Yole Développement (Yole) first interviewed USound Gmbh, a fast-growing audio start-up, in April 2016. We decided to check back and see how their strategic evolution and market positioning has evolved since then. We figured this is the perfect time to catch up with USound, since growth is expected in all areas of the audio MEMS industry. In fact, the microspeaker industry alone could attain a CAGR of 6.5% and reach $12B by 2022, according to Yole Développement’s forecast in our Acoustic MEMS and Audio Solutions 2017 report.
(Source: Acoustic MEMS and Audio Solutions Report, Yole Développement, April 2017)
Here’s a transcript of our conversation with Ferruccio Bottoni, CEO of USound:
Yole Développement: Can you remind us of USound’s origins?
Ferruccio Bottoni: USound’s founders thoroughly explored the MEMS technology landscape, and we decided to develop MEMS micro-speakers for the following reasons:
1) The presence of an existing, growing market for personal audio
2) The progress made with piezo material, which allowed us to develop a MEMS speaker that is competitive with today’s electro-dynamic speakers in terms of performance
3) Very few companies were working on MEMS speakers
YD: Can you share some statistics about USound, such as the number of employees you have, and your major milestones?
FB: USound currently has around 40 employees. Our most recent milestones are the ‘design freeze’ of our speaker for earbuds and wearables/hearables, the beginning of manufacturing ramp-up and first pre-production shipments. These products are much smaller, thinner and offer superior audio quality compared to existing solutions.
YD: What motivates the USound team and what differentiates you from other companies?
FB: Our focus is on using MEMS technology to build the best-possible audio system. We have mastered the complete audio chain and deliver complete audio solutions matching today’s customer needs. We are an audio system supplier and not a simple component supplier.
YD: Technological success has always been a matter of technological readiness (the right timing in the right market). Can you describe how USound has identified such opportunities with micro-speakers?
FB: This gets back to how USound was founded. We spent a considerable amount of time researching emerging MEMS technologies that were approaching mass-production maturity. One of the technologies we identified was piezo MEMS technology. We then started analyzing which markets it would be possible to serve with this technology, and micro-speakers was the best match we found.
YD: How does the PZT layer evolve over time (long-term stability)? What tests have you conducted thus far?
FB: PZT actuators have served the hard disk-drive market for a very long time and generally speaking the actuators’ long-term reliability and stability extends over several years. Let’s summarize it as following: The long term reliability and stability is much better than that of current electrodynamic speakers.
YD: What are your speakers’ limitations? In which applications will they not work?
FB: Our PZT MEMS speakers have the same disruptive power in the audio market like LEDs had in the lighting market. Our major advantages are smaller and thinner dimensions, lower power consumption and much better performance. Our first products are targeting earbuds and wearable applications, since our small, thin form-factors are a benefit for these application types. Cell phone audio solutions will follow soon. Note that our MEMS technology enables arrays of micro-speakers in small spaces and is affordable. This offers various new opportunities. Currently we are using arrays of MEMS speakers to create larger speakers and tweeters for automotive and Hi-Fi applications. Computers, notebooks, tablets and TVs will follow soon. There are no limitations for these applications. Moreover we see many healthcare applications, for example hearing aids.
YD: Will the price of USound’s micro-speaker be competitive compared to a standard, low-cost electrodynamic speaker?
FB: One of our technology’s advantages is the wide bandwidth that our speakers can deliver. This results in a greatly improved audio experience in comparison to low-cost electrodynamic speakers. But if you just want to focus on costs you must compare the bill of material (BOM) of a multi-driver electro-dynamic earbud with the BOM of a single-driver MEMS earbud. You will immediately see that MEMS solutions are much more competitive.
YD: Do your speakers cover the full frequency spectrum?
FB: Our speakers for earbuds, or occluded ear applications, cover the full spectrum from 10Hz-20kHz and even beyond, since our speakers can be driven up to 80kHz. Competing speakers for free-field applications cover a more limited spectrum, from 1kHz up to 80kHz. The next generation of speakers currently in development will cover a spectrum from 500Hz up to 80kHz. Our capability results in a totally new, high quality, audio experience, which is one of our strong competitive advantages.
YD: With the audio business being a low-margin sector, achieving strong performance can be complicated. Do you want to disrupt this model, for example through premium positioning and adding more value?
FB: We consider ourselves more than a pure component supplier. We deliver full audio solutions, including loudspeakers, microphones, digital signal processing, audio filters, and algorithms for 3D audio and virtual reality (VR) audio. But long-term PZT MEMS speakers have the potential to replace the majority of nearly all electrodynamic speakers.
YD: When do you think USound will be profitable?
FB: We’re confident that we will achieve profitability by 2019.
YD: Do you think there are any advantages to mastering the entire audio chain, from microphone to micro speakers, through to audio IC management?
FB: To satisfy customer needs it is much better to offer the full audio chain, rather than a single component.
YD: What do you need the most, right now, to succeed?
FB: In 2018 we are supplying product to our first manufacturing customers for production. We see large growth potential for 2019, especially within the smartphone market. We have set up our company to fully exploit this potential and we are optimistic that we will master the challenges we face.
Ferruccio Bottoni, CEO of USound
Ferruccio Bottoni has almost 20 years of experience in Semiconductor and MEMS industry. He started in 1995 at STMicroelectronics working on the Flash Memories. Subsequently he joined Robert Bosch GmbH in 1999 were he contributed to the ramp-up of MEMS in the automotive markets. He finally joined SensorDynamics in 2009 as VP operations and he has retained this position until 2013. During his career, Ferruccio has covered several positions Quality and Reliability Engineer, Process Manufacturing Manager, Technical Purchasing Manager and VP Operations
The market for MEMS microphones and ECMs, micro-speakers and audio ICs will be worth $20B in 2022 – More
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