Why Mobile Brands Should Be Exploring Antennae Tech

Published on June 5, 2019

The global smartphone screen protector market size has been increasing due to the increasing concerns regarding the safety of high end smartphones, paving the way for antennae technology to come into play.

For users of high-end smartphones ranging from $550-$700 USD, there is an ever increasing demand for protective smartphone accessories.  As for the lower-end smartphones, ranging from $250-$450 USD, increasing demand for similar accessories is expected to see growth.

The market is segmented into thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and tempered glass.

According to one report, the tempered glass segment, accounting for almost 16% market share, in the North American region, is expected to reach $24 million by 2023, while TPU and PET segments are anticipated to bring in almost $6.9 million and $5.9 million, respectively.

Grit Daily News spoke with Gentry Jensen, the CEO of Penumbra, the parent company to Gadget Guard about why its decided to become one of the first brands to integrate its screen protection line into the realm of antennae technology by using the ‘ALARA‘ principle.

Gentry Jensen, CEO of Penumbra

Grit Daily: Your company is known for the Gadget Guard screen protector, but you’ve begun to expand into antennae technology. Why?

Gentry Jensen: We approached the business from the screen protection side. I managed Gadget Guard and built a presence in the indirect specialty retail channels, dealer phone stores, for screen protectors starting in 2011. We had been cruising along on that plan. Around 2016 or so, we started to realize that hey, this is good, and this has been nice, but if we really want to take a quantum leap forward and step our game up, we probably need to think about doing something strategic either in terms of new channels or new markets, going overseas, or new products that are differentiated. We hired a banker and a consultant at the time. He happened to have a relationship with L Catterton.

GD: What about L Catterton made it attractive to your roundtable?

GJ:  One of the reasons that we really thought L Catterton was someone we wanted to join forces with was that they are objectively speaking the largest consumer-products-focused private equity shop in the world. They are a consumer product-focused private equity firm based in Greenwich. The L in L Catterton stands for Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, the LVMH arm. They partnered with the investment house of that group a couple years ago. They invested in everything from Noodles & Co. to Peloton, being one that is awesome to have our name next to. The legitimacy they bring to the thesis is a real differentiator for us.

GD: In our interview, you mentioned L Catterton’s investment in the ‘ALARA’ technology. Can you elaborate?

GJ: Yes, they had invested in what we now call the ‘ALARA’ technology—the use of external antennae to enhance the phone’s performance or its health benefits. ‘ALARA’ is an acronym that we borrowed from the nuclear radiation field. It stands for “As Low As Reasonably Achievable.” Trying to be pragmatic, we’re not saying that it is feasible to reduce the radiation to zero and maintain connectivity. It’s not. But it can be reduced from its levels, VR technology, to a more reasonable level. The thinking for the technology is that it will all be branded ALARA, but could be licensed to other entities.

GD: So why did you decide to join forces with L Catterton?

GJ: They’d gotten to the point where they had a pretty good portfolio of intellectual property but were struggling to bring it to market. We had a commoditized product with a good market channel. The timing was just right for both of us. They were looking to do something, and we were looking to do something. We joined forces with them in November 2016. Since then, we have been trying to figure out how to make things better. It’s gone slower than I would have liked generally, but we are getting better, and are positioned at this point to try to capitalize on the intellectual property around the antennae designs, and hopefully do something meaningful with that here. I think we’re ready to go. It’s been more of a process getting to this point than I would have liked.

GD: Penumbra has penetrated the screen protection side of the industry as a leading brand. How does this translate into the sector of antennae technology?

GJ: From the disparate side, on the screen protection side, we just wanted to get the company to the point where we felt we were the recognized brand in the authorized retailer channel for specialty mobile, which is a long way of saying we wanted to be the go-to screen protector for guys that owned AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint stores, operating under those licenses but not necessarily owned by the company or the corporate-owned retail. When we started to get to that point, based on the numbers and size of the market that we saw, and figured out we were getting to the lion’s share of that market, we had to try and be strategic about the next step. That is what got us looking.

GD: Why explore antennae technology in relation to today’s mobile phone?

GJ: The founding vision for the antennae technology was that there really isn’t conclusive evidence that cell phones are harmful and cause cancer. However, there is ample evidence to give rise to legitimate concern about having something that is radiating a signal pressed up against your brain for a long period of time at regular intervals. The antennae technology is the most elegant solution for mitigating that issue without causing other issues, like degrading a signal or actually, as is the case with a brute force solution of a shield, placing an actual physical barrier between your head and the phone, causing the phone to work harder to burn through that shielding mechanism and keep the phone connected to the call, causing more problems. There was really, and still is, that vision that hey, we’re not trying to be conspiracy theorists. We are concerned though. We think this is a viable, noninvasive, non-disruptive solution to give people peace of mind when they are using their phones.

GD: What challenges has the company faced with this technology?

GJ: The biggest challenge has been trying to get the messaging right. I’ll give you a couple quick examples.

Penumbra’s predecessor on the radiation side was called Antenna79, and prior to that, was called Pong, like ping-pong. We had known these guys through trade shows and thought their product was interesting. From the Gadget Guard side of the house, they had done a bundling deal with them. They bought some direct-to-consumer TV spots. If you bought a Pong case, it would come with a Gadget Guard. We did this before we saw the spots. Back in 2015, I saw the commercial, and it compared the Cellular Telephone Industry Associations, CTIA, to big tobacco. That struck me as probably a little brash. It somewhat pandered to the fear, ultimately failing to resonate with the consumer.

According to the CEO, this also was sucking up a lot of cash to further develop the intellectual property while generating the technology necessary to make it commercially applicable.

“We did get to that point,” he Jensen explained. “What we have done since, is that we have brought the entities together by stabilizing the cash flow, and then trying to figure out the messaging. That was probably the prime example of what has taken me too long to get into the works. “

GD: With respect to testing device performance, what does the data show?

GJ: We have labs in San Diego led by our CTO, who is a Ph. D in antennae engineering and has been with the company since 2011. We have third-party data validated by completely independent authorities showing that on average, our cases reduce the SAR, which is the Specific Absorption Rate of energy emitted by the phone and absorbed by the body, by two thirds. It depends on the band the phone is operating in. They will hop all over the frequencies trying to get the best signal. But the average reduction SAR is two thirds. That aspect of the testing.

There are some other ones in terms of the market that I’ve talked about before that have been tricky. We talked about the consensus or lack thereof. There is also the aspect of conflict, of interest and purpose. An organization like CTIA has strong manufacturing ties. Not delving into conspiracy theory, but just to keep it simple. It can be a tough sell for a sales rep who is compensated on gross margin in a phone store to sell a phone, but also sell something that mitigates the potential dangers of that phone. It’s a tricky conversation, right?

GD: For us millennials, how does this technology play into our demographic, especially with respect to radiation exposure?

GJ: What I think is timely about this slice of history or your demographic is what you brought up. The FCC limits on SAR exposure were actually set back when people were using phones like that Sony Ericsson flip phone in the ‘90s. You could play one game on it. You could text a little bit on it. You would talk on it. It wasn’t this appendage to your life that it is now. It wasn’t used as extensively, as constantly as it is these days. The limits have not been updated since the ‘90s. They were set at 1.6 watts per kilogram of soft tissue. That was the SAR exposure limit. But it doesn’t say anything about the amount of time you can be exposed to that.

Thinking about the simple physics of it, radiation is three things: the power of the source, so the 1990s phones versus an iPhone X; your proximity to it, so how far away from it are you? And by the way, the phones are not tested at zero space, so held up against your head the way that they’re used. They’re tested at a distance. That’s per the FCC guidelines. As you know, basic physics, the radiation decays exponentially over time. The difference between zero space and 10 millimeters is enormous. The third, we talked about proximity and power, which is time you’re using it. I guess my point on that one is the guidelines were set using a device you used as a kid on the bus. They’re not applicable to how things are used today. Everything is more sensitive in a child. I’ve got teenagers who are on their phones all the time. Everything from the thickness of their skull to the growth of their tissue is more sensitive.

The studies that are out there and available for review by entities like the National Toxicology Program, legitimate entities, just haven’t had time to address these emergent issues. The studies take for example 10 years to conduct. The NTP just finished one up last fall that had some interesting conclusions that I’m happy to talk about more if you’d like. The technologies they were studying were 2G and 3G because that was what was out there when they started it.

GD: How does ALARA play into the next generation of cases that Gadget Guard will be releasing?

GJ: We have the technology incorporated into cases, where it’s an electro-plated antennae on a rigid plastic plate that is inserted into the case. From that point, it looks like a normal phone case. We will have a refreshed design launching with the 2019 iPhones. It is available for purchase right now. It has done a decent amount of volume. As the landscape continues to evolve, we’ve tried to continue to keep the technology current and improve the aesthetics of the case. We’re making a hard push through the second half of this year to have a high-quality, rugged case and a sleek case available for the new iPhone offerings, and the marketing materials to support the direct-to-consumer channel. Petey and Cheryl have been great at helping us do things like revamp our website, consolidate our social media presence, just the blocking and tackling of marketing that we didn’t have anyone on board to help us with before.

The second aspect of that is the IP is really around the idea of using a passive or parasitic antenna to redirect radiation from anything emitting a signal. Thinking about the other applications of things like that, and specifically with things that are in close proximity to the body, so AirPods. In a commercial environment, things like price check scanners. In the emergency services environment, things like body cameras. How to adapt the technology to be beneficial to products like that.

GD: What is the ultimate vision for Penumbra moving forward with respect to its IP like Gadget Guard?

GJ: The thinking for the technology is that it will all be branded ALARA, but could be licensed to other entities. For example, it’s been a few years now, but we actually did a licensing deal with CaseMate, back when the same technology would have been referred to as Pong. That’s back to the messaging issue. It could be licensed to other accessory or device manufacturers. Then the master consumer-facing brand is Gadget Guard brand. All screen protectors will continue to be Gadget Guard. The cases will be Gadget Guard with ALARA technology.

Andrew "Drew" Rossow is a former contract editor at Grit Daily.

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