How’s That Stretchy, Bendy Stuff Working Out for Ya? MC10 Looks to Turn Flexible Sensors and Solar Cells Into a Growth Business

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He stresses that MC10’s approach uses “conventional materials” (i.e., silicon) but “novel mechanics,” which should make the technology easier to adopt and deploy.

The second big future market for the company is optics and cameras. Conventional image sensors are built on flat wafers. But it turns out the most compact and efficient design that allows a single focusing lens and a wide field of view is a curved imaging surface—like the human retina.

By mass-producing a curved image sensor (see photo below), MC10 could potentially shrink the form factor of a camera system by some 40 percent, Icke says. That could lead to even thinner cellphones (the imaging component is apparently one of the thickest parts) and also smaller and lighter UAVs and satellites for reconnaissance, security, and military operations.

“This is a big part of our longer term story,” Icke says. “It has billion-dollar-plus potential over time.” For now, MC10 has won a government grant to build a prototype image sensor, and Icke expects to begin a commercial program in the next couple of years.

The company will continue to work on health and medical applications as well, including skin-mounted electronics that monitor things like heart rate, muscle activity, and brain waves—even working toward, perhaps, a brain-machine interface that could perform high-resolution neural mapping of the brain (though that’s years away).

“Home health monitoring is a huge future opportunity, with the aging population driving growth there,” Icke says. “That will be a big focus.”

MC10 is working on a curved image sensor that mimics the shape of the human retina, which could lead to more compact camera systems (image: John Rogers, UIUC)

While MC10 doesn’t face a lot of competition from other startups, there are plenty of other research groups working on flexible and stretchable electronics in places like MIT, Princeton, and Stanford, as well as universities in Europe and Japan. But the company owns a fair amount of intellectual property around stretchy, high-performance electronics, in the form of more than 15 patent families in various stages of approval, Icke says.

Admittedly, it’s still very early in the game. But Icke says the company has a “clear path to profits through [its] products already.” The goal for now, he says, “is to commercialize some iconic applications for conformal electronics.”

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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