7 December 2022
Phlux secures £4m in seed funding to bring antimonide-based LiDAR sensors to market
High-performance infrared sensor designer Phlux Technology has secured £4m in a seed funding round led by Octopus Ventures and joined by Northern Gritstone, the Foresight Williams Technology Funds and the Innovation Fund, plus UK Government agency Innovate UK (which, as part of UK Research and Innovation, provides funding and support for business innovation).
A spin-out of Sheffield University, Phlux has used its in-depth research into semi-metal element antimony to develop what it says is a unique, patented approach to infrared sensors to dramatically improve their performance in light detection & ranging (LiDAR) systems. The new architecture is 10x more sensitive and with 50% more range compared with equivalent sensors, reducing the cost of manufacture of LiDAR sensors and opening up mass-market adoption, it is reckoned.
“This innovative breakthrough is critical to the future direction of transport, communication and emission monitoring systems,” comments Amy Nommeots-Nomm, deep-tech investor, Octopus Ventures. “Today, there is market consolidation among the silicon-based sensor companies, precisely because they can’t solve the problem that Phlux has cracked, making its potential hugely exciting.”
According to the Compound Semiconductor Applications Catapult, the UK compound semiconductor market was worth about $8bn in 2020 and will grow to $11bn in 2024 (about 8% of the global market). techUK highlights the country’s strength in semiconductor design and intellectual property (IP), with 110 design firms based in the UK. Phlux is based in Sheffield, a center of III-V semiconductor research, with research and facilities at Sheffield University, and The National Epitaxy Facility, which was awarded £12m in funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
“The company’s innovative approach demonstrates how world-beating technology, with the potential to change entire industries, is emerging from the Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester triangle,” comments Northern Gritstone’s CEO Duncan Johnson. “Northern Gritstone exists to support and supercharge businesses like Phlux.”
Infrared sensors, such as those that Phlux is designing, have applications beyond LiDAR in satellite communications and enabling internet in remote regions, fiber telecoms, autonomous vehicles, gas sensing and quantum communications. Phlux was recently awarded an Innovate UK project with QLM, developing sensors for a single-photon LiDAR-based camera that monitors greenhouse-gas emissions. “Climate control requires very large-scale deployment of monitoring solutions, which demands low-cost technology and complete supply chain control of critical components such as sensors,” says QLM’s CEO Murray Reed. “Phlux’s technology is particularly exciting as it offers a higher-performing alternative to the current approach and opens up a new UK supplier with significant potential for us.”
Overcoming the limitations of silicon-based sensors
Phlux was founded by CEO Ben White, professor Jo Shien Ng and professor Chee Hing Tan, who met at Sheffield University where they researched novel semiconductor materials and devices for infrared detection. Existing infrared sensors based on indium gallium arsenide (InGaAs) have reached a plateau in terms of performance. Having studied alternatives for more than 10 years, the founders identified antimony as a material capable of revolutionizing the LiDAR sensor market. It opens access to the 1550nm infrared space, offering higher sensitivity and capacity as it operates in the ‘eye safe’ region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Well over 1000 times more photons can safely be launched compared with silicon-compatible emitters, enabling antimony-based sensors to see further, with greater pixel density at a mass-market cost, it is reckoned.
“Our ambition is to become the Nvidia of the infrared sensor market, starting off with delivering the world’s first LiDAR receiver chip using antimony,” says CEO & co-founder Ben White. “Industry will never achieve full autonomy with LiDAR if it relies on silicon-based sensors, so our approach will reshape the sensor market for robotics and self-driving machines,” he adds. “We are delighted to be spinning Phlux out of Sheffield University at a time when it has ambitious plans to become a global center of excellence for semiconductor research.”
In the first stage of commercialization Phlux has developed a single-element sensor with what’s claimed to be world-leading sensitivity that is retrofittable into today’s LiDAR systems and will be part of the Phyllo series product line. Longer term, Phlux is building an integrated subsystem and array modules forming a high-performance sensor toolkit and, over the next year, it will grow its engineering team in areas such as fabrication, mixed-signal circuit design, optics and testing.
“Increasing sensor performance whilst driving down cost are key enablers for accelerating the uptake of higher levels of driving automation and, with this seed funding, we look forward to seeing Phlux’s sensor technology transition to full commercialization,” comments Matthew Burke, head of technology ventures at Williams Advanced Engineering.
“Phlux’s innovative technology has the potential to become the prevailing standard in the automotive LiDAR systems,” believes Christopher Wiles, investment director at Foresight Williams Technology Funds. “We look forward to supporting its entrepreneurial team as they deliver on this ambition.”