Vesper Technologies, a new microphone technology developer, has raised $23 million from some of the biggest names in audio technology to finance the commercialization of its piezoelectric microphones.
As audio technology and voice controlled devices become more ubiquitous, manufacturers are hoping to turn to higher performance MEMS (micro-electro mechanical systems) microphones that use acoustic sensors made on semiconductor production lines using silicon wafers.
The technology allows for far smaller microphones that are incredibly sensitive, but the mics themselves typically don’t withstand the wear and tear of harsh environments all that well. Enter Vesper. It’s piezoelectric microphone technology received a full-throated endorsement from Amazon last year (after the company invested through its Alexa Fund).
Traditionally, manufacturers have used arrays of MEMS microphones to pick up sound, but as systems become more complex, they’re more susceptible to breaking down thanks to the sensitivity of the microphone technology. Amazon (and others) are betting that Vesper can solve the problem thanks to its novel approach to manufacturing MEMS using piezo-electric technologies.
The innovation from Vesper basically hinges on the company’s design for a MEMS microphone that doesn’t require a back plate, which lets flexible microphone plates bend and respond to stress without degrading, according to Amazon senior sound engineer, Dave Berol.
Piezoelectric MEMS design replaces the diaphragm and back plate with flexible alternatives that result in a waterproof, dustproof, particle-resistant, and shockproof microphone that requires no workarounds to be used in high-reliability arrays.
According to Yole Developpement, the MEMS and sensor market will reach $66 billion by 2021. Vesper Technologies chief executive Matt Crowley, thinks his company can command a huge share of that market.
“Our vision is for Alexa to be everywhere, and that means devices need to be built with durable, high-quality components that stand up to the demands of many different environments, especially on-the-go scenarios that require better power efficiency,” said Paul Bernard, director of the Amazon Alexa Fund, in a statement. “Vesper has become further embedded in the Alexa community through its integrations with various development kits and integrated solutions for Amazon AVS, and this follow-on investment is a testament to their continued momentum.”
Crowley was working at a company making MEMS with quartz crystals for clocking, but the clock market wasn’t so appealing back in 2012, so the serial entrepreneur began looking at other opportunities.
“We thought the microphone was going to be a growth market back in 2012,” Crowley recalled. So he began looking for technologies that could compliment the manufacturing work his company was doing.
Through hours of online research, Crowley came across the NASA-backed work of Bobby Littrell, who had come up with an entirely new way to build commercially viable piezoelectric microphones.
“I had these piezoelectric manufacturing expertise and i need to find a better product,” Crowley said. “I actually just started looking on the web for a piezoelectric microphone and it was like all roads led to [Littrell]… I read his doctoral thesis and then i actually read his patents and i actually contacted him through LinkedIn.”
Crowley also noted that the lower power demands of piezo electric sensors means that the microphones can enable a broader range of uses. From turning on television using nothing more than a voice command (without the need to touch a remote) to work with doorbells and security cameras and even augmented reality-based “hearables” like those designed by Bose.
Vesper raised its initial capital from Jeff Fagnan’s Accomplice fund, before getting its first strategic investment from AAC Technologies.
The most recent round was actually led by Madison, Wis.-based American Family Ventures, the investment arm of American Family Insurance, which has built quite an interesting portfolio of hardware and software services companies since its launch eight years ago. Additional institutional venture investors in the Vesper round include Hyperplane, ZZ Capital, and Accomplice.
“People have been trying to make piezoelectric microphones since the 70s,” said Crowley. “The breakthrough was making really thin layers of these piezoelectric technologies and it was Broadcom which was using this stuff… We couldn’t have started this company five years earlier. It had to be now, when the material science wasn’t right where it needs to be.”