Vesper Technologies, a high-tech microphone startup trying to ride the wave of voice-controlled devices, has summoned a $23 million investment from a group of well-known tech companies, venture capitalists, and an insurance firm.
The Series B funding round was led by American Family Ventures, the venture arm of Madison, WI-based American Family Insurance. Other investors in the round included Amazon’s Alexa Fund; Baidu, the Chinese tech giant; Bose Ventures, the venture arm of headphone and speaker maker Bose; microphone maker Shure; machine interface company Synaptics; and Boston-area investment firms Accomplice and Hyperplane Venture Capital. Boston-based Vesper says it has raised $40 million in funding to date.
Vesper’s backers are betting its microphones will become a popular choice for device makers, as the number of Internet-connected, voice-enabled products grows.
“One of the biggest trends is the prevalence of voice interfaces,” says Vesper CEO Matt Crowley. “We offer a couple of specific, unique values for new generations of voice interfaces.”
One is that Vesper’s microphones can withstand a lot of abuse. The tiny silicon wafers—a fraction of the size of a dime (see top photo)—don’t have a place where unwanted particles might get stuck. Vesper has poured dust on its microphones, dunked them in the ocean, and dropped them onto hard surfaces, and they continue to work, the company has said.
The other selling point is Vesper says it has developed microphones that can extend device battery life by months or years because the microphone converts energy from sound waves into electrical energy, meaning the gadget can always be listening but require almost no electricity to do so. Click here to read more about eight-year-old Vesper’s technology, which uses what’s called piezoelectric micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS). The tech is based on research conducted at the University of Michigan by Vesper co-founders Bobby Littrell, the company’s chief technology officer, who earned a PhD in mechanical engineering at the university; and Karl Grosh, a U-M professor of bioengineering and mechanical engineering, and Vesper’s chief science officer.
Crowley says Vesper is receiving interest from companies that want to embed its microphones in devices such as television remotes, cameras, and headphones.
“They’re using our technology to access the voice assistant without having to press any buttons,” Crowley says.
He declined to name any manufacturers that have signed on as customers, but says the first products to incorporate Vesper tech are expected to hit shelves later this year. Crowley projects Vesper will generate several million dollars in revenue in 2017. The company isn’t profitable yet, he adds.
Vesper intends to use the cash influx to expand its team from 27 employees to around 42, including hiring in engineering and sales, Crowley says. The company also plans to open offices in China and South Korea, he says.
American Family is interested in exploring whether advanced sensors can help prevent damage to insured goods or to help validate insurance claims, Crowley says. For example, audio from a Vesper microphone placed on a roof might be used to verify a person’s claim that there was a hail storm that caused damage, he says.
Vesper is also considering combining its microphones with other minuscule sensors that can track things like humidity, temperature, ambient air pressure, or motion, Crowley says. For insurers, that might mean embedding a humidity sensor in a home to make sure the conditions aren’t ripe for the growth of mold, he says.
“If you think about it, any kind of device or object that has insurance coverage, if you could put sensors on it that could prevent it from being damaged, that’s a huge amount of value,” he says. He rattles off a list of potential things to monitor with microphones and other sensors: industrial machines, livestock, kitchen appliances, and cars. “The sensors are really going everywhere,” he says.