MC10 Banks $10M, Wends Its Way Into Digital Health, Consumer Tech

12/17/12Follow @gthuang

You know all those incremental, also-ran tech startups going after the same opportunities in social media, mobile apps, or what have you? This is not one of them.

MC10, based in Cambridge, MA, is trying to commercialize some very big ideas around so-called “conformal electronics” that can bend and stretch around surfaces such as the human body. And now the four-year-old startup has $10 million more in the bank, thanks to new strategic investments from medical device giant Medtronic and an unnamed consumer health firm, plus previous investors including North Bridge Venture Partners, Braemar Energy Ventures, and Terawatt Ventures.

All told, the company has raised $33 million in equity funding (plus several million in grants)—and it might need every penny. MC10’s ambition is to get its brand of “stretchable silicon” into all manner of consumer products, digital health applications, and medical devices. That means things like wearable sensors and systems that could do anything from monitoring body temperature and hydration to analyzing sleep patterns.

The science and technology, based on research by co-founders George Whitesides at Harvard and John Rogers at the University of Illinois, involves high-performance silicon circuits that are combined with springy connections and bendable polymers. Down the road, the technology might also enable things like flexible and portable solar cells, new kinds of optical sensors, and even brain-machine interfaces.

But right now the main focus is on commercial applications. “It’s important for the company to graduate from hopes and dreams to [having] paying customers and shipping product,” says Dave Icke, MC10’s chief executive (pictured above). “There’s a rite of passage.”

Icke, who was previously with Advanced Electron Beams and Teradyne, is seeing some progress in that direction. In October, MC10 revealed its first commercial product, a sports-impact sensor developed in partnership with Reebok. The device, which is slated for release early next year, fits in a thin mesh skullcap and is designed to measure head-impact forces in contact sports, starting with hockey.

The company also has been developing a new type of band-aid-like sticker (see left) that can be worn comfortably on the skin to monitor sweat loss, skin characteristics, ultraviolet light, body temperature, and respiration rate. The sticker, or “biostamp,” conforms to the skin’s surface (wrinkles and all) and can send data to a smartphone using near field communication. You could imagine that everyone from sports apparel companies to sports drink makers, from cosmetics firms to baby-monitor makers, might potentially be interested. “We’re going forward with product collaborations,” Icke says, so look for new roll-outs with partners in the coming year.

Why bring in the new investors at this time? “The idea of taking strategic dollars now is to accelerate the time to market for projects we’re doing with these guys,” Icke says. “Having broad corporate support within these companies opens opportunities faster.” (Medtronic already had been working with MC10 on various projects, including developing a new type of balloon catheter to assist with heart procedures.)

MC10 could end up riding a big wave of digital health applications, as everyone and their brother seems to be trying to figure out how to cash in on emerging trends in home monitoring, personal analytics, mobile health, and biosensors. The big challenge for the startup, as I see it, is that it has new technology to sell to generally risk-averse companies; and it has a huge array of possible applications to pursue, including some really transformative long-range stuff, so it has to focus on the right areas at the right times.

To that end, Icke says, “You have to stay focused to really deliver on the things you’re working on.” He adds that MC10 is something like 80 to 90 percent focused on its current projects for customers. “Ten percent of our time, at the management level, we entertain longer-term growth initiatives.” That could mean government grants, or working with academic research groups on far-out projects. (Incidentally, co-founder Rogers and his collaborators published an intriguing paper this year on dissolvable, “transient” electronics.)

I asked Icke which companies that have come before he would consider role models for MC10’s growth. He named Gore, the materials company; Corning, the glass firm; and chipmaker Qualcomm, for its strategy in fabless semiconductors and broad tech-industry reach.

For now, MC10 is pushing 30 employees and is about to move into a larger office space in town. The company is gearing up to do product concept demos—which will include various biostamp applications—at the International CES expo in Las Vegas next month. So there’s plenty of device testing going on at headquarters (see lab photo). But the magnitude of the longer-term business challenge is not lost on Icke.

“We’re working on getting iconic things out there,” he says.

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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