How’s That Stretchy, Bendy Stuff Working Out for Ya? MC10 Looks to Turn Flexible Sensors and Solar Cells Into a Growth Business

Marc Andreessen, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur-turned-venture-capitalist, said something interesting in last weekend’s New York Times magazine interview. It wasn’t his “there’s no tech bubble” spiel, or even his prediction that we’ll all be riding around in self-driving cars in 10 to 20 years, thanks to Google.

No, it was that he singled out “wearable computing”—portable devices like a pendant around your neck that record “everything around you all the time”—as a Next Big Thing. (Like Twitter, Facebook, or the iPhone, this could either be the greatest thing since sliced bread, or the downfall of humanity—or both.)

Now one Boston-area startup is taking the mechanics of the idea a step further. MC10, based in Cambridge, MA, is developing flexible (“conformal”) electronics that can bend, stretch, and wrap around to conform to surfaces in the natural world, like the human body. That’s a far cry from the guts of today’s computers, which are based on rigid silicon circuits that are laid out on flat surfaces.

The three-year-old company has garnered increasing attention for its efforts, raising a $12.5 million Series B round led by Braemar Energy Ventures last month. (North Bridge Venture Partners was the original venture investor in 2009.) MC10 also has a deal with Reebok to develop a wearable product that’s very hush-hush (probably electronics integrated into footwear or other apparel for monitoring performance). The startup has also collaborated with Massachusetts General Hospital and other institutions to develop a new type of balloon catheter, equipped with sensors, to assist with heart procedures. Next up: wearable power and newfangled image sensors.

“We’re trying to change the world by reshaping electronics,” says Dave Icke, CEO of MC10. Icke is a semiconductor industry veteran who was previously an executive with Advanced Electron Beams and Teradyne.

The idea of flexible electronics isn’t new. But unlike other approaches over the past decade, such as using organic semiconductor materials or microwires (which tend to be slow), MC10 uses high-performance silicon circuits, which means the devices could be as fast as the computers you’re used to using. The trick is in exactly how the silicon is laid out and combined with stretchy materials. Imagine little islands of silicon linked by springy interconnects—“like a Slinky in between,” Icke says—with the whole thing deposited on a pre-stretched polymer. Depending on the application, the team adjusts the thickness of the islands and the interconnects so as to minimize the strain on the circuitry.

MC10's silicon-based photovoltaic cells could be used for portable or even wearable, personal power generation (image: John Rogers, UIUC)

MC10’s technology is based on research done in the lab of John Rogers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who is a co-founder of the company. Rogers, a former postdoc with chemist George Whitesides at Harvard University, was the winner of the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Prize announced last month. And the glue for the whole team is Carmichael Roberts, the general partner who led North Bridge’s investment; Roberts also worked with Whitesides as a postdoc, and he knew Icke from a previous company. (Icke, for his part, had gone to business school with North Bridge’s Jamie Goldstein.)

That’s all well and good, but making a living as a hardware startup is no easy task, especially when you’re selling a new technology. So MC10 has identified a couple of potentially lucrative markets for the next phase of its growth. One is portable (or even wearable) power generation—a set of projects supported by existing government contracts. Imagine a flexible sheet of solar-cell material that coats or is woven into the surface of a tent or an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to absorb sunlight and store electricity. People have been talking about designing such a material for years, but MC10’s (see photo above) just might be good enough to make it work.

“Instead of having a bolt-on rigid box that gets attached to a roof or vehicle, [people could] integrate those efficient materials into a tent or awning, or into vests and clothing,” Icke says. He stresses that MC10’s approach uses “conventional materials” (i.e., silicon) but “novel mechanics,” which should make the technology easier to adopt and deploy.

The second big future market for the company is optics and cameras. Conventional image sensors are built on flat wafers. But it turns out the most compact and efficient design that allows a single focusing lens and a wide field of view is a curved imaging surface—like the human retina.

By mass-producing a curved image sensor (see photo below), MC10 could potentially shrink the form factor of a camera system by some 40 percent, Icke says. That could lead to even thinner cellphones (the imaging component is apparently one of the thickest parts) and also smaller and lighter UAVs and satellites for reconnaissance, security, and military operations.

“This is a big part of our longer term story,” Icke says. “It has billion-dollar-plus potential over time.” For now, MC10 has won a government grant to build a prototype image sensor, and Icke expects to begin a commercial program in the next couple of years.

The company will continue to work on health and medical applications as well, including skin-mounted electronics that monitor things like heart rate, muscle activity, and brain waves—even working toward, perhaps, a brain-machine interface that could perform high-resolution neural mapping of the brain (though that’s years away).

“Home health monitoring is a huge future opportunity, with the aging population driving growth there,” Icke says. “That will be a big focus.”

MC10 is working on a curved image sensor that mimics the shape of the human retina, which could lead to more compact camera systems (image: John Rogers, UIUC)

While MC10 doesn’t face a lot of competition from other startups, there are plenty of other research groups working on flexible and stretchable electronics in places like MIT, Princeton, and Stanford, as well as universities in Europe and Japan. But the company owns a fair amount of intellectual property around stretchy, high-performance electronics, in the form of more than 15 patent families in various stages of approval, Icke says.

Admittedly, it’s still very early in the game. But Icke says the company has a “clear path to profits through [its] products already.” The goal for now, he says, “is to commercialize some iconic applications for conformal electronics.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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