UWB transceiver startup gets $13.8M funding

Montreal-based ultra-wideband (UWB) wireless transceiver startup Spark Microsystems has announced the closing of a CDN $17.5 million (US $13.8 million) equity funding round led by Canadian cleantech investor Cycle Capital. Former Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs and former GlobalFoundries CEO Sanjay K. Jha both also reinvested in the company as part of the round.

The investors are driven by the potential of “battery-less” wireless connectivity that Spark Microsystems said it enables with its SR1000 UWB wireless transceiver ICs for internet of things (IoT) and consumer electronics device applications. The key target currently is gaming and audio. As an example, the company said current earbuds have around 200ms latency for compressed audio, whereas with Spark’s transceivers it has been able to demonstrate 5ms latency on uncompressed high-fidelity quality audio. In gaming, where responsiveness is important in mice and keyboards, the company said it has achieved sub millisecond latency, even as low as 250 µs.

The startup, founded in 2016, previously told our sister publication that UWB is not just for positioning and fine ranging applications. Co-founder and CTO, Frederic Nabki explained, “We thought it [positioning] is a cool feature, but UWB is so much more than just that. It can enable ultra-low power, ultra-low latency communication. It can communicate with a few microwatts of power, with low latency, and co-exist with WiFi. For us ranging is there, we can do it, and at much lower power than the other guys, but it’s not necessarily the highest promise. The highest promise is data transfer with ultra-low latency and ultra-low power communication.”

Since then, the company said it has already shipped tens of thousands of pre-production units to multiple customers; prototyped a next-generation wireless gaming hub with headset, mouse and keyboard in conjunction with a Tier 1 ODM (original device manufacturer) partner; sold over 70 evaluation kits to companies designing wireless AR, VR, IoT and positioning products; and delivered paid SoWs (statements of work) for advanced wireless products to multiple Fortune 100 companies.

The new investment will be used to fund high-volume manufacturing, ramp sales ramp and expanded R&D for next generation products. Speaking to EE Times about the latest funding announcement, Fares Mubarak, CEO of Spark Microsystems, said, “Our aim is to now sell what we have, build our sales and marketing team, build our applications team to help customers develop with our SDK, and develop our product roadmap. We are already around 40 people and we anticipate doubling in size over the next 12 to 18 months.”

One of the areas that he said the company is driving towards is to push for a standard for next generation UWB to enable ultra-low power responsive and battery-less wireless nodes relying on energy harvesting. “With Next Gen UWB, we want to do for UWB what Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) did for Bluetooth. We’ve engaged already with the IEEE P802.15 working group for wireless personal area networks (WPANs) with a proposal supported by several of our partners.”

In this submission to the IEEE, acknowledging the characteristics for precise ranging, it also highlights that UWB technology is uniquely positioned to offer a power consumption, data rate, latency trade-off that no other wireless technology can offer for personal area networks. Its enabling properties include ultra-low power and low latency communication with sizable payloads; it has access to a versatile spectrum that can be leveraged to coexist with other wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi and mitigate their impact on QoS; and it has unique emission regulatory requirements that can be leveraged to trade spectral usage with range.

Sanjay Jha, an active investor, commented, “The company engaged with multiple customers who will deploy millions of wireless devices in the coming years. Spark’s technology significantly extends battery life for various industrial IoT and consumer electronics including AR/VR, gaming and audio applications – enabling for new functionalities as well as improved performance.  This financing puts Spark in a strong position to meet the volume production requirements of those customers.”

Lead investor Cycle Capital’s founder and managing partner, Andrée-Lise Méthot, added, “Cycle Capital invests in companies that have a meaningful impact on climate change. We believe that SPARK will not only enable battery-less networks and dramatically cut power consumption across a wide range of emerging wireless applications but also reduce electronic waste going to landfills.

Low latency wireless for immersive experiences

Spark Microsystems has so far developed two chips as part of its SR1000 series of low power UWB wireless transceiver ICs enabling what it said is a new class of short-range wireless connectivity applications for products where communications link latency currently hampers a complete real-time immersive user experience. Compared to Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), which typically has an airtime of a few milliseconds causing noticeable latency of tens of milliseconds, the SR1000 UWB transceiver can send 1 kb of data in only 50 µs, yielding significantly shorter wireless latency in a wide range of applications, such as audio streaming.

This addresses products like gaming peripherals and audio and AR/VR headsets, which would otherwise need to be wired to meet power and latency targets. It also addresses the power, latency and data streaming requirements of smart home devices and battery-less internet of things (IoT) sensors.

Unlike other wireless protocols that operate within congested licensed wireless spectra, the SR1000 UWB series operates in the unlicensed 3.1 GHz to 10.6 GHz frequency range using a wide spectrum low power density that is typically -41.3 dBm/MHz. Transmitting at levels that may be perceived as noise to other receivers, the UWB wide spectrum approach greatly aids wireless coexistence, further enhancing the link performance characteristic.

Spark-Microsystems Spectrum usage

Technologies such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Zigbee, Z-Wave and even 5G all use modulated carrier frequencies in order to transmit data. These carriers require a significant amount of time to startup and stabilize, and complex hardware to ensure they are in phase and have good phase properties; as a result, they require a significant amount of power to maintain.

Spark has taken it in a different direction. Instead of carriers, its radio uses time impulses that generate 2ns pulses, and because the carrier itself is not part of the equation directly, you end up not having to service that carrier.  This means you don’t have the long startup time or the complex circuitry to manage that carrier. This yields faster startup time and faster data transmission, because the pulses are only 2ns wide, which means you can repeat them quite quickly, and they can also be synchronized quickly.

Spark transceivers co-exist with other radios. They have the same advantage as Bluetooth, Zigbee and Wi-Fi by not having to license the spectrum. But it (UWB) has much lower EMI (electromagnetic interference) and emissions because the company said the Spark radio transmits about 1,000 times less power than a Wi-Fi radio and about 100 times less than a Bluetooth radio. This means it allows better co-existence with other radios, meaning that the other radios perceive Spark as noise level, since they are below their sensitivity.

The only factor Spark has in common with other UWB based devices is the use of same spectrum. The rest, the company claims, is re-engineered from the core to give next generation wireless connectivity for the personal area network, body area network and IoT space.

Speaking about the current market of UWB devices, Mubarak commented, “UWB is known from Decawave, NXP, and the latest iPhone U1 chip, all known for ultra-low power positioning. They claim 10cm accuracy, but it’s very high power, probably due to the architecture they are using with the 802.15.4z standard that is causing the power.”

In comparison he said the Spark transceivers enable 30cm accuracy with nearly two orders of magnitude lower power. “And our next generation can get to 10 cm as well, at the low power. We differentiate ourselves from the current UWB with significant power advantage. We can be a wake-up radio. Most wireless is high power and hence need a very low power wake-up radio; this is especially the case in UWB, to wake up the MCU and the radio.”

Mubarak added, “We are about 40 times lower than Bluetooth Low Energy when it come to power consumption.  Even with Bluetooth 5.1 and 5.2 making strides, we are still better by 20x when you compare to Bluetooth 5.2. We are 60 times lower latency. Our latency is natively lower. We can do 50µs of airtime for 1kb of data transmission. But in addition to those, we can achieve an order of magnitude higher data transmission rate. We have two orders of magnitude lower EMI (electromagnetic interference), and because we are an ultra-wide band radio, we can achieve time of flight positioning that can give you 30 cm accuracy over the range of the radio at very low power.”