Japan’s TDK Scoops Up Berkeley’s Chirp, Maker of Sonar Micro-Chip

Tokyo-based electronics giant TDK today announced its agreement to acquire startup Chirp Microsystems, whose miniaturized ultrasonic sensors are being tested in drones, robots, virtual reality systems, and smart home devices.

David Horsley, co-founder and CTO of Berkeley, CA-based Chirp, says the company’s sonar chips have been drawing interest from companies in a range of emerging fields where navigation, depth sensing, and 3D mapping are key elements. The Chirp chip senses the environment around it much the way dolphins do in the ocean. It sends out an ultrasonic frequency signal, then clocks the time it takes for the returning echo to come back. That gives a measure of the distance to a nearby object.

Other sensors use this method called time-of-flight (ToF), but Chirp aimed to distinguish itself by making very small sonar sensors that require little power to operate and fit into a smartphone. The low-power, millimeter-scale chips could be used to help VR users interact with virtual objects, to allow smart devices to detect a human presence, and to equip car bumpers to avoid parking lot collisions, according to Chirp.

TDK, which racked up $10.5 billion in sales in the 2017 fiscal year, didn’t disclose the financial terms of the planned acquisition. In a written statement, the Japanese company said the Berkeley startup’s technology will augment its existing portfolio of products from divisions such as San Jose, CA-based InvenSense, whose miniaturized sensors are equipped with microphones to detect sound and accelerometers, gyroscopes, and compasses to track motion. Both Chirp and InvenSense make sensors classified as MEMS (micro electrical mechanical systems) devices.

TDK, founded in 1935, says its goal is to become the leading source of sensors for the Internet of Things (IoT) era. Its ambitions extend to the mobile, automotive, industrial, and healthcare sectors.

“Chirp’s unique and high value-added 3-D sensing technologies will fill out our lineup of sensor solutions, positioning TDK as the leader in ultrasonic MEMS technology,” said Noboru Saito, senior vice president at TDK and CEO of TDK unit Sensor Systems Business Company, in a company statement.

Chirp was founded in 2013 to commercialize technology developed by a team of researchers at a MEMS center established under a DARPA grant, Horsley says. Its formal name: the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center (BSAC) at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Davis. He and two other team members became Chirp co-founders, joined by CEO Michelle Kiang, a U.C. Berkeley grad with a PhD in electrical engineering, industry experience, and prior roles at two other startups.

Shortly after its founding, Chirp moved into U.C. Berkeley’s startup accelerator SkyDeck near campus in downtown Berkeley. Kiang says the company raised about $4 million in equity financing from investors including Innobridge Capital Management, Draper Nexus, Vertical Ventures, Atlantic Bridge, Dolby Family Ventures, and Peregrine Ventures. The company was also supported by grants from sources including the National Science Foundation.

Chirp unveiled a production-scale version of its chip in early 2016, and sales of the chip brought in revenue in 2017, Kiang says, though she could not disclose numbers. The company was anticipating higher-volume sales starting this year, Horsley says. Chirp was shaping up to complete an oversubscribed Series A fundraising round when TDK stepped in with the acquisition offer, he says.

The startup will now become a TDK subsidiary, but all 15 of Chirp’s employees will be staying on, Kiang says. For the time being, the unit will remain in its commercial offices on Ninth Street in Berkeley.

Horsley says Chirp’s mini-sonar sensor technology could fill niches where other products face technical limitations. It can work in full sunlight, which can flummox infrared sensors, for example. Chirp chip models work best at detecting objects at close range—currently, from one to five meters—so they could rival radar as car bumper sensors, Horsely says. Radar is blind at close range, but it is good at freeway navigation, he says.

Photo credit: Chirp Microsystems

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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