GPS has become a ubiquitous feature of phones, smartwatches, cars and other connected devices in its many regional flavors, but for all the location-based features it helps enable (mapping is the most obvious), it has many drawbacks: it can be slow and inaccurate, it’s fast It contributes to battery drain and, as people have discovered, it can be manipulated or exploited in unintended and terrifying ways.
Today, a UK startup called FocalPoint, which is creating software to improve the operation, accuracy and security of GPS, is announcing more funding to continue building its technology – which works up to 4G today and will also work with 5G and Wi-Fi in the future. and to create the first commercial deployments of its system with early users. Use cases for the tech include more accurate location for smartphone apps for navigation or location tracking (for example for running and other sports); to assist companies with their navigation services (for example for transport or flight management); And for better GPS security.
Based in Cambridge and founded as a spinout from the University of Cambridge, FocalPoint has raised £15 million ($17 million), part of a Series C round that expects to total £23 million ($26 million) when fully completed. Molten Ventures (FKA Draper Esprit) — which led to a £6 million Series B in 2021 — and Gresham House are investors so far. CTO and founder Ramsey Faragher said other investors, including the major US automotive brand as a strategic investor, will close in the coming weeks.
Focalpoint had another significant business development a year ago that’s helping put the startup on the radar of potential customers: Last September, it hired Scott Pomerantz as its CEO. Described as a “living legend in GPS,” Pomerantz previously founded Global Locate, one of the first companies to bring GPS to the mass market with technology used by Apple and others. That startup was eventually bought by Broadcom.
Speaking of Apple, FocalPoint’s focus on improved GPS is timely. Just yesterday, the iPhone giant announced its newest Apple Watch models, featuring more accurate GPS using a multiband approach in devices that tout new extended battery life. It’s a sign of the emphasis device makers are putting on improving GPS and the investments they’re willing to make to do so, giving startups an opportunity to offer new and more effective approaches to crack the market.
As Faragher explained to TC, much of GPS development to date has been based on the chipsets embedded in the devices that use it, which means that improving services depends on new versions of that hardware. However, this will be a big hill to climb when considering the embedded market of legacy chips and the process of releasing next-generation hardware: 1.8 billion GPS chipsets shipped in 2019, with the total expected to grow to 2.8 billion by 2029. Most of those numbers are smartphones, but autonomous, on-road and drone devices are growing the fastest.
In addition, GPS relies on the use of one or the other of two radio bands; Usually one produces better positioning than the other, but it does so at the cost of draining battery life in the process.
FocalPoint is working on a software-based solution, Faragher said, that won’t necessarily require changing or upgrading chipsets to implement its faster approach.
He said it is working on algorithms that aim to understand the directions of satellite signals and use it to better understand the exact location of a device — a process that not only improves the accuracy of a location, but also helps detect when a signal is being faked to appear in one place when it’s actually somewhere else. This is performed using a less battery-intensive band, which was previously thought to have poor location performance. “A high-performance signal is always more computationally intensive,” he said, which is why it affects battery life. “We improve the low-quality, low-battery-intensive signal.”
Faragher says there are other approaches that aim for the same result, but they are more expensive and complicated.
“Only military antennas have been able to detect this kind of movement before,” he said, adding that those antennas come in the form of satellite dishes the size of a dinner plate and cost $10,000 each — a big expense when hundreds are needed. Used in a wide mobile network. “What we’re offering is a military-grade feature for the cost of a software upgrade,” he said. “We synthesize an expensive antenna.”
Companies that have worked with Focalpoint to test how their software works are key to where the company is targeting its business: The startup partnered with Google and its Android team to test how its software improves users’ location in a trial for its software mapping software. Both companies were run in London.
“Before using our technology, we demonstrated to Google that it could not use the low-quality GPS band for its internal mapping technology,” he said. Internal technology used by Google for any navigation service, including Google Maps and its devices. Google’s approach, which looks at how signals bounce off buildings to determine location, works with high GPS signal but not low, so it’s a strong drain on battery life, he said. “We can work that lower band.”
Faragher did not comment in the interview on whether it would work with Google or any other specific companies.
“Existing GPS technologies are not fit for purpose and we are proud to continue our support for FocalPoint in its mission to revolutionize the accuracy of GPS and other global navigation satellite systems, and in doing so solve the problems faced by business and consumers with inaccurate and unsafe receivers,” said David, Venture Partner with Molten Ventures. Cummings said in a statement. “We’ve been impressed with how the team has continued to build and expand since last year’s Series B funding round, and we’re excited to support FocalPoint in this next exciting chapter for the company”.