Investors impressed by Agile’s agility in the wireless market

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Nov. 25, 2002 — It’s taken more than 30 years of independent research, millions of dollars and more than a few false starts by different groups, but the scientists at Agile Materials & Technologies Inc. may be the first to finally commercialize a substance known as BST for use in next-generation communications equipment.

This is why investors led by NextGen Partners recently ponied up $5.7 million to help Agile take its radio frequency (RF) components from laboratory prototype to a full-fledged commercial product. NextGen invested $1.15 million.

“A lot of people can do things on the bench, but Agile’s been able to prove that they can actually scale up to a manufacturing capacity,” said Peter Grubstein, a general partner at NextGen and Agile board member.

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The company recently received the second of two prototype orders totaling more than $200,000. One contract is for phase shifters, which increase signal acceptance angles in military radars, and the other is a wireless application for a civilian manufacturer. The prototype phase shifters have already been shipped, said Chuck Bischof, Agile’s chief executive.

So, what has Agile succeeded at that eluded so many for so long? Basically, Agile has figured out how to combine BST, which stands for barium, strontium and titanate — three metals mixed to form a composite, ferroelectric material — with thin-film sputtering technology and existing CMOS manufacturing techniques to create a new wave of passive (which means they don’t consume any power), tunable RF components for the electronics industry. At 1 micron, Agile’s RF passive devices are 100 times smaller than current technology can provide. It can fit many more on a chip, saving space and parts in portable G3 applications such as PDAs and cell phones.

If Agile can pull this off, said Edward Rerisi, director of research at Allied Business Intelligence, the company could stage quite a coup in the RF market. “Everybody (making G3 portables) wants to cut down on the size of components and integrate them as much as possible.”

Agile’s components also save manufacturers money because they are electronically tunable — a very desirable feature since hand tuning by a technician today is 15-50 percent of total RF component manufacturing cost, Bischof said.

“By using this type of thin film ferroelectric material (TFFE), our technique provides a high capacitance density so that integrated devices can be much smaller than existing structures for one, and allows electronic tenability for capacitors; and, in that, it will improve performance and enhance the functionality of its applications,” Bischof said.

This would also be of major importance to RF chip makers, said Rerisi. “(Tuning) is very important. Not only the cost savings is important but the ability to do it effectively for the small size is important.”

These improvements — combined with the cost-saving benefits manufacturers will find desirable, a multibillion-dollar market and the smarts of company founders Robert York and Chris Elsass of the University of California, Santa Barbara — are what attracted investors at RockPort Capital Partners, said David J. Prend, a partner at the venture capital firm and an Agile board member.

“Unlike a lot of other people who’ve tried to do things with this material,” Prend said, “they’ve been able to produce very viable, usable devices primarily due to their electrical engineering capabilities.”

With prototypes in the hands of potential customers, the next step for the fledgling company is hiring enough staff to meet its goals. If things work out, the 11-person firm will have seven new employees by year’s end and a total of 39 by the end of 2003.


Company file: Agile Materials & Technologies Inc.
(last updated Nov. 25, 2002)

Agile Materials & Technologies Inc.

93 Castilian Drive
Goleta, Calif., 93117

The company was incorporated in August 1999 and is a spinoff of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Wireless communications


Small tech-related products and services
Agile Materials uses thin-film ferroelectric technology to develop variable integrated passive (VIP) components for radio frequency (RF) wireless communications. These components can function at a size 100 times smaller than was previously possible. RF designers benefit from this miniaturization, reduced number of parts and smaller “footprint,” since they can create smaller circuits or simply add functionality to existing circuitry. The components offer even greater cost savings due to their electronic tunability; hand-tuning can account for up to half of RF component manufacturing costs.


  • Chuck Bischof: chief executive officer
  • Chris Elsass: president
  • Robert York: chief technology officer
  • Selected strategic partners and customers
    Agile Materials has received more than $200,000 in prototype orders from an unnamed defense contractor and a cell phone manufacturer.

    Investment history
    Agile Materials completed a bridge funding round in June 2002, raising $700,000 from Harris & Harris Group, Cycad Group LLC, round leader NextGen Partners and Rockport Capital Partners. NextGen also led the company’s September 2002 funding round, in which the company garnered nearly $5.8 million; the other previous investors participated as well. Prior to receiving venture funding, Agile Materials was awarded $1.25 million in Small Business Innovation Research grant money.

    Barriers to market
    Being a new company with no direct competition, barriers come more from internal milestones that must be met successfully as opposed to outside forces working to retain market share or squelch competition. Specifically, validating the technology by delivering mass-producible products and finding the right people to make it happen.

    Validate commercialization of the technology; build a team of people to carry the company forward; select the right customers for the long-term growth, value and health of the company.

    Why they’re in small tech
    “Bottom line is everything is going smaller. If you’re not in small tech then you’ve got some serious problems,” said CEO Chuck Bischof.

    What keeps them up at night?
    “All of the above: being a startup in very competitive, rapidly changing business; being able to keep up and make the right choices and quickly acknowledging when you’ve made a poor one and responding appropriately to correct it.”


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  • Phone: 805-968-5159
  • Fax: 805-893-5947
  • Recent news
    Agile Materials secures $5.8 million

    — Research by Gretchen McNeely


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