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Metalenz reimagines the camera in 2D and raises $10M to ship it

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As impressive as the cameras in our smartphones are, they’re fundamentally limited by the physical necessities of lenses and sensors. Metalenz skips over that part with a camera made of a single “metasurface” that could save precious space and battery life in phones and other devices… and they’re about to ship it.

The concept is similar to, but not descended from, the “metamaterials” that gave rise to flat beam-forming radar and lidar of Lumotive and Echodyne. The idea is to take a complex 3D structure and accomplish what it does using a precisely engineered “2D” surface — not actually two-dimensional, of course, but usually a plane with features measured in microns.

In the case of a camera, the main components are of course a lens (these days it’s usually several stacked), which corrals the light, and an image sensor, which senses and measures that light. The problem faced by cameras now, particularly in smartphones, is that the lenses can’t be made much smaller without seriously affecting the clarity of the image. Likewise sensors are nearly at the limit of how much light they can work with. Consequently most of the photography advancements of the last few years have been done on the computational side.

Using an engineered surface that does away with the need for complex optics and other camera systems has been a goal for years. Back in 2016 I wrote about a NASA project that took inspiration from moth eyes to create a 2D camera of sorts. It’s harder than it sounds, though — usable imagery has been generated in labs, but it’s not the kind of thing that you take to Apple or Samsung.

Metalenz aims to change that. The company’s tech is built on the work of Harvard’s Frederico Capasso, who has been publishing on the science behind metasurfaces for years. He and Rob Devlin, who did his doctorate work in Capasso’s lab, co-founded the company to commercialize their efforts.

“Early demos were extremely inefficient,” said Devlin of the field’s first entrants. “You had light scattering all over the place, the materials and processes were non-standard, the designs weren’t able to handle the demands that a real world throws at you. Making one that works and publishing a paper on it is one thing, making 10 million and making sure they all do the same thing is another.”

Their breakthrough — if years of hard work and research can be called that — is the ability not just to make a metasurface camera that produces decent images, but to do it without exotic components or manufacturing processes.

“We’re really using all standard semiconductor processes and materials here, the exact same equipment — but with lenses instead of electronics,” said Devlin. “We can already make a million lenses a day with our foundry partners.”

Diagram comparing the multi-lens barrel of a conventional phone camera, and their simpler "meta-optic"

The thing at the bottom is the chip where the image processor and logic would be, but the meta-optic could also integrate with that. the top is a pinhole.

The first challenge is more or less contained in the fact that incoming light, without lenses to bend and direct it, hits the metasurface in a much more chaotic way. Devlin’s own PhD work was concerned with taming this chaos.

“Light on a macro [i.e. conventional scale, not close-focusing] lens is controlled on the macro scale, you’re relying on the curvature to bend the light. There’s only so much you can do with it,” he explained. “But here you have features a thousand times smaller than a human hair, which gives us very fine control over the light that hits the lens.”

Those features, as you can see in this extreme close-up of the metasurface, are precisely tuned cylinders, “almost like little nano-scale Coke cans,” Devlin suggested. Like other metamaterials, these structures, far smaller than a visible or near-infrared light ray’s wavelength, manipulate the radiation by means that take a few years of study to understand.

Diagram showing chips being manufactured, then an extreme close up showing nano-scale features.The result is a camera with extremely small proportions and vastly less complexity than the compact camera stacks found in consumer and industrial devices. To be clear, Metalenz isn’t looking to replace the main camera on your iPhone — for conventional photography purposes the conventional lens and sensor are still the way to go. But there are other applications that play to the chip-style lens’s strengths.

Something like the FaceID assembly, for instance, presents an opportunity. “That module is a very complex one for the cell phone world — it’s almost like a Rube Goldberg machine,” said Devlin. Likewise the miniature lidar sensor.

At this scale, the priorities are different, and by subtracting the lens from the equation the amount of light that reaches the sensor is significantly increased. That means it can potentially be smaller in every dimension while performing better and drawing less power.

Image (of a very small test board) from a traditional camera, left, and metasurface camera, right. Beyond the vignetting it’s not really easy to tell what’s different, which is kind of the point.

Lest you think this is still a lab-bound “wouldn’t it be nice if” type device, Metalenz is well on its way to commercial availability. The $10M round A they just raised was led by 3M Ventures, Applied Ventures LLC, Intel Capital, M Ventures and TDK Ventures, along with Tsingyuan Ventures and Braemar Energy Ventures — a lot of suppliers in there.

Unlike many other hardware startups, Metalenz isn’t starting with a short run of boutique demo devices but going big out of the gate.

“Because we’re using traditional fabrication techniques, it allows us to scale really quickly. We’re not building factories or foundries, we don’t have to raise hundreds of mils; we can use whats already there,” said Devlin. “But it means we have to look at applications that are high volume. We need the units to be in that tens of millions range for our foundry partners to see it making sense.”

Although Devlin declined to get specific, he did say that their first partner is “active in 3D sensing” and that a consumer device, though not a phone, would be shipping with Metalenz cameras in early 2022 — and later in 2022 will see a phone-based solution shipping as well.

In other words, while Metalenz is indeed a startup just coming out of stealth and raising its A round… it already has shipments planned on the order of tens of millions. The $10M isn’t a bridge to commercial viability but short term cash to hire and cover up-front costs associated with such a serious endeavor. It’s doubtful anyone on that list of investors harbors any serious doubts on ROI.

The 3D sensing thing is Metalenz’s first major application, but the company is already working on others. The potential to reduce complex lab equipment to handheld electronics that can be fielded easily is one, and improving the benchtop versions of tools with more light-gathering ability or quicker operation is another.

Though a device you use may in a few years have a Metalenz component in it, it’s likely you won’t know — the phone manufacturer will probably take all the credit for the improved performance or slimmer form factor. Nevertheless, it may show up in teardowns and bills of material, at which point you’ll know this particular university spin-out has made it to the big leagues.

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Hard-coded key vulnerability in Logix PLCs has severity score of 10 out of 10

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Hard-coded key vulnerability in Logix PLCs has severity score of 10 out of 10

Enlarge (credit: Rockwell Automation)

Hardware that is widely used to control equipment in factories and other industrial settings can be remotely commandeered by exploiting a newly disclosed vulnerability that has a severity score of 10 out of 10.

The vulnerability is found in programmable logic controllers from Rockwell Automation that are marketed under the Logix brand. These devices, which range from the size of a small toaster to a large bread box or even bigger, help control equipment and processes on assembly lines and in other manufacturing environments. Engineers program the PLCs using Rockwell software called Studio 5000 Logix Designer.

On Thursday, the US Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Administration warned of a critical vulnerability that could allow hackers to remotely connect to Logix controllers and from there alter their configuration or application code. The vulnerability requires a low skill level to be exploited, CISA said.

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EC roundup: BNPL startups, growth marketing tips, solid state battery market map, more

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When I needed a new sofa several months ago, I was pleased to find a buy now, pay later (BNPL) option during the checkout process. I had prepared myself to make a major financial outlay, but the service fees were well worth the convenience of deferring the entire payment.

Coincidentally, I was siting on said sofa this morning and considering that transaction when Alex Wilhelm submitted a column that compared recent earnings for three BNPL providers: Afterpay, Affirm and Klarna.

I asked him why he decided to dig into the sector with such gusto.


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“What struck me about the concept was that we had just seen earnings from Affirm,” he said. “So we had three BNPL players with known earnings, and I had just covered a startup funding round in the space.”

“Toss in some obvious audience interest, and it was an easy choice to write the piece. Now the question is whether I did a good job and people find value in it.”

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch this week! Have a great weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

As BNPL startups raise, a look at Klarna, Affirm and Afterpay earnings

Pilot CEO Waseem Daher tears down his company’s $60M Series C pitch deck

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Image Credits: Colin Hawkins (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

I avoid running Extra Crunch stories that focus on best practices; you can find those anywhere. Instead, we look for “here’s what worked for me” articles that give readers actionable insights.

That’s a much better use of your time and ours.

With that ethos in mind, Lucas Matney interviewed Pilot CEO Waseem Daher to deconstruct the pitch deck that helped his company land a $60M Series C round.

“If the Series A was about, ‘Do you have the right ingredients to make this work?’ then the Series B is about, ‘Is this actually working?’” Daher tells TechCrunch.

“And then the Series C is more, ‘Well, show me that the core business is really working and that you have unlocked real drivers to allow the business to continue growing.’”

Can solid state batteries power up for the next generation of EVs?

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Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

A global survey of automobile owners found three hurdles to overcome before consumers will widely embrace electric vehicles:

  • 30-minute charging time
  • 300-mile range
  • $36,000 maximum cost

“Theoretically, solid state batteries (SSB) could deliver all three,” but for now, lithium-ion batteries are the go-to for most EVs (along with laptops and phones).

In our latest market map, we’ve plotted the new and established players in the SSB sector and listed many of the investors who are backing them.

Although SSBs are years away from mass production, “we are on the cusp of some pretty incredible discoveries using major improvements in computational science and machine learning algorithms to accelerate that process,” says SSB startup founder Amy Prieto.

 

Dear Sophie: Which immigration options are the fastest?

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Image Credits: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Dear Sophie:

Help! Our startup needs to hire 50 engineers in artificial intelligence and related fields ASAP. Which visa and green card options are the quickest to get for top immigrant engineers?

And will Biden’s new immigration bill help us?

— Mesmerized in Menlo Park

 

Why F5 spent $2.2B on 3 companies to focus on cloud native applications

Dark servers data center room with computers and storage systems

Image Credits: Jasmin Merdan / Getty Images

Founded in 1996, F5 has repositioned itself in the networking market several times in its history. In the last two years, however, it spent $2.2 billion to acquire Shape Security, Volterra and NGINX.

“As large organizations age, they often need to pivot to stay relevant, and I wanted to explore one of these transformational shifts,” said enterprise reporter Ron Miller.

“I spoke to the CEO of F5 to find out the strategy behind his company’s pivot and how he leveraged three acquisitions to push his organization in a new direction.”

 

DigitalOcean’s IPO filing shows a two-class cloud market

Cloud online storage technology concept. Big data data information exchange available. Magnifying glass with analytics data

Image Credits: Who_I_am (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Cloud hosting company DigitalOcean filed to go public this week, so Ron Miller and Alex Wilhelm unpacked its financials.

“AWS and Microsoft Azure will not be losing too much sleep worrying about DigitalOcean, but it is not trying to compete head-on with them across the full spectrum of cloud infrastructure services,” said John Dinsdale, chief analyst and research director at Synergy Research.

 

Oscar Health’s initial IPO price is so high, it makes me want to swear

I asked Alex Wilhelm to dial back the profanity he used to describe Oscar Health’s proposed valuation, but perhaps I was too conservative.

In March 2018, the insurtech unicorn was valued at around $3.2 billion. Today, with the company aiming to debut at $32 to $34 per share, its fully diluted valuation is closer to $7.7 billion.

“The clear takeaway from the first Oscar Health IPO pricing interval is that public investors have lost their minds,” says Alex.

His advice for companies considering an IPO? “Go public now.”

 

If Coinbase is worth $100 billion, what’s a fair valuation for Stripe?

Last week, Alex wrote about how cryptocurrency trading platform Coinbase was being valued at $77 billion in the private markets.

As of Monday, “it’s now $100 billion, per Axios’ reporting.”

He reviewed Coinbase’s performance from 2019 through the end of Q3 2020 “to decide whether Coinbase at $100 billion makes no sense, a little sense or perfect sense.”

 

Winning enterprise sales teams know how to persuade the Chief Objection Officer

woman hand stop sign on brick wall background

Image Credits: Alla Aramyan (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

A skilled software sales team devotes a lot of resources to pinpointing potential customers.

Poring through LinkedIn and reviewing past speaker lists at industry conferences are good places to find decision-makers, for example.

Despite this detective work, GGV Capital investor Oren Yunger says sales teams still need to identify the deal-blockers who can spike a deal with a single email.

“I call this person the Chief Objection Officer.

 

3 strategies for elevating brand authority in 2021

Young woman standing on top of tall green bar graph against white background

Image Credits: Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Every startup wants to raise its profile, but for many early-stage companies, marketing budgets are too small to make a meaningful difference.

Providing real value through content is an excellent way to build authority in the short and long term,” says Amanda Milligan, marketing director at growth agency Fractl.

 

RIBS: The messaging framework for every company and product

Grilled pork ribs with barbecue sauce on wooden background

Image Credits: luchezar (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The most effective marketing uses good storytelling, not persuasion.

According to Caryn Marooney, general partner at Coatue Management, every compelling story is relevant, inevitable, believable and simple.

“Behind most successful companies is a story that checks every one of those boxes,” says Marooney, but “this is a central challenge for every startup.”

 

Ironclad’s Jason Boehmig: The objective of pricing is to become less wrong over time

On a recent episode of Extra Crunch Live, Ironclad founder and CEO Jason Boehmig and Accel partner Steve Loughlin discussed the pitch that brought them together almost four years ago.

Since that $8 million Series A, Loughlin joined Ironclad’s board. “Both agree that the work they put in up front had paid off” when it comes to how well they work together, says Jordan Crook.

“We’ve always been up front about the fact that we consider the board a part of the company,” said Boehmig.


TC Early Stage: The premiere how-to event for startup entrepreneurs and investors

From April 1-2, some of the most successful founders and VCs will explain how they build their businesses, raise money and manage their portfolios.

At TC Early Stage, we’ll cover topics like recruiting, sales, legal, PR, marketing and brand building. Each session includes ample time for audience questions and discussion.

Use discount code ECNEWSLETTER to take 20% off the cost of your TC Early Stage ticket!

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With $62.5M in debt financing, Road Runner Media puts digital ads behind commercial vehicles

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If Southern California-based Road Runner Media succeeds, you’ll start seeing a lot more ads while you’re driving.

That’s because the startup is placing digital screens on the back of technicians’ vans, delivery vehicles, buses and other commercial vehicles. Those screens can show both ads and serve as a brake light — according to founder and chairman Randall Lanham, the brake light functionality is required if you’re putting a sign on the back of a vehicle.

“The way we look at it, we are a digital brake light,” Lanham said. Yes, the brake light is showing ads, but “the driver touching the brakes interrupts the ad.” (The sign can also indicate turns, reversing and emergency flashers. You can see a mock-up ad in the image above, and real footage in the video below.)

To pursue this idea, Lanham (who described himself as a “recovering attorney”) enlisted Chris Riley as CEO — Riley’s experience includes several years as CEO of PepsiCo Australia and New Zealand. And the company announced this week that it has secured $62.5 million in debt financing from Baseline Growth Capital.

The idea of putting ads on moving vehicles isn’t new. There are, of course, ads on the tops of taxis, and startups like Firefly are also putting digital signage on top of Ubers and Lyfts. But Riley said Road Runner’s ruggedized, high-resolution LCD screens are very different, due to their size, quality and placement.

“[Taxi-top ads] don’t have the color, the brilliance, the clarity,” he said. “We can run a true video ad on the screen.”

Riley also said the ads can be targeted based on GPS and time of day, and that the company eventually plans to add sensors to collect data on who’s actually seeing the ads.

As for concerns that these big, bright screens might distract drivers, Lanham argued they’re actually attracting driver’s eyes to exactly where they should be, and creating a brake light that’s much harder to ignore.

“Your eyes are affixed on the horizon, which is what the [Department of Transportation] wants — as opposed to on the floor or the radio or directly off to the left or right,” he said. “That’s where your safest driving occurs, when your eyes are up above the dashboard.”

In fact, Lanham said he’s “very passionate” about the company’s mission, which in his view will make roads safer, and is creating a platform that could also be used to spread public service messages.

“We have the ability to retrofit any vehicle and make it safer on the highways,” he added. “I really, truly believe that we will save lives, if we already haven’t.”

The company says it already has 150 screens live in Atlanta, Boulder, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, with plans to launch screens in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. in March.

 

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