Smartphone: a laboratory in your pocket?
Smartphones of the near future will be able to detect malignant melanoma from benign skin lesions. Spectricity, a spinoff of Imec (Interuniversity Microelectronics Center), claims it has developed chip-size hyperspectral sensor and imager solutions that could turn any smartphone into a real pocket lab.
“A camera phone can do more than just take a picture and could be used as a spectrometer to detect things you can’t see with your eyes and things that are done by professional spectrometers,” Vincent Mouret, CEO of Spectricity, told EE Times Europe. Such cameras with spectral analysis of the image can find applications in areas such as precision agriculture, food analysis, skin health, cosmetics, security and automotive.
Mechelen, Belgium-based Spectricity has just raised €14 million in a Series B funding to accelerate the development and volume production of its spectral sensing solutions for mass market mobile devices.
Spectricity’s patented wafer-scale hyperspectral filter technology stems from over 10 years of research at Imec.
“Imec was building hyperspectral cameras and found a way to make them a lot smaller,” Jonathan Borremans, cofounder and CTO of Spectricity, told EE Times Europe. “They were shipping hundreds of thousands of them, but we got a lot of requests from more companies looking for something 100 to 1000 times cheaper and they wanted to get it in millions of units. That’s something Imec isn’t set up for.”
Borremans seized the opportunity and, with Imec team members, established Spectricity in 2017 with the vision to create a company “with the right focus and structure.”
Spectricity develops low-cost, miniaturized, integrated spectral sensing solutions in the visible and near-infrared spectral range. “The sensor is used to measure the spectral fingerprints of every point in a scene, and you can learn about objects because every wavelength is reflected differently on an object,” Borremans explained. “Every object has its signature that we can measure.” Data is fused with RGB images in phones.
Borremans said spectral imaging drives better AI.
Nowadays, mobile apps can detect melanoma, but as Borremans deplores, they are not accurate, specific and sensitive enough. These apps rely on high resolution images to train AI algorithms and determine whether it is a melanoma or an ordinary benign mole. “We are adding more data to these images so AI algorithms can become even more competent.”
Spectricity is already working with two partners who already have applications running on professional spectrometers for skin analysis, one for cosmetics and the other for melanoma detection. “They are willing to have the same kind of capabilities on a smartphone, […] get more data more rapidly and have a more precise diagnosis,” Mouret said.
Spectricity’s sensors have all the benefits of CMOS technology, including low cost and miniaturization.
The CMOS integration is “the strength of the technology,” said Borremans. “We use the same paradigm that is in your phone today. It’s just an imager with color filters on it. Only the way we implement the color filters is different so that it’s not just the red, the green and the blue colors. We can have many more.”
A traditional RGB sensor uses 3 color filters in a Bayer pattern while a spectral sensor can use many more filters (e.g. 9 or 16) in a mosaic pattern.
Besides, said Borremans, “We can reuse the same supply chain and the same fabrication tools,” to lower the price and enhance reliability. “We are leveraging what exists today and has proven to be successful.”
Spectricity has sealed an agreement with a foundry whose name remained undisclosed.
As a fabless company, Spectricity has acquired some specific equipment to manufacture imagers with their filters. “We are going to deliver a complete chip with a firmware to calibrate the filters on the chip,” said Mouret. “We will not provide IP, we will not grant a licence, we will deliver a complete solution.”
Spectricity aims to maintain strong links with Imec. “We have a joint development on the next technology,” Mouret said.
High-volume production in 2023
The funds will help Spectricity further accelerate the development and mass production of its hyperspectral sensors and imagers for smartphones and high volume consumer applications. Mouret said Spectricity has already signed partnerships with tier-one mobile, consumer electronics device and smartwatch manufacturers.
The money will “allow us to see the first phase of high-volume production,” Mouret confirmed. “In 2023, when we are in volume production, we will need to expand, and we will certainly have another fundraising to expand production.”
Mouret said Spectricity also expects to hire new people to support R&D, manufacturing, and application developments. The startup has grown from 7 employees at its inception to 25 today and intends to reach 40 people by the end of the year.
Spectricity is convinced its spectral sensing solutions can bring new applications to smartphones and, in the future, to machines, drones, and cars. It intends to develop its sales and marketing operations to expand its reach on the market.
Led by Atlantic Bridge, Capricorn Fusion China Fund, Shanghai Semiconductor Equipment and Material Fund, this Series B fundraising includes the participation of Belgium Series A imec.xpand and Xtrion. Spectricity has raised a total of €20 million to date.
Investing in semiconductors
European entrepreneurs have long envied their Silicon Valley counterparts — with good reason. Financing rounds, often jaw-droppers over there, have been more in the millions or tens of millions of euros over here.
Mouret joined Spectricity in April 2021 after a long career in the semiconductor industry. He held several management roles in large corporations such as Texas Instruments, Motorola, Alcatel, and Wavecom (now Sierra Wireless). And for the last 20 years, he has been the CEO of several semiconductor startups in the field of geolocation (Nestwave and Nemerix), video (Let it Wave), wireless communications (Gridbee) and now hyperspectral imaging (Spectricity). He has completed rounds of fundraising, “good exits”, even a startup shutdown.
“Until recently, it was a nightmare to find some good funding for an innovative semiconductor company in Europe,” he explained. “I am very proud to announce this funding, as there are so few semiconductor startups that have managed to raise a significant amount in Europe. I hope this is going to change.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has created a global chip shortage and highlighted the risks and vulnerabilities in the semiconductor supply chain. From individuals to governments, everyone is realizing the strategic importance of semiconductors in our daily lives and their ever-increasing implication for economic competitiveness.
“I believe that Europe now understands a little bit better the problem of not investing in semiconductors,” said Mouret, referring to Europe’s plan to foster European industrial autonomy in semiconductors.
In March, the European Commission presented its ‘Digital Compass’, which stated the intent to have manufacturing capacities below 5nm nodes and aiming at 2nm, and the production of 20% by value of global semiconductor production in Europe.
Europe’s strengths are its pool of tech talent and prominent research institutes such as Imec, CEA-Leti, and Fraunhofer. “Everyone thinks that innovation in the semiconductor industry is in the US and now in Asia, [but] we have all the ingredients in Europe to continue to innovate,” Mouret concluded.
This article was originally published on EE Times Europe.
Anne-Françoise Pelé is editor-in-chief of eetimes.eu and EE Times Europe.