MEMS startup snags $37M to make accelerometers smaller and cheaper

Entrepreneur Ben Lee has been developing a new type of semiconductor process that makes tiny accelerometers. When embedded in devices these little machines could change the types of games played on cheap handsets or eliminate the spasm-like head nod used to activate Google Glass.

As the CEO of mCube, a five-year old startup, Lee has just raised a $37 million Series C round of funding from existing investors Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, MediaTek, iD Ventures America, and DAG Ventures. New investors include Keytone Ventures, SK Telecom (China) Ventures and Korea Investment Partners, bringing the total money his startup has raised to $70 million.

Already mCube has shipped more than 60 million of its tiny microelectromechanical machines or MEMS. What’s novel about the company is how it builds them. A MEM is a type of semiconductor that is used to translate the physical aspects of our world (temperature, movement, light, pressure) and convert it into something digital our computers can read.

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Making MEMS involves building a traditional silicon semiconductor and then wiring the analog-sensing component to the silicon. What mCube has figured out is how to make the analog part — an accelerometer — using the traditional chip manufacturing process so the MEMS element is part of the chip instead of bolted on afterward. This means the accelerometer is smaller, cheaper and requires less power to operate.

As Lee kept saying during the interview, “The chip is smaller than a grain of sand.” And when you can “sprinkle accelerometers like sand” throughout a product it changes what you can do with them. For example, Lee said that Google’s Glass engineers were excited by the idea of putting multiple accelerometers into the frames because that would allow for greater accuracy at detecting motion.

One might also imagine that with smaller and cheaper motion-sensing devices you could incorporate them in various different places on someone’s body via removable buttons on clothing or even lower the cost of a fitness tracking device from $100 for many models to something closer to $25. Lee suggested the pricing.

An iPhone 4, playing a game using the accelerometer. Image courtesy of  Gaith Saqer, Flickr Creative Commons.

An iPhone 4, playing a game using the accelerometer. Image courtesy of Gaith Saqer, Flickr Creative Commons.

With this funding mCube is experimenting with a side benefit to having access to cheap sensors — it’s using the extra data provided by adding more accelerometers plus a few algorithms to mimic a gyroscope. The company calls this package the iGyro and because it replaces a much more expensive sensor, it could bring the same game-playing functionality of high-end gaming devices to cheaper phones. The company has developed a few reference games to show off the functionality of the iGyro and Lee said customers are excited about both the new functionality and the games.

So, much like Moore’s Law has helped drive down the cost of computing and storage, making our digital lifestyles possible, mCube has stumbled on an innovation that might become a similar sort of enabling technology when it comes to sensors. Imagine if we paired that with a cheap, tiny, low-power radio.

Update: This story was updated at 6:19 am to correct the CEO’s name. His name is Ben Lee.