Scott White of PragmatIC Printing in Cambridge on the new electronics that will transform everyday items
For the last 50 years, silicon has dominated electronics. But now there’s a new player in town – and its products will be counted in the billions. We find out more from Scott White, chief executive officer at PragmatIC Printing.
Look around your home at the number of electronic devices you’ve got. From your computer to your mobile phone and your TV to your appliances, it’s likely you’ve got dozens featuring silicon chips.
Now think about all the items in your home that don’t feature electronics. From your clothes to your table and chairs and your groceries… imagine if they too could feature a circuit, capable of allowing you to interact in new ways with them – and even enabling them to be linked to the internet.
If this sounds too far-fetched or futuristic, think again. At PragmatIC Printing, on Cambridge Science Park, this technology is a reality. And having secured funding of £18million last year, it’s set to go into mass production. The numbers are mind-boggling, as Scott White explains.
“The last year has been particularly exciting,” he says. “We’ve been finalising our plans for how we scale up production of our technology and that culminated towards the end of last year in a strategic funding round, which has given us the capital to invest in volume production equipment.
“We’re on track to have that in place by the end of this year, which will increase our production capacity from the millions of flexible integrated circuits that we make today in our pilot, to in excess of a billion per annum by the beginning of next year. A billion is actually quite a small number in the context of some of the applications we’re going into, so that’s by no means everything we need to do in terms of scale-up, but it does get it very much into proper commercial volumes.”
Let’s go back, briefly, to 2008. Scott, a serial entrepreneur, had sold his previous technology business and became involved part-time in a University of Manchester spin-out. He ended up buying out the technology but had identified a market opportunity.
“The technology we are using today was all developed in-house at PragmatIC. We fall into the industry category that’s termed printed electronics or large area or organic electronics,” he explains.
“Most companies in this field are focused on large area applications, like displays, lighting, photovoltaics. What had come out of the discussions I had with customers in those early days is there’s also a key requirement for the printed or plastic equivalent of the silicon chip.
“So in every electronics device you have many elements – typically the display, a source of power, the wiring and one or more silicon chips that is the brain of the system.
“In the printed electronics world there was no equivalent of that and there was a need in a number of applications for something that gave the benefits of thin, flexible form factors but also could achieve a dramatically different cost point from conventional silicon.”
The result is ultra low-cost flexible electronics which enable integrated circuits much thinner than a human hair to be embedded easily into any surface, enabling interactivity with a wide range of everyday items.
Imagine trying to put a silicon chip into a clothing label, a drinks bottle or a document.
“Even if you make silicon chips quite small, they still are a rigid, three-dimensional object so you always have a bump. There are various techniques to overcome that, by covering it or encapsulating it in various things, but they all create challenges or add cost,” says Scott.
PragmatIC’s flexible integrated circuits (flexICs) are about 10 microns thick – a typical human hair is 50-100 microns. They are so thin, you almost can’t feel them, yet they adhere very easily to flexible substrates, making them perfect for incorporating into a label or packaging.
“There are two categories of applications. The stuff people tend to get most excited about is being able to do things they could never do before. So because this is so much thinner, more flexible and much lower cost, it opens up opportunities that would never be feasible with silicon. Probably the simplest example is illuminated labels for beverages, such as beer.”
Anheuser-Busch InBev used PragmatIC’s technology on its Oculto beer bottles.
“When you picked up the bottle, it would light up in such a way that it glowed through the beer and highlighted two eyeballs in a skull in an eerie fashion. That creates a very compelling promotional effect. Very simple functionality – in a sense gimmicky, but from a marketing perspective, very unique,” says Scott.
“The interesting thing about that category is that it is essentially limitless. It opens up an entirely new set of things that people can think about doing with electronics – particularly embedding electronics into everyday objects. Most of the applications we’re going after are not your conventional electronics product but pushing some form of electronic into a non-electronic item.
“It’s about providing unique differentiating functionality – like activating display or lighting elements or having sensors. Having some intelligence and interactivity in a product that fundamentally is not an electronics product makes it much more dynamic.
The other category of applications overlaps with conventional electronics.
“The biggest example is RFID – radio frequency identification – and NFC – near-field communications, which is a variation on RFID. You can think of it like a simpler version of Bluetooth, where the primary objective is to communicate a unique ID of an object,” says Scott.
“RFID is a 10 billion unit market already. Its primary use at the moment is in retail apparel. So in M&S, for example, they have RFID tags embedded in all the pricing labels so they can do automated inventory control.
“NFC takes it one stage further – it’s embedded in most new smartphones. It’s also used for contactless credit cards and Oyster cards. It’s all with silicon at the moment. But the interest brands have with NFC is now they have a large consumer base carrying around an RFID reader in their pocket, so if you can embed the tag into their packaging or products, suddenly there’s a way for the brand to interact directly with consumers.”
It means brands could easily get feedback on their products or send promotional information.
“You could tap an item with your phone and get the nutritional information in a font size you can read and in your language, which is more user-friendly. At home you could get recipe suggestions linked into promotions. Or there could be automatic reordering of products you buy repeatedly.
“There’s a very compelling tool to enhance the consumer’s experience in using the product, but also provide a big benefit for the brand in marketing and gathering information in a targeted way.
“It’s unlikely to play into relatively high-end electronics because people won’t want less functionality. But there are certain areas where that changes – like low-end wearables or something for single-time use, or disposable, like wearables at a theme park. That’s where the form factor benefits become really compelling. It’s not a box of electronics strapped onto your wrist but something embedded into your clothing.
“It’s not about the latest greatest functionality, but if you’re going to put this on billions or even trillions of items, it’s got to be at a cost point around that of the packaging, so a cent or so.”
The technology can be used to wirelessly track items, provide anti-theft solutions on packages or anti-counterfeit measures for banknotes, smart cards, passports or documents. It could be incoporated in toys and games – cards or board games that interact with your mobile phone, for example, or interactive toys with curved surfaces.
But what is powering the circuits?
“Like any form of electronics, it requires power,” says Scott. “With the illuminated beer bottle, there was a printed battery so it has the power source embedded in the label. We have a number of partners with complementary technologies.
“One of the reasons RFID and NFC is attractive is that you can use the antenna that’s used for communications to harvest the RF energy and actually use that to power the chip.”
This can lead to the creation of ‘smart’ objects – an extension of the Internet of Things.
“The conventional electronics view of IoT is connecting quite complicated things to the internet – industrial products, your car, appliances around your home. Where we would extend that is to the everyday things you would touch 100 times a day – this chair, the table, the coffee mug, your clothing. The basis is RFID or NFC,” says Scott. “The starting point is can you uniquely identify the object then use your phone to connect that to the internet.
“The ultimate objective is that this will replace barcodes, which take up space on packaging.
“The extension from RFID is sensors: The ability to sense unique aspects from the environment that can then be communicated back to your smartphone, which is where it begins to get very exciting.”
A sensor could be placed on a wine bottle, for example.
“You could tap it with your smartphone and find out what the temperature is and the manufacturer’s website will tell you what the perfect temperature is to drink it at,” says Scott.
“There are numerous extensions around tracking product freshness and time temperature management. This could help reduce food wastage and detect if food has been opened.”
No wonder PragmatIC’s investors include ARM, which makes the microprocessors inside our smartphones. The most complicated circuit PragmatIC has built is based on ARM’s Cortex 32-bit microprocessor. Featuring 10 layers, it’s a wonder to behold on incredibly thin plastic. But Scott points out that it’s not ready for production.
ARM and fellow existing shareholder Cambridge Innovation Capital (CIC) participated in the latest funding round along with new strategic investor, Avery Dennison, a Fortune 500 and global leader in pressure sensitive labels, materials for packaging and RFID tags.
PragmatIC has also had funding from the EU – even since the referendum last summer.
“We’ve been consistently growing our revenue and 2017 is when we would expect a significant inflection in that because of the volume production capability,” says Scott.
PragmatIC, which employs more than 40 people, expects to add another 15 to its ranks this year.
Scott concludes: “What really excites me about it is that it’s a game-changing technology. If you look at what happened with silicon, this is the same again.”
Scott on…being a serial entrepreneur
As a serial entrepreneur and with a background in telecoms, Scott White has used all his experience to drive forward PragmatIC.
“There are always crossovers between businesses,” he says. “There’s a reason there’s such an emphasis in Silicon Valley on serial entrepreneur. You learn – and it doesn’t mean you don’t make mistakes. You get a better understanding on what things to focus your time on.
“For example, there’s lot of debate about whether venture capital or angel investment or other forms are better. My firm conclusion is there’s no such thing as better – they are just suited to different types of businesses.”
It’s a pragmatic approach which that has categorised Scott’s approach to the technology – and indeed prompted the company’s name.
Scott on…Moore’s Law
“Moore’s Law is the hypothesis that roughly every 18 months you get twice as much functionality from silicon. People have been predicting the end of that. It has been getting more challenging but the industry is very creative and prepared to throw a lot of money at it.
“It’s something the electronics industry doesn’t really talk about or even think about but although this continual progression of Moore’s law has driven more and more functionality in the same area of silicon, the cost of processing has been going up significantly. So the cost of making something really simple has been going up.”
And that, of course, is where PragmatIC Printing’s technology comes in.
:: Article in association with Grant Thornton’s Vibrant Economy initiative.
More by this authorPaul Brackley