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April 21, 2003

MEMS chip targets hearing aids, cell phone mikes

From: CommsDesign - Apr 21, 2003

By Stephan Ohr, EE Times
Apr 21, 2003 (7:56 AM)

San Francisco - Akustica Inc. believes it has found the killer app for microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). The Pittsburgh-based startup is targeting its microphone-amplifier combo IC at hearing aids and cell phones, applications where space and performance are at a premium.

The 3 x 3.65-mm CMOS analog chip consists of an array of 64 microphones, whose diaphragms are etched in silicon, combined with an on-chip MOSFET amplifier. Electrical performance is said to match that of standard electret condenser microphones-but at a fraction of the size. The same technology can be used to make microminiature speaker dia-phragms, the company believes.

Already, Akustica has captured design wins at GN ReSound, one of the largest hearing-aid manufacturers. In fact, Michael Cannizzaro, who serves on Akustica's advisory board, is the former CEO of Beltone Electronics, a hearing-aid manufacturer recently acquired by GN ReSound.

Akustica, to be sure, has an eye-catching pedigree. Its co-founder, chairman and chief technology officer is Kaigham (Ken) Gabriel, the former MEMS project director at the Defense Advanced Re-search Projects Agency and "architect of the entire MEMS industry," according to Forbes magazine. The co-founder, president and chief executive officer is James Rock, a venture capitalist with credentials at Zefer Corp., Cambridge Technology Partners and the Carnegie Group.

Industry luminaries like Intel Corp.'s Robert Colwell and Analog Devices Inc.'s Richard Payne serve on the startup's advisory board.

The company is built on a fabless semiconductor model, utilizing standard CMOS foundries, said Gabriel, though he declined to name current manufacturing partners. Among the primary investors is Glen Meakem, founder and chairman of FreeMarkets, who has put $1.2 million into Akustica. The company raised a total of $4.5 million in Series A funding.

Before the downturn, MEMS trackers like Roger Grace Associates (Naples, Fla.) believed MEMS applications were on a 21 percent compound annual growth track, and would represent a $30.4 billion market in 2004. Telecommunication and biomedical markets were seen as the largest drivers. In the case of hearing aids, Akustica can actually count the slots, and it "aggressively approached the top manufacturers," Gabriel said.

10 million-unit opportunity
There are 6.3 million hearing aids in use today, he said, each equipped with two to five transducers. Multiple microphones are used for noise cancellation and to increase directionality, Gabriel explained. Akustica puts its immediate opportunity at 10 million pieces. In addition, 1.2 billion microphones and 15 billion speakers are sold each year, according to Akustica's promotional literature.

Medical devices like hearing aids offer a $750 million market opportunity, the company said, while automotive applications represent another $750 million and mobile communications-cell phones, hands-free kits, PDA recorders-$2 billion. Counting a potential $3 billion consumer electronics market and another $1 billion in defense, intelligence and security, Akustica pegs its total available market at $10 billion.

While Akustica's initial hearing-aid device includes only an analog amplifier and microphone array, the technology will support higher degrees of integration, Gabriel said. For example, an A/D converter can be utilized to provide a digital output and even higher levels of noise immunity, he said.

Copyright © 2003 CMP Media, LLC