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$18.5M investment for instant-focus lens developer

08 Jul 2011

Norway-based poLight's series B round, led by the Norwegian government's Investinor fund, could be extended by $6M later this year.

poLight, a Norwegian start-up developing a high-speed, autofocusing lens for camera phones, has raised NOK 100 million ($18.5 million) in its series B round of financing.

Trondheim-based Investinor, a fund set up by the Norwegian government in 2008, led the latest round, which poLight says may be extended to $24.5 million later this year. Also investing were the company’s existing shareholders Viking Venture III, Alliance Venture Polaris and SINTEF Venture III.

poLight is working on a compact and low-power-consumption lens, based around a proprietary optical polymer material and manufactured using a wafer-based MEMS process. In its “TLens” design, a film of the polymer is sandwiched between two thin layers of glass. When a voltage is applied to a piezo actuator, the glass membrane bends, changing the shape and focusing power of the lens inside – offering a virtually instantaneous focus for both video and still photo capture.

Although the technology is different, the basic premise is similar to that employed by Varioptic, the French company that has been developing so-called “liquid lenses” based on electrowetting for several years. And in September 2010, poLight hired the former Varioptic CEO Christian Dupont to head up the Norwegian company. Varioptic has since been sold to the French technology company Parrot, while the Silicon Valley start-up Optilux is now attempting to commercialize the liquid lenses for handset applications.

“Investors recognize that poLight’s technology is best positioned to bring features enhancing camera phone user experience while, for the manufacturing process, leveraging semiconductor suppliers to ensure cost-effective large volume supply,” said Dupont after the latest financing round.

Speed advantages
One of the main advantages of the technology is the speed with which it can change focus, and poLight says that this will be particularly beneficial for video applications – by re-focusing at ten times the speed of a traditional lens module. The lens can also focus on close-up objects less than 10 cm away.

“What we have found is that voice coil motor [VCM, the incumbent camera phone technology] is not efficient from a power consumption point of view, and not fast enough to guarantee an outstanding picture quality and fast video autofocus,” the company told optics.org. “VCM does not address the most important feature required by the latest manufacturing techniques, such as wafer scale and reflowability to drive cost down. poLight’s TLens is actually addressing those needs.”

“poLight’s patented technology makes it possible to manufacture small camera modules at the wafer level, dramatically reducing the overall cost of camera modules, while maintaining quality performance,” the company added.

Key technical features include an optical transmittance of more than 95%, compact size (4.2 mm x 4.2 mm 0.5 mm), response time of less than 1 ms and a power consumption of just 1 mW.

poLight says it has already begun sampling the TLens with a high level of interest, and although it has raised substantial funding, as a fabless company poLight will not be manufacturing the devices itself. Instead it will be co-operating with “leading MEMS semiconductor suppliers”. It expects to enter qualification with customers in late 2011, with volume production starting in early 2012.

Competitive market
With sales of smart phones continuing to grow rapidly, and total camera phone sales pegged at 1.1 billion units in 2010 by the Japanese analyst TSR, the market for such lens modules is a huge, albeit highly competitive one. The US-headquartered company Omnivision is one of the leading suppliers in the industry, although recent speculation suggests that it may have missed a key design deadline with customer Apple for the next-generation iPhone.

Among poLight’s existing investors is fellow Norwegian optics firm Ignis, which has recently been acquired by the US company Finisar. poLight told optics.org that Walker Kinman from Ignis currently sits on the start-up’s board of directors, and that there are no plans to change this in the light of the acquisition.

• Other photonics companies with investment from Investinor, which controls a $400 million fund, include Innotech Solar, which recycles rejected solar cells and boosts their efficiency with a proprietary technology. Another example is Aptomar, which has developed a thermal imaging sensor for use in rough seas, and which can detect a face in the water from a distance of up to 3 km.

JenLab GmbHCeNing Optics Co LtdIridian Spectral TechnologiesHyperion OpticsOptikos Corporation First Light ImagingOmicron-Laserage Laserprodukte GmbH
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