As we move toward a world where many (if not most) devices can be controlled by our voices, the ability to reliably capture those sounds becomes paramount.
That spells opportunity for Vesper, a Boston-based startup that makes advanced microphone technology that could be used in smartphones, voice-controlled speakers, connected cars, and more.
Investors like what they hear from Vesper. Today the company announced a $15 million Series A round led by Accomplice, along with contributions from Amazon’s Alexa Fund, AAC Technologies, Hyperplane Venture Capital, Mirae Nano Tech, and other undisclosed investors. That brings Vesper’s total venture funding haul to $17 million, CEO Matt Crowley says.
“It’s an exciting time,” Crowley says. “We think we’re in the middle of a new wave of innovation in IoT [Internet of Things] devices and always-on sensors.”
Vesper is commercializing acoustic sensors based on research conducted at the University of Michigan by Bobby Littrell, who earned a PhD in mechanical engineering there, and Karl Grosh, a professor of bioengineering and mechanical engineering at the university.
Littrell and Grosh started the company in 2010 and supported it for the first few years through grants from NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health, Crowley says. Littrell, Vesper’s chief technology officer, is now based in Boston. Grosh, the chief science officer, remains a U-M professor.
Crowley joined the company in 2014, when Vesper raised some seed money from Accomplice. He previously founded Sand 9, a company that was working on related technology and reportedly got acquired by Analog Devices last year.
Vesper’s microphones are tiny silicon wafers that are a fraction of the size of a dime, as seen in the above photo. The technology uses what’s called piezoelectric micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS). Basically, such systems use ceramic or crystal materials that, when bent or stretched or squeezed, can capture that mechanical energy and convert it into electrical energy. Vesper’s microphones are comprised of a bunch of microscopic cantilevers that wiggle up and down when a sound wave pushes against them—similar to a pool’s diving board—and then the sensor turns that energy into an electrical signal that can be interpreted by the device into which it’s built.
Vesper’s approach is different from the standard microphone design that’s been used for decades, Crowley says. Most microphones measure sound using a combination of a flexible diaphragm-like structure and a rigid back plate. The problem, according to Vesper, is air gets trapped between those two layers, which keeps the sound transducer from moving freely in response to sound waves. “That adds noise and reduces performance of the microphone,” Crowley says.
Vesper says its microphones don’t have that problem. Its diaphragm isn’t constrained by another layer of material, which the company says enables the microphone to respond better to sound waves and capture more signal.
Another advantage of Vesper’s design is there’s “no place for dust or particles to get stuck or jam up the microphone,” Crowley says. That means the microphone keeps working even when exposed to dirt, water, or other potentially damaging hazards of its surroundings. Vesper has poured dust on its microphones and dunked them in the ocean, and they still work, Crowley says.
And because Vesper’s microphones capture energy from sound waves and turn it into electrical energy, they require less power to operate, Crowley says.
“With our newest product, we actually use the energy from sound itself to turn the microphone on,” Crowley says.
That makes it possible to produce connected devices that are always listening but require almost no power to do so, meaning they could “last for years without charging the batteries,” Crowley says.
Crowley declined to share revenue figures, but he says Vesper has shipped around 1 million of its microphones this year. They’re currently being used in certain earbud headphones and other accessories. He says the microphones could start being integrated in smartphones by the end of next year.
Vesper’s products aren’t being used in voice-controlled smart speakers yet, either. But the investment by Amazon’s Alexa Fund seems like a signal that Vesper’s microphones could make their way into the Amazon Echo or other products powered by Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant.
“We see the potential for Vesper’s technology to unlock compelling new use cases for Alexa, such as portable electronics where dirt and moisture resistance is an important attribute for microphones, and we are excited to be supporting the company with our investment,” said Steve Rabuchin, vice president of Amazon’s Alexa division, in a press release.
Other potential applications of Vesper’s products include voice-controlled TVs and home appliances, Crowley says. The microphones could also be used in automobiles for entertainment systems and advanced diagnostics. Crowley says automakers could install microphones under the hood to listen for engine problems, for example.
The high-tech microphones could also be useful for Internet-connected ear devices, so the person could, say, quickly call up a favorite song, ask for directions, or access information on an exhibit while walking through a museum, Crowley says. (This sounds a lot like the earpiece Joaquin Phoenix’s character uses in the film “Her.”)
There’s a “notion that augmented reality is going to take off on an audio basis long before it takes off on a visual basis,” Crowley argues.
But much of this is down the road. For now, Vesper is focused on building up its operations so it can handle more customer orders, Crowley says.
The company currently has 20 employees, and with the new money, it plans to hire at least 10 more people, primarily in sales, marketing, and supply chain, Crowley says. The funding will also go toward product development.
If Vesper plays its cards right, Crowley says it could be in the black by 2018. “We believe with the funding just raised we can get profitable,” he adds.