NoblePeak Collects $12 Million for Night Vision System That Exploits “Nightglow”

3/7/08

A Wakefield, MA, company that’s developed a new type of night-vision chip hopes to break into the security and surveillance market with a higher resolution camera that can see further into the infrared spectrum than current systems—and do it for only a fraction of the price.

NoblePeak Vision makes a camera sensor than can see in daylight, in the near-infrared range that many night vision systems use, and on into the short-wave infrared, or SWIR. Those three regions are the reason for the product’s name, TriWave. The silicon-based sensor in your home camcorder can see a short way into the infrared, but not very far. Chips made from a mix of semiconductor materials do better, but cost a lot more to make.

With NoblePeak’s technology, CEO Mike Decelle says, “You basically get an infrared detector at roughly the cost of a silicon imaging chip.” The technology hinges on a method for overlaying a silicon sensor with a layer of the element germanium, which is sensitive to SWIR wavelengths. The technique was originally developed by Lucent Technologies’ Bell Labs for telecom applications, but abandoned when the telecom bubble burst in 2000. The advantage of the germanium detector is that it can pick up a range of light known as nightglow.

Nightglow is generated by high-energy radiation absorbed from the sun is the Earth’s upper atmosphere. That energy causes hydrogen-oxygen molecules to shine both day and night. The glow they emit is very faint in the visible region of the spectrum, but about 1000 times as strong in the infrared. That means there’s a bright light, invisible to human eyes, that illuminates objects for cameras that can see in the SWIR spectrum.

Some conventional night vision systems are based on thermal imaging, picking up the heat radiating from a body. Some systems use infrared light sources, often LEDs, to illuminate a scene, but that adds cost. NoblePeak sensors use ambient light only. And Decelle says the resolution of his sensors is much higher than that of today’s typical infrared cameras, making it easier to identify just what the camera is seeing.

Right now, infrared cameras based on compound semiconductor sensors with VGA (640 by 480-pixel) resolution cost in the range of $25,000 to $30,000, Decelle says. That limits their use to military and high-end government security applications. Decelle says security systems based on NoblePeak’s sensor should cost only 10 to 20 percent as much. That, he believes, will open up whole new markets. “Part of the problem with this technology prior to the availability of our stuff is nobody could afford to pay those kinds of prices,” he says.

At lower prices, he believes, it will becomes possible for seaports, college campuses, and facilities owned by Fortune 1000 companies to think about installing night-time surveillance systems. The challenge, Decelle thinks, will be educating the potential market. “Because today SWIR-sensitive cameras are so expensive, a lot of our customers don’t know the nightglow is out there,” he says.

A new infusion of cash could just help NoblePeak spread the news about nightglow and further develop its technology. On Wednesday, the company announced it just got $12 million in new venture funding in a Series B round led by new investor Chart Venture Partners, with previous investors Matrix Partners and Northbridge Venture Partners also chipping in. The company’s plan is to take its chips, the production of which is subcontracted out, add some signal-processing functionality to them, and then hand them off to camera makers, who can build them into their camera platforms. NoblePeak has teamed up with two camera design companies, Imaging Solutions Group of Fairport, NY, and StingRay Optics of Keene, NH, to build cameras based on its sensor. Those cameras are available as part of an evaluation kit that lets potential customers test the sensor. Decelle says camera cores should be available in commercial quantities by the end of this year.

The company is starting to attract some attention. In November, NoblePeak, which Decelle says has “more than 10″ patents related to its technology, was named the world’s most promising security startup company in the Global Security Challenge 2007, sponsored by the London Business School and the US Department of Homeland Security, among others.

And there may be other markets for the technology down the road. For instance, teeth are transparent at these wavelengths, so a SWIR-sensitive camera and a laser with a telecom wavelength could make a good alternative to x-rays. If the company can hit the right price point, the sensors might also make for night vision systems in automobiles that have better resolution than current models.

This week’s funding round brings the company’s total financing to $20 million. Decelle says he didn’t have trouble raising the cash. “We had a whole lot more money being pushed at us than we chose to take,” he says. The money will go toward expanding the staff, which is at about 20 employees now, by adding sales people, marketing managers, and engineers.

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  • Neil Savage

    Got an email from Mike Decelle, who liked the piece but wanted to offer a small clarification. While it’s true, he said, that NoblePeak’s germanium-enhanced chip costs about the same as an equivalent silicon chip, their optical packaging is a bit more expensive. So the total cost of the imager will be somewhat higher than those in conventional cameras. On the other hand, if they see more, you’d think people would be willing to pay a little bit more.