A research team at North Carolina State University set its sights on designing a better antenna for the military. It went slightly off the mark, creating an indoor antenna that receives free over-the-air, high-definition digital TV signals.
The $44 Mohu Leaf, introduced in March, recently reached No. 1 on Amazon.com's ranking of "HDTV antennas."
"We're not calling it a home run yet, but this is a ticket to the game," said Mark Buff, co-founder and CEO of Mohu and its sister company, GreenWave Scientific. "This is the first sign of moving beyond paying the bills and looking at explosive growth."
A dozen employees, working out of cluttered offices in a North Raleigh strip mall, are assembling and shipping up to 80 antennas a day. Last week, they had sold more than 2,400.
The Mohu Leaf was designed by chief technology officer Michael Barts, a Virginia Tech PhD in electrical engineering. The goal was to develop a consumer-friendly antenna that would pass the "wife test" in terms of its looks, and would give budget-conscious viewers a better choice for cutting off cable or satellite TV.
"It's going back to the days of getting signals over the air," Barts said.
The laminated black, paper-thin rectangle hangs on a wall or window. One California blogger wrote that when he opened the box, it was "the least breathtaking piece of electronics I have ever come across."
Still, that review, and others on Amazon, have helped boost sales.
In today's economy, more consumers are eager for options that allow them to avoid the soaring cost of cable TV, including Internet streaming services, said Megan Pollock, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association.
An increasing number are learning the value of a good antenna that can receive free digital signals, she added. TV broadcasters are adding more choices as the technology improves.
"The market potential is enormous," Pollock said.
The key tests are whether it works and whether it's simple to set up and use, she said. "Do you have to keep wiggling it around? The less you have to do, the more excited consumers will be about using it."
Mohu's biggest markets are in California and New York, where customers report getting 50 or more channels.
The company's return rate is about 1 percent, Buff said. Some customers are unhappy because factors that interfere with reception can pixilate the signal.
Russ Winstead, operations director and the team's third partner, developed the Leaf's manufacturing process. It entails stamping thin metal sheets, applying adhesive, laminating, packaging and stacking the boxes just inside the front door for post-office pickup.
Buff started antenna research for the military as he earned a doctorate in electrical engineering at N.C. State. That work evolved into GreenWave, which he founded in 2006.
The company is testing three antennas for the Navy and military subcontractors. One partner, Shakespeare, is the South Carolina company known for its "whip" antennas on military jeeps and other vehicles.
GreenWave's antennas send and receive broadband signals, helping improve communications with massive vehicles and robots in the field. Some of the work is essentially electronic warfare, with jammers that block radio-controlled roadside bombs. One antenna is built into a huge mud flap.
In December, the GreenWave partners incorporated Mohu and set to work on the Leaf. The private companies employ about a dozen people but don't disclose financial results.