we think the time is right to offer test facilities to the market, which we plan to launch at next year’s European Microwave Conference in Milan.”

Main picture credit: Bart van Overbeeke