A semiconductor start-up in the United Kingdom Zero Point Motion has raised £2.58 million in a seed round, setting the stage for simpler navigation and motion-sensing chips in consumer electronics and Internet of Things (IoT) devices.
Using photonics, the fabless silicon chip startup hopes to revolutionize the way motion is sensed. The money will go toward a lab in Bristol and a hiring push to speed up the development of photonic inertial sensor chips.
A chip-scale inertial measurement unit (IMU) is being developed by the company for ultra-precise motion tracking and indoor navigation. IMUs are electronic devices that monitor their relative location, velocity, and acceleration. They were originally created to detect collisions for airbag deployment.
These devices are now mass-produced at a low cost and found in a wide range of industrial and consumer electronics, including smartphones, cameras, health wearables, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. Their presence has led to an annual market size of around $15 billion, with a 10% annual growth rate.
IMUs used in consumer electronics are low-cost and compact, but they are imprecise and have a lot of drift. To counter this, many devices use numerous data sources to locate their location — a technique known as “sensor fusion” – but this method is expensive and energy-intensive. In contrast, high-precision IMUs, which are currently employed in the defense and aerospace industries, is big and expensive, making them unsuitable for mass-market applications.
Zero Point Motion makes advantage of optical sensing techniques developed in the cavity optomechanics field, which has already revolutionized gravitational wave detection and quantum research.
Zero Point Motion achieves over one hundred times improved sensitivity and performance by integrating these techniques into the chip architecture of sensors in smartphones, cars, and game controllers, which should reduce positioning error, allow for longer tracking without the use of global navigation satellite systems, and improve stability in hand-held or head-mounted devices.
Cavity optomechanics is a natural evolution for the $15 billion inertial sensing market, according to founder and CEO Ying Lia Li, who has over a decade of academic research experience in cavity optomechanics and inertial sensor expertise from the defense industry.
She said: “With proven capability to detect motion smaller than the size of a single electron, cavity optomechanical sensing has already had extraordinary benefits for fundamental physics research. Now, we are harnessing this power to improve the inertial sensing devices we’ve come to rely on, bringing the untold new potential to drones, VR, AR, indoor navigation and imaging stabilization.”
Zero Point Motion was founded in 2020 and received a UCLQ Quantum Science & Technology Institute InQuBate grant as well as pre-seed funding from U-Blox to submit patents and create a commercial roadmap. Gordon Aspin, who previously co-founded TTP Communications and Cognovo, a chipset and software business, joined the founding team as chairman in 2021.
The team’s objective is to bring together skills in photonic integrated circuits (PICs), micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) engineering, and application-specific integrated circuits, despite the fact that this type of technology has never been marketed before (ASICs). Its technique is straightforward, requiring just minor modifications to the current PIC, MEMS, and ASIC supply chains.
It is looking for engineers to join the company and work as part of the team building its first commercial products, with its headquarters in Bristol, which has a great heritage in engineering and physics.
Foresight-Williams Technology, Verve Ventures, and U-Blox, a syndicate of investors skilled in hardware and deep-tech ventures, led the £2.58 million seed round, with Chris Wiles of Foresight-Williams Technology and Tony Milbourn of U-Blox joining the board.
Matthew Burke, head of technology ventures at Williams Advanced Engineering, said: “We are delighted to back Zero Point Motion in the commercialization of its high accuracy low-cost IMU technology. IMUs are used in many of the sectors we operate in, and we look forward to accessing our customer network to support the IMU commercialization program.”