GPS, in its many regional guises, has become a ubiquitous feature in phones, smartwatches, cars, and other connected devices, but for all the location-based capabilities it enables (mapping being the most obvious), it has many flaws: it can be slow and inaccurate contribute to faster battery drain, and people are realizing that they are being manipulated or exploited in unintended and alarming ways.
Today, a UK startup called FocalPoint, which develops software to improve the operation, accuracy and security of GPS, is announcing a funding round to further expand its technology – which now works up to 4G and will work with 5G and Wi-Fi in the future will work – and roll out the first commercial deployments of its system to early customers. Use cases for the technology include more accurate location for smartphone apps for navigation or location tracking (e.g. for running and other sports); to assist companies with their navigation services (e.g. for transport or fleet management); and overall for better GPS security.
Cambridge-based and founded as a Cambridge University spin-out, FocalPoint has raised £15 million (US$17 million), part of a Series C round that is expected to raise £23 million (US$26 million) when fully completed ) will reach. Molten Ventures (FKA Draper Esprit) – which led a £6million Series B in 2021 – and Gresham House are the two investors so far. Ramsey Faragher, the CTO and founder, said the other investors, including a major US auto brand that is a strategic investor, will close in the coming weeks.
FocalPoint had another notable business development about a year ago that’s helping put the startup on the radar of potential customers: Last September, it named Scott Pomerantz as its CEO. Dubbed a “living GPS legend,” Pomerantz previously founded Global Locate, one of the first companies to bring GPS to the mass market using its technology used by Apple and others. This startup was eventually acquired by Broadcom.
Speaking of Apple, FocalPoint’s focus on better GPS is timely. Just yesterday, the iPhone giant announced its latest Apple Watch models, which come with much more accurate GPS using a multi-band approach on devices touting newly extended battery life. It’s a signal of the priority that device makers are giving to improving GPS and the investments they would be willing to make to make it happen, giving startups a chance to offer new and more effective approaches to break into the market.
As Faragher explained to TC, GPS development has so far been largely based on chipsets embedded in the devices that use them, meaning that improving services is broadly dependent on new versions of that hardware. That’s a big hill to climb, however, considering the embedded market for legacy chips and the process of adopting next-gen hardware: 1.8 billion GPS chipsets shipped as of 2019, and the total expected to grow to 2.8 billion by 2029 Smartphones make up the majority of those numbers, but autonomy, street and drone devices are growing the fastest.
Also, GPS relies on the use of one or the other of two radio bands; Typically one produces better positioning than the other, but at the expense of battery life in the process.
FocalPoint is working on a software-based solution, Faragher said, meaning the chipsets themselves don’t necessarily need to be swapped out or upgraded to implement the faster approach.
It’s working on algorithms, he said, that aim to understand the directions of satellite signals and use that to better understand a device’s precise location — a process that not only improves a location’s accuracy, but also helps to identify when a signal may be spoofed to appear in one place when in fact it is somewhere else. This is done with the less battery-intensive band, which was previously considered to have poorer locating performance. “The more powerful signal has always been more computationally intensive,” he said, which is why it affects battery life. “We can improve the signal with lower quality and lower battery consumption.”
There are other approaches that aim for the same result, but Faragher said they were too costly and clunky.
“Only military antennas have previously been able to detect such movement,” he said, although those antennas came in the form of dinner-plate-sized satellite dishes and cost about $10,000 each — a big expense when there must be hundreds be used over a broader cellular network. “What we’re offering is a military-grade feature for the cost of a software upgrade,” he said. “We synthesize expensive antennas.”
Companies that have partnered with FocalPoint to test how its software works are key to the company’s goals: The startup has partnered with Google and its Android team to test how its software tracks users’ location could improve its map software in a bid that the two companies were running in London.
“We showed Google that before using our technology, they couldn’t use the inferior GPS band for their internal mapping technology,” he said. This in-house technology would be used by Google for every navigation service, including Google Maps and its devices. He said Google’s approach, which looks at how signals bounce off buildings to figure out location, is useful with the higher GPS signal but not with the lower one, which hurts battery life more. “We could get the lower band working.”
Faragher declined to comment during the interview on whether it works with Google or any other specific company.
“Existing GPS technologies are no longer fit for purpose and we are proud to continue our support of FocalPoint on its mission to revolutionize the accuracy of GPS and other global navigation satellite systems, while solving the problems faced by businesses and consumers with inaccurate and uncertain recipients,” said David Cummings, a venture partner at Molten Ventures, in a statement. “We’ve been impressed by how the team has continued to develop and expand since its Series B funding round last year, and we’re excited to support FocalPoint in this next exciting chapter for the company.”