World’s First Single Chip Digital Microphone

Aku2000 1 Akustica today announced the availability of their AKU2000 all-digital MEMS microphone. This marks a huge milestone for the company, which was founded in 2001 and was based on Ken Gabriel’s research done while he was a professor at Carnegie Mellon, where he developed the CMOS-MEMS technology that allows Akustica to manufacture their MEMS structures using standard (and widely available) CMOS manufacturing processes. If you are a MEMS geek like me, you will understand that this is a Big Deal, given that most MEMS products require proprietary manufacturing processes that don’t benefit from the global scale and efficiencies of CMOS foundries. More coverage of Akustica’s announcement appears in EETimes and The Register.

An all-digitial single chip microphone provides something for most every constituency (users, designers, engineers, manufacturers) in the world of cell phones and laptops: it outputs better quality sound, it draws less power, it is smaller, both in footprint and in height, it is compatible with automated pick-and-place surface-mount assembly processes and, finally, it allows audio to be routed digitally around the noisy circuit board of today’s jam-packed devices without requiring bulky shielded cabling, thus enabling smaller, less power-hungry devices that are cheaper to manufacture and exhibit better audio performance. It is about time the digital (and silicon) age came to the sleepy world of microphones, most of which are based on electret-condenser microphone (ECM) technology that has remained essentially unchanged for over 50 years.

Most people encounter MEMS-technologies today in three common applications: air-bag accelerometers, ink-jet printer heads and in rear-projection televisions powered by TI’s DLP micro-mirror technology. These are mass-market applications, to be sure, with volumes in the tens of millions each year. As an investor, what I find most compelling in Akustica is the potential for their acoustic CMOS-MEMS technology to become the most widespread MEMS technology yet developed: the cell phone and laptop markets combined will ship over one-billion units this year, giving Akustica an annual unit volume potential in the hundreds of millions.

I’ve had the pleasure to be (via Mobius VC) involved with Akustica as an investor since 2003, when we bought a small piece of Akustica’s Series A round. Based on the progress the company made subsequent to our initial investment, we led their Series B financing in early 2004, at which point I joined the company’s board of directors. I think it is worth recounting the story of how I came to invest in Akustica, because it illustrates how circuitous the path to any VC’s investment in a company can be. Let me detail how my personal history, interests and seemingly random connections led to my sponsorship of Mobius VC’s investment in Akustica…

While I was an undergrad at Stanford, I played in a funk band called Where’s Julio?. Our bass player was a physics major named Daniel Soto, who is today back at Stanford getting his PhD while researching the nanostructures responsible for the gecko’s amazingly “sticky” feet. Back in the early 90s, Daniel was a research assistant at Ginzton Lab at Stanford and was working on a project developing a silicon micromechanical diffraction-based projection optics technology that ultimately became known as the Grating Light Valve, which was commercialized by a startup called Silicon Light Machines, which was later acquired by Cypress Semiconductor. Hearing Daniel talk about his work as a research assistant at Ginzton was my first introduction to the concept of MEMS, and the notion that one could build tiny machines out of silicon using semiconductor manufacturing processes blew my mind. From that point onward in the early 90s, I made it a point to pay attention to developments in the world of MEMS.

After I joined Mobius VC in early 2000, in addition to pursuing investment opportunities in internet infrastructure software and services, I began actively investigating MEMS as a potential area of investment. (I thought that software investing was going to be a challenging place to play in for a few years and that Mobius already had plenty of cooks in the software kitchen, while nobody at Mobius was looking at MEMS, so it behooved me to establish some domain expertise in an area beyond software). And while Silicon Valley was full of semiconductor investors, relatively few of them were focused specifically on MEMS, given the unique R&D and manufacturing challenges associated with commercializing and productizing MEMS technologies.

After Silicon Light Machines was sold to Cypress, several members of the core team left to found a company called Glimmerglass, which set out to develop a fiber-optic switching engine based on 3D-MEMS technology. Glimerglass’s Series A was originally funded by Susan Mason at Onset Ventures. When the company went out to raise their Series B round in 2001, my bass-playing friend Daniel Soto (who had joined Glimmerglass as an early employee after leaving Silicon Light Machines) connected me with the CEO. Ultimately, Mobius VC led Glimmerglass’s Series B financing, and I joined the board. Glimmerglass thus became my first MEMS-based venture investment.

Working with the fine folks at Glimmerglass (who are alive and well today and can boast of customers deployments at Cisco, Internet2, AMS-IX and many others) gave me real-world perspectives and insights into the challenges and possibilities offered by MEMS. After investing in Glimmerglass, I decided to seek out a MEMS application that had huge volume potential, and predicted that microphone technology would be an interesting potential application for MEMS.

Given that I’m a musician and have my own recording studio, my personal fascination with all things audio clearly influenced my thinking here as well. Coincidentally, shortly after I conjectured that MEMS microphones would be an interesting application, I ran across Akustica in 2002, who had recently announced their initial round of financing. I contacted the founders, Jim Rock and Ken Gabriel, and began to get to know them. Akustica was well-financed by local Pittsburgh investors and did not need additional capital at the time, but I stayed in touch with them for well over a year and was finally able to convince the company to allow Mobius VC purchase a small portion of the Series A back in late 2003, which, as I mentioned previously, ultimately led to our co-leading Akustica’s Series B in early 2004.

Funny how my friendship with a bass-playing physics major at Stanford in 1990 indirectly led to my investment in a very exciting Pittsburgh-based semiconductor company in 2003. To me, this just underscores the fact that, in the end, most things in life and business ultimately spring from one’s relationships, and the person you meet today might well be your connection to an interesting opportunity many years later.

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