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Seek Thermal is a major player in the uncooled IR landscape

The uncooled IR imaging market for commercial and defense applications is growing dramatically. Over the past several years, Seek Thermal has significantly increased its product shipments and is now a major uncooled IR player. Eric Mounier, Fellow Analyst at Yole Développement (Yole) the market and technology consultant company, spoke with William Parrish, Co-Founder, Chairman, and CTO of Seek Thermal, to get his unique view of the IR imaging market.

Our interview comes at an opportune time, because in early January 2019 Yole will release the latest edition of its Uncooled IR Imagers report. This indispensable review provides deep insight into the forecasts, trends, and applications for various uncooled LWIR technologies. Stay tuned!

Eric Mounier (EM): Can you recap Seek Thermal’s impressive growth over the last few years?

William Parrish (WP): Seek Thermal has been shipping products commercially for the last three years. In this relatively short time we have seen significant growth in our commercial and OEM products alike. Initially, Seek Thermal shipped a 206 x 156 camera attachment for Apple and Android smartphones – an attachment which at the time offered the highest resolution at its price point. We followed this product with a 320 x 240 offering, again providing QVGA resolution for the lowest price in its class. We also launched a handheld product called Reveal, in both 206 and QVGA formats. This product is a self-contained thermal imager in a commercial-friendly form factor. We currently make several versions of this product to address specific applications, i.e. outdoor use or fire-fighting. Coincident to these product releases, we rapidly expanded our distribution to include Europe and Asia.

In addition to the above, our growth is driven by sales of our cameras to other manufacturers, who take our thermal camera cores and integrate them into their own products. We provide 206 and QVGA formats with a wide variety of lens options. Collectively, these product offerings have fueled our strong overall growth. Believe it or not, in our short history we have built over 300,000 cameras/camera cores and we expect to continue this rapid growth in the future as thermal imaging becomes more mainstream.

CompactPRO smartphone seek thermal inspection
CompactPRO – Seek Thermal 

EM: Which uncooled IR applications drive this growth?

WP: Our growth is largely impelled by existing commercial IR applications: firefighting, security, tools & measurement equipment, and outdoor recreation. In each of these segments, we work with market-leading manufacturers possessing great brand and channel reach, allowing them to provide thermal imaging products for their customers at price points that will drive greater adoption and use. Moreover, our branded products are designed to broadly cross these markets, where a specific form factor (i.e. a smart phone plug-in) or price point is required. Through a combination of our partners’ success and our own offerings, we are experiencing big market-share growth in all segments.

EM: What new products is Seek developing?

WP: We just announced the Seek Shot: a Seek-branded handheld thermal imaging tool. This is a pocket-sized thermal imager offering the best thermal resolution in its price class (206 x 156 or 320 x 240 formats), an adjustable blend of thermal and visible imagery, and the largest amount of integrated features of any similarly priced product. Also, we have several customers who this fall are launching new products that will utilize our camera cores in the firefighting and outdoor categories. At the same time, we will continue to selectively launch Seek-branded products while simultaneously expanding the performance and configuration options of our camera cores for cost-effective integration by our customers. This will help them access new clients and stimulate growth by achieving lower price-points and greater capabilities in their products.

Seek ShotPRO Seek Thermal imaging camera yole
Seek ShotPRO – Seek Thermal 

EM: Do you foresee autonomous cars/robotic vehicles as a future opportunity for microbolometers?

WP: We see enormous opportunities for the thermal industry in automotive. ADAS (advanced driver assist systems) applications using thermal cameras are emerging as system designers begin to understand the limitations of current ADAS technologies, as well as thermal’s lower cost and the role thermal can play in the ADAS technology stack. Moreover, with growing awareness of thermal cameras’ affordability, we are seeing interest from manufacturers for applications that can improve existing automotive safety systems, i.e. self-braking.

The applications for thermal exist and the path to cost-targets is clear. But as an industry we are still behind in terms of raising awareness of these systems and their shrinking costs relative to other automotive technologies.

EM: What makes Seek Thermal unique as an uncooled IR technology supplier (technologies, business model, etc.)?

WP: We believe Seek is unique from several perspectives. For example, our technology has a number of proprietary design, fabrication, and calibration/image-processing elements that provide performance and cost advantages. Also, our business is solely focused on the commercial segment of the IR marketplace, and we have built a growing company with the culture and agility to serve the needs of commercial clients who must compete in their respective marketplace for customers. In some cases, we design and manufacture products for these customers under their brands, and in others we supply the technology to their team for integration into their product. Having a relatively small number of our own branded products in the marketplace allows us to demonstrate our technology’s applications while relating to and learning about various commercializing thermal imaging issues. However, we do not compete with our customers’ products – instead, we find segment-leading partners that share our goal of promulgating thermal imaging.

Seek thermal OEM Cores imaging small lighweight low
OEM Cores – Seek Thermal 

EM: What are the future perspectives for Seek Thermal?

WP: With the advances made in reducing thermal imaging’s cost, we are starting to see thermal imaging adopted as a mainstream technology. Today, lower cost equals a lower price for thermal imaging products, making them more affordable and accessible to more customers. In the future, we will see thermal integrated into other devices, moving the technology from the largely purpose-driven form factors we see today to one that is integrated with other devices (much like digital cameras became integrated into other devices as cost decreased). Many new use-cases for thermal will subsequently emerge, and high-volume applications (like automotive) will become feasible. Like the mainstreaming of any technology, this will attract investment and reward players able to participate in this growth. We think Seek is well-positioned to take advantage of these trends and we are excited about the prospects for our industry.

Interviewee

William Parrish Seek Thermal

William Parrish, Seek Co-Founder, Chairman, and CTO is a well-known luminary in thermal imaging, having pioneered the technology for multiple industries including military, industrial, and consumer since the early 1980s. Bill’s first company, Amber Engineering, which focused on commercializing advanced military infrared technology by applying novel engineering and business practices to dramatically reduce cost, was acquired by Raytheon in 1992. In the mid-90s, Bill launched and became the first CEO of Indigo Systems, another industry leader in thermal image technologies and products, and steered the company through extraordinary growth (> $75M revenue in just six years), culminating with an acquisition by FLIR in 2004. Seek Thermal is Bill’s third company in the thermal-infrared space, and perhaps the most unique. With a vision to bring the smallest infrared sensor and thermal imaging technology to everyone, Seek is creating some of the most affordable products ever for smartphones as well as for commercial, outdoor recreation, and heat-sensing IoT data applications. Bill’s numerous papers, patents, and awards (including MSS Fellow, The Levenstein Award for Infrared Technology Leadership and Management, South Coast Business and Technology Entrepreneur of the Year in 2002, and UCSB’s Narayanamurti Entrepreneurial Leadership Co-Award in 2004) attest to his enduring impact on infrared technology and business. Bill received his Engineering education at UCSB, graduating BSEE ’73, MSEE ’74, and PhD EE ’76 with an emphasis on integrated circuit design and fabrication.

Interviewer

Eric Mounier Yole Développement

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 Technology & Market Fellow Analyst 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).

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