In an ever-changing world of technological advancement, the human-machine interface is becoming increasingly significant. Voice-based interaction is one of the most natural solutions for seamless communication with close-by devices, a fact proven by what we have seen over the last year: rapidly increasing sales of smart speakers and VPAs (virtual personal assistants) like Google Home and Amazon Alexa. These products integrate numerous MEMS microphones, which are prized for their small form factor, high performance, and low cost.
The total MEMS microphone market (consumer, automotive, industrial, medical, defense) amounted to $1.1B in 2018. According to Yole Développement’s (Yole) Status of the MEMS Industry 2019 report, the market is expected to grow at a 5% annual rate, reaching more than $1.5B in 2024.
New piezoelectric MEMS, which are waterproof, dust-proof, and ultra low-power, are disrupting the traditional capacitive microphone approach.
In this context, Dr Eric Mounier and Dimitrios Damianos from Yole Développement took the opportunity to interview Matt Crowley, CEO of Vesper, a piezoelectric MEMS microphone company that ramped up production in 2019.
Dr Eric Mounier (EM): Can you provide an overview of Vesper’s business as of today?
Matt Crowley (MC): 2019 has been a great year for Vesper as we have crossed the chasm from a research-oriented startup to a commercial business, shipping many millions of units to tier 1 customers. As the piezoMEMS technology matures, we’ll be able to accelerate our rate of product launches and further increase sales and market penetration.
Vesper has forged a number of strategic partnerships and brought several products to market. Starting with the world’s first piezoelectric MEMS microphone, the VM1000, the product portfolio ranges from the analog VM1001 for far-field arrays to a ZeroPower Listening™ VM1010 and a specialized VM2020 microphone for extremely loud environments. Also, Vesper recently launched its first digital Pulse Density Modulation (PDM) microphone, the VM3000, which brings piezoMEMS microphone technology to a broader array of markets.
Customers are lining up. In fact, our partnerships with consumer tech brands are quickly changing the way people interact with smart devices. A rich IoT reference design with MediaTek incorporates voice into a broad range of connected devices, such as soundbars, TVs, smart speakers, appliances, and more. A partnership with remote control developer Remote Solution enables the world’s first battery powered, non-push-to-talk far-field voice-activated remote control. Vesper powers the upgraded simplehuman smart trash can that opens with a voice command as well as technology from SwineTech that alerts mother pigs so they don’t lay on their young, saving the agriculture industry billions.
Not surprisingly, investors are lining up. To date, total funding is more than $52M from investors such as Accomplice, Amazon Alexa Fund, Baidu, Bose Ventures, Hyperplane, Sands Capital, Shure, Synaptics, ZZ Ventures and more.
In the last year alone, Vesper has experienced more than 200% growth in customer acquisition, 1,000% revenue growth YoY, and has increased headcount by 50%. The startup is on the fast track as it revolutionizes sensing.
Dimitrios Damianos (DD): What are Vesper’s fundamental innovations and benefits? What are the main advantages of your technology versus legacy capacitive MEMS technology?
MC: Vesper uses piezoelectric materials to create the most reliable and advanced MEMS microphones, representing a fundamental departure from capacitive MEMS microphones that have dominated the market for decades. Piezoelectric microphones operate on a completely different phenomenon – the direct conversion of mechanical sound energy into electrical energy via the piezoelectric effect. Because the piezoelectric effect directly transduces mechanical sound energy into an electrical signal, our microphones can function as a quiescent sound sensor. We call this capability ZeroPower Listening™, which allows systems to be in deep hibernation mode while passively detecting speech, thereby greatly extending battery life. Another feature that makes the tech truly unique is its resistance to environmental contaminants and its immunity to stiction. Vesper’s are the first MEMS microphones that withstand real-world use in smartphones and other connected devices without a protective membrane. They’re rugged enough to natively withstand water, dust and particle contaminants.
In addition, we believe that the piezoMEMS technology can be applied to additional sensor types.
EM: How does this equate to added-value in end-products using Vesper microphones?
MC: Vesper’s microphones enable multiple unique system features that directly benefit end consumers. The ZeroPower Listening™ technology, for example, enables system designers to eliminate the button in push-to-talk devices. This new generation of far-field remotes brings the seamless experience of far-field voice to long lived battery powered devices for the first time. In addition to remotes, this can be used in consumer security cameras, garbage cans, smoke alarms, hearables, portable speakers or any battery powered device with a voice interface.
Another microphone, the VM2020, takes advantage of the natural high dynamic range and linearity of our transducer to deliver an extremely high Acoustic Overload Point (AOP) of 153dB. This microphone can be used as a woofer feedback mic in smart speakers, soundbars and TVs, thereby reducing speaker distortion and improving music quality in voice-controlled devices.
All of our microphones are dust, water, particle and oil resistant which make all end products more durable and long-lasting. It also enables microphones to be placed in new environments for new applications such as active noise cancellation and voice control in the fume hood over a stove, for example.
DD: After last year’s boom, the smart speaker market is expected to grow rapidly this year, especially in China. What opportunities exist for Vesper penetrating these kinds of end-products?
MC: There has absolutely been a surge in the smart speaker market. In fact, according to the Status of the MEMS Industry 2019 report of Yole, the MEMS microphone market is expected to reach 7.7B units in 2024.
Vesper’s China office was recently opened to help meet the growing smart speaker demand for piezoMEMS microphones. We are now seeing voice penetrate many more types of devices besides standalone speakers such as TVs, appliances and other household objects. As voice continues to take off, the potential end product use cases become infinite. As such, there’s enormous potential for Vesper in the smart speaker space and beyond. For a microphone vendor, it’s especially beneficial that these speakers all use arrays of microphones for the best far-field performance.
EM: How do you foresee voice as a man-machine interface in the future?
MC: In the future, voice will become pervasive and ambient. The cost of adding a simple voice interface to products will continue to drop until it becomes a default drop-in feature for all electronic devices. This is not to say that voice will completely replace other interfaces, but it will supplement them in many devices. The best analogy is that smart devices will interface with the world and people using multiple senses including vision, touch, ultrasound, etc. The advantage of voice is that it’s both a natural interface and the most cost-effective one.
Technology changes, but the natural human preference for communicating by voice is constant. As the number of electronic devices in our world grows, our need for natural communication is even greater. And whether we are communicating with people or machines, the quality and reliability of the voice interface becomes increasingly critical. Microphones are the gateway between the digital world and the natural world of human voice.
DD: What do you see as the next volume applications for Vesper microphones, and how will they fit in the future IoT/connected world?
MC: We see the success of Apple AirPods as driving the next high-volume consumer category in truly wireless stereo (TWS) hearables. There will be a variety of successful voice-enabled form factor products that will do massive volume collectively, but they will all be a little different. The TWS category is important for microphones because the AirPods have 4 microphones, just as the iPhone has 4 microphones. As the attach rate for TWS to smartphones increases, this category has the potential to overtake smartphones as the largest volume microphone market. This is a focus area for several new products we are launching in the coming quarters.
EM: Besides consumer applications (i.e. VPAs), do you see additional “high-end” applications for your MEMS?
MC: Yes, we see a second wave of devices emerging that use microphones as more than a voice interface. Some high volume examples include automotive, industrial machine monitoring, smart cities and agriculture. Vesper is the perfect choice for these markets due to our high level of robustness and longevity. This will be a very broad market and will be very high volume.
DD: Anything you would like to add for our readers?
MC: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to tell you about Vesper. We are thrilled to be one of the few highly successful startups to pioneer a disruptive MEMS technology.
About the interviewee
Matt Crowley’s passion for building great teams to bring disruptive technologies to market is fully evident at Vesper – which introduced its first product to market nearly five times faster than the industry average.
Prior to joining Vesper, Matt was founder and vice president of business development at Sand 9. At Sand 9, Matt pioneered the mass commercialization of piezoelectric MEMS devices and led partnerships with industry leaders such as Intel, Ericsson, Analog Devices and CSR. Analog Devices acquired Sand 9 in 2015. Sand 9 was spun out of Boston University Office of Technology Development, where Matt was responsible for evaluating new inventions, forming new companies to commercialize those technologies and managing a venture capital program. Before joining BU, Matt worked at Mars & Co strategy consulting, where he advised Fortune 500 companies on operational and strategic issues. A sought-after sensor industry thought leader, Matt and Vesper have been featured extensively in the press, including The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and many more.
About the interviewers
With almost 20 years of experience in MEMS, Sensors and Photonics applications, markets, and technology analyses, Eric Mounier, PhD provides deep industry insight into current and future trends. As a Fellow Analyst, Technology & Market, MEMS & Photonics, in the Photonics, Sensing & Display division, he is a daily contributor to the development of MEMS and Photonics activities at Yole Développement (Yole), with a large collection of market and technology reports as well as multiple custom consulting projects: business strategy, identification of investments or acquisition targets, due diligences (buy/sell side), market and technology analysis, cost modelling, technology scouting, etc. Previously, Eric Mounier held R&D and Marketing positions at CEA Leti (France). He has spoken in numerous international conferences and has authored or co-authored more than 100 papers. Eric has a Semiconductor Engineering Degree and a Ph.-D in Optoelectronics from the National Polytechnic Institute of Grenoble (France).
Dimitrios Damianos, PhD joined Yole Développement (Yole) as a Technology and Market Analyst and is working within the Photonics, Sensing & Display division.
Dimitrios is daily working with his team to deliver valuable technology & market reports regarding the imaging industry including photonics & sensors.
After his research on theoretical and experimental quantum optics and laser light generation, Dimitrios pursued a Ph.D. in optical and electrical characterization of dielectric materials on silicon with applications in photovoltaics and image sensors, as well as SOI for microelectronics at Grenoble’s university (France). In addition, Dimitrios holds a MSc degree in Photonics from the University of Patras (Greece). He has also authored and co-authored several scientific papers in international peer-reviewed journals.
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