Scallop Imaging Leads Micro-Cluster of Boston Companies Trying to Reinvent Camera Tech

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Beverly, MA-based SiOnyx has a different (and more fundamental) approach to building image sensors that see in the dark. The company, which started in 2005, is trying to bring “black silicon” to the semiconductor industry. This material is silicon that has been treated with laser pulses and chemicals so it absorbs light at certain wavelengths (near-infrared) much more efficiently than conventional photo sensors. The potential results: better night-vision cameras, surveillance equipment, medical imaging devices, and camera phones.

Last fall, SiOnyx completed a $12.5 million second round of venture financing. At that time, CEO Stephen Saylor talked with me about some of the early markets for black silicon technology, and the importance of working with industry partners. The keys to the startup’s success seem to lie in producing black silicon at large enough scale, and being able to piggy-back on conventional silicon-based manufacturing processes.

And then there is the shape-shifter (OK, maybe a bit of an exaggeration). Cambridge, MA-based MC10 is broadly focused on developing flexible and bendy electronics for health, energy, and defense applications, but one of its key new markets is optical tech. Whereas conventional photo sensors are rigid and flat, MC10 is working on a sensor that is curved, like the human retina. That shape, it turns out, is the most compact and efficient way to achieve a wide field of view with just one focusing lens.

That means, if MC10 is successful, its bendy image sensor and optical system could be much smaller than existing ones—so camera phones could be made even thinner, and satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles made lighter for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes. Indeed, for three-year-old MC10, which is coming off its own $12.5 million venture round, the optical market has “billion-dollar-plus potential over time,” CEO Dave Icke said in an interview last month.

In a world where more and more activities get caught on camera, we’ll be watching to see what these companies, and others, do to advance the fundamental technologies and business models in the field.

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