Start-up raises £2.5m to help locate IoT devices

  • March 9, 2022
  • Steve Rogerson
Founder and CEO Ying Lia Li

UK semiconductor start-up Zero Point Motion has closed a £2.58m seed round that paves the way for simpler navigation and motion sensing chips for consumer electronics and IoT devices.

The fabless silicon chip company is aiming to change the way motion is sensed by using photonics. The investment will go towards a laboratory in Bristol and a recruitment drive to accelerate R&D of its photonic inertial sensor chips.

The company is developing a chip-scale inertial measurement unit (IMU) for ultra-precise motion-tracking and indoor navigation. Initially developed to detect collisions for airbag deployment, IMUs enable electronic devices to monitor their relative position, motion and acceleration. Today, these devices are mass produced at low cost and embedded in a wide range of industrial and consumer electronics including smartphones, cameras, health wearables and IoT devices. Their ubiquity has resulted in an annual market size of approximately $15bn, growing at around ten per cent per year.

IMUs used in consumer electronics are low cost and compact but are relatively inaccurate and suffer from excessive drift. To overcome this, many devices rely on multiple data sources to pinpoint their position – sensor fusion – however, this technique increases cost and energy consumption. Conversely, high-precision IMUs, currently used in the defence and aerospace sector, are bulky and cost tens of thousands of pounds, making them unfeasible for mass market applications.

Zero Point Motion uses optical sensing techniques from the research area known as cavity optomechanics that has already changed gravitational wave detection and quantum research. By integrating these techniques into the chip architecture of sensors within smartphones, cars and game controllers, Zero Point Motion enables over a one hundred times improved sensitivity and performance that should reduce positioning error, enable longer duration of tracking without global navigation satellite systems and increase stability in hand-held or head mounted devices.

With over a decade of academic research experience in cavity optomechanics, combined with inertial sensor expertise from the defence industry, founder and CEO Ying Lia Li sees cavity optomechanics as a natural evolution for the $15bn inertial sensing market.

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 untold new potential to drones, VR, AR, indoor navigation and imaging stabilisation.”

Incorporated in 2020, Zero Point Motion won a UCLQ Quantum Science & Technology Institute InQuBate grant and gained pre-seed investment from U-Blox to file patents and develop its commercial roadmap. Gordon Aspin, who previously co-founded chipset and software companies TTP Communications and Cognovo, joined the founding team in 2021 as company chairman.

Although this type of technology has never been commercialised before, the team’s vision is to bring together expertise in photonic integrated circuits (PICs), micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) engineering and application specific integrated circuits (ASICs). Its strategy is simplicity, with as few changes to the existing PIC, MEMS, and ASIC supply chains as possible.

With its headquarters in Bristol, which has a rich history in engineering and physics, it is seeking to entice engineers to join the company and to work as part of the team developing its first commercial products.

The £2.58m seed round is led by Foresight-Williams Technology together with Verve Ventures and U-Blox, a syndicate of investors experienced in hardware and deep-tech ventures 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 commercialisation 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 commercialisation programme.”