Disrupting Camera Performance with Shape Memory Alloy: Our Investment in CML

In 2000 Sharp Corporation launched the world’s first network-connected camera phone in Japan. Not even the most optimistic Sharp engineers could have imagined the profound impact photo and video sharing would have on technological innovation and societal change over the next two decades. From that first 0.1 megapixel, single lens, fixed focus camera we’ve graduated to hundreds of megapixels, lens arrays, optical zoom and advanced silicon image processing pipelines. The availability of high-quality cameras has undoubtedly fueled the explosive growth of social media platforms allowing us to share our lives with family, friends and complete strangers around the globe in an instant.

Both phone makers and their customers agree that one of the most important features of any new phone is its camera.  As camera assemblies increase in weight and complexity to meet higher customer expectations, the voice coil motors traditionally used to articulate lenses for focus and image stabilization are struggling to cope. So phones either need to grow in size to house larger motors (and withstand greater electromagnetic interference which plays havoc with their radios) or find a better solution.

Cambridge Mechatronics Limited (CML) is a UK company that has been in business since 2008. It has become the leading expert in the use of shape memory alloy (SMA) to build precision actuators for a range of uses, including mobile phone cameras. SMA is a magical material, pioneered by NASA for space vehicles, that can be deformed and reformed by minute changes in temperature. SMA actuators are disruptive as they have a higher force-to-mass ratio than voice coil motors - meaning they are more compact in size - and they also emit no electromagnetic interference. CML’s technology first shipped in a mobile phone in 2015 and today some 70 million phones around the world contain CML’s SMA technology.

Actuators are controlled by a silicon chip, which contains the proprietary control algorithms developed by CML, to exert precise closed loop control over the SMA wires as they are heated and cooled to make movements measured in microns. As these actuators become more complex, CML is planning to expand its silicon design team to build the future generations of control silicon.

We believe CML is at an inflection point where it can both deploy its proven technology in more phone models, as well as addressing adjacent markets such as precision drug delivery devices, xR and haptics.

We’re therefore thrilled to announce that Intel Capital co-led CML’s new oversubscribed financing round, which raised over $40M. We believe we and our fellow investors (all of whom are well versed in semiconductor deals) can help CML scale its world-class technology more rapidly and build a deep tech world leader.

We think those Sharp engineers would applaud CML’s achievements in extending their legacy.