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Tucson startups team up to capitalize on the growth of 5G wireless networks

Tucson startups team up to capitalize on the growth of 5G wireless networks

A prototype of the FreeStar5G antenna includes a protective dome for weather resistance.

Two Tucson-based technology startups backed by local venture capital have created a spinoff company to capitalize on the explosive growth of 5G wireless, the emerging ultra-fast mobile broadband standard.

FreeFall Aerospace and Electronic Design and Development Corp., or ED2, have formed FreeFall 5G to combine FreeFall’s advanced antenna technology with ED2’s 5G communications capabilities.

UAVenture Capital, a Tucson-based firm that invests exclusively in University of Arizona science and technology, announced an undisclosed investment in FreeFall Aerospace in 2018.

DVI Equity Partners, the technology investment arm of Tucson’s Diamond Ventures, led an initial venture capital round for ED2 last year with a $2.6 million investment.

FreeFall Aerospace, founded by UA astronomy professor Chris Walker and NASA veteran Doug Stetson, has demonstrated an ultra-lightweight inflatable satellite antenna, steerable balloon-borne communications, and low-cost fixed and mobile ground-based systems.

ED2, led by former Raytheon engineer and tech entrepreneur Sergio Cardona, is developing new, low-power devices for 5G based on millimeter-wave technology and has already rolled out 5G signal filters and repeaters.

FreeFall and ED2 have been working together to combine the technologies since 2018, said Alex Rodriguez, chief operating officer of FreeFall Aerospace and now CEO of FreeFall 5G.

ED2’s use of the FreeFall Aerospace antenna concept led to a prototype unveiled at 5G Mobile World Congress in Los Angeles last fall, and that system will now be further developed for commercial demonstration this summer, the company said.

The company’s FreeStar5G antenna has greater range and flexibility than any 5G antenna system currently on the market, yet it draws significantly less power and is about the size of a desktop computer, the company says.

“It is clearly a disruptive antenna technology,” Rodriguez said. “We believe we will be state-of-the-art in terms of extended range — we have exceptional millimeter-wave coverage — and (range) is a huge gap in the industry right now.”

UAVenture Capital founder and CEO Fletcher McCusker said in a news release he believes the FreeStar5G antenna will “revolutionize” 5G communications.

“Based on what we all felt was a game-changing technology for 5G, it made sense to form a spinoff to operationalize the antenna,” added Bob Griffin, managing partner at DV Equity Partners.

For now, FreeFall 5G is operating with shared resources and staff under a shared-services agreement that will give FreeFall 5G the technical and business support it needs from both companies, Rodriguez said.

FreeFall Aerospace has 10 full-time employees plus several part time and technical consultants on its staff, while ED2 has 13 employees, he said.

“(It’s) amazing that two small companies, from Tucson, Arizona, can transform the way 5G communication gets rolled out and by default make us a 5G technology region,” ED2’s Cardona said.

FreeFall will soon move into a larger facility with room for expansion, Rodriguez said.

Contact senior reporter David Wichner at dwichner@tucson.com or 573-4181. On Twitter: @dwichner. On Facebook: Facebook.com/DailyStarBiz

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