Updated Apr 19, 2024 - News

The Shift: AI startup Xtremis to plant proving ground in Northwest Arkansas

 A composite: one photo of electronic gear packed into a military-grade box next to a microphone on a tripod, the second is a bald man with a beard sits upon a gray couch next to a white wall with white trim.

An advanced dynamic spectrum reconnaissance unit developed by Xtremis (left) and Jay Harrison, CEO. Left photo: Courtesy of Xtremis; right photo: Worth Sparkman/Axios

Some of the most important real estate on Earth can't be seen because it's electromagnetic energy.

  • Tech startup Xtremis uses artificial intelligence (AI) to map that energy in a given geographical area, then helps make the info usable for wireless telecommunications and the military, CEO Jay Harrison tells Worth.

Why it matters: The Washington, D.C., company will locate its research, development and manufacturing at the former SEFOR nuclear reactor test site, 21 miles south of Fayetteville.

  • Xtremis paid $1.1 million to the University of Arkansas for the nearly 620 acres last year.

How it works: Microphone-like instruments distributed across a geographic area "listen" to wireless traffic.

  • In a commercial application, the AI radio system can find unused slices in the spectrum and help a carrier jump to those slices for more bandwidth.
  • The tech could lead to a virtual marketplace where, say, Verizon could temporarily "rent" bandwidth from AT&T.

Caveat: Harrison points out the system doesn't decode communications — it can't hear my conversation about dinner with my wife — but it knows how much traffic is on the various range of frequencies.

The big picture: Xtremis' technology is being tested by the U.S. Army as part of the Department of Defense's electronic warfare effort, a $3 billion-$5 billion market, Harrison said.

  • "We don't build [communications] jammers," Harrison explained of a military application. "But in order for the jammer to work, you have to turn the jammer to a specific frequency that your adversary is operating on … so our systems would be used to target enemy radios and knock them off the airways."

State of play: UA distinguished professor of electrical engineering Samir El-Ghazaly started working with Xtremis about two years ago, developing hardware for military-grade, frequency-sensing antennas.

  • His department also is designing an anechoic chamber — an acoustics testing room.
  • "They hired one of my Ph.D. students," El-Ghazaly said. "I believe there will be opportunities [for] more in the future, which is … great for our students and the local economy."

Between the lines: Xtremis' technology is licensed from Vanderbilt University, where it was developed by an engineering team that won two DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) challenges.

What they're saying: "In an increasingly dangerous world, I'm proud that Arkansas continues advancing technologies to protect our service members and counter threats at home and abroad," said U.S. Rep. Steve Womack (R) of Rogers.

  • "They are creating … a hub and a magnet that's going to attract other companies here," David Sanders, director of enterprise ecosystem for Winrock International, told me.
  • The nonprofit helped recruit Xtremis to NWA and is considering making a financial investment.

The bottom line: Harrison expects to triple last year's $10 million in revenue by the end of this year.

  • The company is hiring for NWA positions paying in the six-figure range.
  • It will take about three years to fully staff up to 75 or so employees as the proving ground is being built, but Harrison is in no hurry. "I want 75 LeBron James," he said.

What's next: Members of the Xtremis team and the University of Arkansas will make a public announcement Monday.

Proving ground plans

A photo of a long brick building cantilevered over a green lawn.
The existing Warren Segraves building at the former SEFOR site. Photo: Worth Sparkman/Axios

Harrison plans to spend about $30 million on development at the former SEFOR (Southwest Experimental Fast Oxide Reactor) site.

  • It'll be called the Devil's Den Proving Ground, a nod to its state park neighbor.

State of play: Renowned local firm Marlon Blackwell Architects is designing the site, which includes an original Warren Segraves building.

  • A walking trail, ponds, sleeping accommodations for customers, a commissary and a helicopter pad are in the plans, Harrison said.
  • The first phase should take about 18 months to complete and should start by the end of this year.
An artist's rendering of the Devil's Den Proving Ground. Rendering: Courtesy Marlon Blackwell Architects
An artist's rendering of the Devil's Den Proving Ground. Rendering: Courtesy of Marlon Blackwell Architects

Fun fact: On a recent tour of the site, Harrison's brother, Grant, pointed out various features of the topography.

  • The Segraves building was like stepping into a time machine, complete with late 1960s decor, including a unit in a conference room that's an oddity: a combo sink, electric stovetop and mini fridge.
  • "You know why you've never seen another one of those?" Grant asked. "Because it probably electrocuted anyone who ever used it."

📻The Shift is a regular feature to catch up quick on what's happening in Arkansas' economy and entrepreneurial ecosystem.

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