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ILP Institute Insider

September 5, 2019

ThruWave Inc: Making the invisible visible with human-safe millimeter waves

Matt Reynolds is the founder and CEO of ThruWave Inc., the startup using millimeter wave imaging to revolutionize e-commerce and high-value manufacturing.

Daniel de Wolff

ThruWave mitigates the risk of missing or damaged parts associated with the just-in-time model of manufacturing,” says Matt Reynolds, founder and CEO of the newest member of STEX25. At its core, the just-in-time philosophy seeks to reduce waste in the manufacturing process by bringing parts to the production line only when needed, as opposed to keeping excessive inventory on hand (i.e, the old system).

Developed by Toyota in the 1970’s, the successful application of just-in-time management streamlines the supply chain and allows manufacturers to produce higher-quality products at lower costs with minimal lag time between order and assembly. Tier I automotive suppliers deliver their parts in reusable totes that are delivered to line workers for them to assemble the cars we drive. But if parts that should be in the tote go missing, manufacturers run the risk of having to stop production until the necessary parts are delivered. In the automotive industry, for example, the costs can be extreme—the cost of stopped production can be as high as $50,000 per minute.

Matt Reynolds
Founder & CEO,

How then to be sure that the proper number of parts are on hand, and that they are arriving undamaged? As we all know, humans are conspicuously prone to error, especially when performing dull tasks such as counting and inspecting items. Existing X-ray inspection technology presents its own complications, not least of which is the fact that exposure to radiation is unsafe for humans. Hence, the need for large, cumbersome machines to shield workers from radiation.

ThruWave, on the other hand, uses human-safe millimeter wave signals to provide item count and picking accuracy. These electromagnetic waves are 10X to 100X higher in frequency than the radio waves used by WIFI and smartphones. “A unique feature of millimeter wave signals is that they penetrate many optically opaque objects, for example, cardboard, plastics, and other packaging materials. That feature allows us to make high-resolution images of objects even if they’re obscured by packaging,” Reynolds explains.

ThruWave solutions involve a combination of technologies. First, they make the millimeter wave sensor itself. They also create the software that turns the sensor data into high-resolution 3D images, and further software that analyzes those images to extract business process variables, for example, item count, or the fill fraction of a cardboard box, or template matching to the objects that are supposed to be in a kit of items sold as a unit.

In short, it’s a boon for e-commerce and high-value manufacturing. “If you’re a manufacturer producing high-value goods and you need to count items, audit packages, either in the incoming or outgoing side, or if you’re doing high-throughput e-commerce and you need to count objects inside packaging, ThruWave can reduce or eliminate manual counting labor while increasing accuracy.”

Prior to earning his PhD from the MIT Media Lab, Reynolds received his S.B. and M.Eng. from MIT's Course 6, the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. What followed was a foray into the startup world as co-founder of ThingMagic Inc., the RFID systems firm acquired by Trimble Navigation. He would also go on to found the energy conservation firm Zensi (acquired by Belkin) and the home sensing company SNUPI Inc (acquired by Sears).

In addition to his work with ThruWave, Reynolds is a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Washington. “I would say that my life has been driven by innovation in both academia and in my work in the startup field,” says Reynolds. “ThruWave is my fourth startup. In each case, I’ve taken a research idea from the lab to commercial practice, and that technology has been adopted by major industries.”

At the moment, nine people make up the ThruWave team, all of whom have advanced degrees in electrical engineering or physics. They are experts in millimeter wave system design and image reconstruction, as well as in high-performance computing to turn those millimeter wave sensor data into 3D images. ThruWave is funded by a Federal small business innovation research grant from the National Science Foundation, as well as early-stage investors. “We’re working on a couple of pilots with carefully chosen large companies this year,” says Reynolds. “We’re expecting to have our product in general availability by the end of next year, which will allow us to expand to a much larger base of companies in the ecommerce and high-value manufacturing spaces.”

As they approach general availability for their product, Reynolds and his team are looking for a broader customer base. Soon, they’ll be able to supply millimeter wave sensors and a software suite that will enable that sensor data to be used in business process automation. “A key advantage of millimeter wave technology is that it’s always on and always making images of goods as they flow past,” says Reynolds. “Our ideal customer relies on high-throughput material handling, either producing or using items being manufactured at a high rate of speed. We’re also interested in working with companies that are shipping or handling those products at a high rate of speed.”

The e-commerce space is experiencing more than 15 percent compound annual growth in the number of packages delivered to people’s homes. UPS and FedEx alone handle close to 20 million packages per day from the e-commerce supply chain. Reynolds is betting that a large portion of those packages will need to be audited for item count and picking accuracy, and he believes that ThruWave has the technology capable of handling that job. “We see almost unlimited growth for ThruWave because of the growth of the industries that we serve. As the rate of e-commerce ordering increases, we’ll be able to keep up with our sensor. Similarly, in high-value manufacturing industries, there’s an ever-increasing drive towards automation, and we think we’re going to be an important part of that evolution.”

About MIT Startup Exchange, STEX25, and MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP)
MIT Startup Exchange actively promotes collaboration and partnerships between MIT-connected startups and industry. Qualified startups are those founded and/or led by MIT faculty, staff, or alumni, or are based on MIT-licensed technology. Industry participants are principally members of MIT’s Industrial Liaison Program (ILP).

MIT Startup Exchange maintains a propriety database of over 1,500 MIT-connected startups with roots across MIT departments, labs and centers; it hosts a robust schedule of startup workshops and showcases, and facilitates networking and introductions between startups and corporate executives.

STEX25 is a startup accelerator within MIT Startup Exchange, featuring 25 “industry ready” startups that have proven to be exceptional with early use cases, clients, demos, or partnerships, and are poised for significant growth. STEX25 startups receive promotion, travel, and advisory support, and are prioritized for meetings with ILP’s 230 member companies.

MIT Startup Exchange and ILP are integrated programs of MIT Corporate Relations.