Cheap LiDAR for all? startup prints 10,000 lenses at a time on silicon wafers

A new startup out of Harvard Labs has invented a way to print camera lenses 10,000 at a time just like computer chips in the same semiconductor foundries that make chips for computers and phones. They’re 100X thinner than standard smartphone camera lenses and simpler and cheaper to make. Plus, they capture the full electromagnetic spectrum — not just visible light — and have excellent 3D-sensing capabilities that could bring Lidar-based dimensional sensing functionality to all phones. Currently, that’s only available on high-end phones like Apple’s iPhone 12.

Essentially, this is taking camera lens production out of the Stone Age.

And making it up to 50% less expensive.

The company is Metalenz, the potential of its technology is a major game changer in multiple industries, not just smartphones, and the Harvard Labs startup has just raised $10 million from Intel, 3M, and venture capital firms.

if you look at it the way that they make lenses, they’re injection molded lenses, ground and polished, and they’re pretty much done in a sort of pick and place, one by one manner,” co-founder Rob Devlin told me on the TechFirst podcast. “Even though we’re making billions of cameras for smartphones, it’s still a relatively old and slow process.”

Traditional lenses have multiple components, usually four, with curved glass that focuses light where it’s needed. Metalenz’ product uses a flat one-component construction that uses tiny nanostructures 1000 times smaller than a human hair to focus light. In fact, the company says that it can adjust exactly how it focuses light, making the camera lenses suitable for a wide range of uses.

Ultimately, it’s thinner, lighter, and far less complex, says Andrew Maywah, Investment Director at TDK Ventures, which also invested in the funding round.

There’s huge cost savings, Devlin says.

Production efficiencies of moving to a single flat lens from a complex four-piece construction save about 20% right up front. Even more can be saved in assembly, because the camera modules in modern smartphones are complex, multi-stage systems. In some cases, that could result in close to a 50% overall cost savings, Devlin says, though not in all.

More so, however, the Metalenz product is about about new capability.

Printing lenses like CPUs at semiconductor fabs means that Metalenz can scale production at an unheard of pace: from one to five million per day from just one of the company’s manufacturing partners.

(Which is one reason why Devlin says he’s “thrilled to welcome tier one semiconductor leaders as investment partners” … Intel and others are likely to be production partners down the road.)

Plus, the lens itself captures light across the electromagnetic spectrum, giving it superpowers like identifying what matter it is looking at via mass spectrometry. That unlocks huge capabilities for safety, for sensors, for consumer applications like knowing what food you’re eating, whether your fruit is ripe or not, and potentially health-related capabilities like blood oxygen saturation, skin health, and more.

And that’s before looking at the 3D sensing capabilities of the lens/chip.

We’re focusing in on one market to begin with, and that’s in the area of 3D sensing or 3D imaging for mobile,” says Devlin. “If you look at these modules that have been released … they’re even more complex than the standard visible imaging modules … and so, where they’re really deployed right now is only on the top tier, the top end phones, because these modules are complex, they’re expensive, and they’re still a drain on the battery life as well.”

They also require laser lighting. In some cases that’s so intensive that you can feel the phone heat up as you’re 3D mapping, Devlin says. But the Metalenz product is able to capture brighter images with less illumination, saving power.

None of this is coming to market tomorrow.

That $10 million raise will be necessary to perfect the process and go to market. Devlin estimates that product will be in consumer phones within two to three years, again initially focusing on the 3D sensing space.

After that, the company will turn more attention to visual capture and potentially replacing smartphone cameras entirely, as well as numerous other applications.

After all, if you can print 10,000 lenses at once, you make cameras potentially incredibly cheap. And that opens up an even wider range of markets.

The company has an exclusive worldwide patent on the technology through Harvard University’s Office of Technology Development.

Printing lenses or producing them en-masse via semiconductors is not common, although some companies have begun printing the much larger lenses in eyeglasses.