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. … Next Page »

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