Michigan’s Ambiq Micro Gets Ready to Scatter Lots of Tiny, Low-Power Products…Everywhere

Scott Hanson is only 27 years old, but he has spent the past six of those years obsessively working on one project—developing low-power circuit technology that can stay on for years, even decades.

That was his project when he started working on his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 2004. Today, all that work is beginning to pay off as his company, Ambiq Micro, recently won $250,000 from venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson and communications technology company Cisco Systems in a business plan competition.

It’s a step along the way to what Hanson hopes will be the closing of a million-dollar seed round of funding within the next two months. The goal is to commercialize low-power microcontrollers for ultrasmall wireless devices like smart credit cards and ultralong-life wireless sensors for smart homes and buildings.

The journey for Hanson began when, as a doctoral student, he and his colleagues were trying to make smaller electronic medical devices that can last for five or 10 years at a time in the body, including intraocular pressure sensors for glaucoma patients—millimeter-scale devices implanted in the eye to monitor pressure fluctuations.

“So, we spent a number of years working on that, and came up with a string of technologies that today is being rolled out in the form of Ambiq,” Hanson says.

“Our product will be the world’s most energy-efficient microcontroller,” he says. “At this point, the one we are developing next is a sixth-generation microcontroller. With each generation, we add new bells and whistles, and make it closer to an actual product.”

The barrier to an “actual product” is one that faces many researchers and companies that work in the realm of the very tiny: interfacing their technologies with existing sensors and other off-the-shelf parts. So, Ambiq has spent the past year working not on new technology development, but making something that is usable outside the lab.

This barrier has not been a deterrent for judges at a number of business plan competitions this year. Ambiq Micro won awards from the 2010 Rice University Business Plan Competition and the 2010 Global MOOT Corporation Competition at the University of Texas, Austin, in addition to the Michigan Business Challenge at U-M.

The recent DFJ/Cisco competition that Ambiq won required contestants to make their case using Cisco’s TelePresence communications suites. The goal was to demonstrate technology that enables ubiquitous computing.

Ambiq is focusing on two specific areas within this catch-all category of ubiquitous computing.

1. Ultrasmall wireless devices: The next generation of smart credit cards will have tiny displays and mini keypads to securely log in to online databases. They need to have a power source that will last three or more years. It’s an emerging market in which Hanson sees great opportunity.

2. Ultra-long-life wireless devices: Smart buildings, smart homes, smart factories, all will require hundreds, even thousands, of low-power sensors that monitor movement, equipment, changes in pressure, among many other tasks. But we’ll want to have the sensors in place for periods of 10 or 15 years. Hanson says that his microcontrollers, once they’re ready for prime time, will have that capability.

That may seem like a pretty broad spectrum of applications, but Hanson says that with Ambiq’s platform, about 90 percent of the microcontrollers’ features are identical. It’s only 10 percent that makes a difference between applications. Hanson says there are many possibilities and potential customers and they’ll be attacking many of them in parallel.

“We’ll be releasing a pretty wide family of products over the years,” he says.

For now,  though, he’s focusing on closing a seed funding round. After that happens, then Ambiq will move out of its U-M lab space, move into an office in Ann Arbor, and build a larger engineering team. After the move, though, Hanson still plans to retain close ties to the university.

“We’ve got great researchers here,” he says. “Frankly, for me to stay ahead of my competition for the future, I’ll continue to draw from the research staff here.”

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