April 28, 2003 — Small tech engineers are constantly challenged in their quest to come up with adequate batteries or power supplies for products.
Cymbet Corp. of Elk River, Minn., says it has the solution. The three-year-old company manufactures thin-film rechargeable batteries that can be made at thicknesses as low as 5 to 25 microns. Using patented low-temperature manufacturing processes, Cymbet’s thin-film cells can be incorporated into any chip design or manufactured directly onto almost any surface, atomically bonded to flexible or rigid substrates — pasted onto the lid of an integrated circuit, for instance, layered onto a printed circuit board or manufactured directly into the casing or shell of any product.
Cymbet says its cells are manufactured to last the full life cycle of any product, with the ability to recharge up to 70,000 times using a variety of power sources, from inductive current to radio frequency or solar power. Initial markets include semiconductor manufacturers, medical device companies and producers of microelectronic or nanoscale components and sensors.
Bill Priesmeyer, Cymbet’s chief executive, listed radio-frequency ID tags, active smart cards and MEMS devices as early commercial applications, adding that in the longer term consumer devices from wireless headsets to hearing aids are ripe for thin-film battery cells. “This is an enabling technology for new applications,” Priesmeyer said. “It allows batteries to be directly incorporated into any product.”
The company uses thin-film power supply technology developed over the past 12 years by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It has licensed 15 patents and has another 11 internal patents to cover its cold-temperature fabrication processes. Cymbet said it has signed a two-year agreement with Minneapolis-based Medtronic Inc. to test the use of its thin-film cells in implantable medical devices, and is working with a large semiconductor manufacturer.
Bob Schneider, advanced technology marketing director for microelectronics manufacturer NVE Corp., is eager to see whether Cymbet’s thin-film technology will work with his devices. “The smaller and less power consumption it takes, the better,” Schneider said. “The power-on-a-chip business they are pursuing is the Holy Grail.”
Cymbet is also a member of the Smart Active Labels (SAL) Consortium. SAL spokesman Bruce Rogers said technology such as Cymbet’s has almost unlimited possibilities.
“The potential is huge enough for the technology to be pervasive,” Rogers said. “It will be used for tracking inventories through a supply chain. In medical applications it can used to monitor patients as they move around from place to place.” Making the power supply small enough to fit on a label or wristband, Rogers added, removes many of the limitations faced with current tracking technology.
Cymbet was founded in January 2000 by Mark Jenson, creator of the company’s patented fabrication processes, and Harlan Jacobs, president of Minneapolis-based high-tech incubator Genesis Business Centers Ltd. In May 2001 it received $4.5 million from two international venture capital firms, one of which is the Millennium Materials Technologies Fund (MMTF), whose backers include large international investors such as Bayer AG, The Boeing Co. and Siemens AG.
“They have several key technologies and patents on how to produce the batteries at low temperature, so you can put them directly on the wafer or polymer without heating it,” said Oren Gafri, senior partner at MMTF. “That is really unique and on the cutting edge.
“Mark Jenson came to us and asked if we were into batteries that were rechargeable and much thinner than anything out there now. Of course we jumped on it. We came to the conclusion that Cymbet has breakthrough technology.”
18326 Joplin Street NW
Elk River, Minn., 55330-1773
Founders Mark Jenson and Harlan Jacobs created Cymbet in January 2000 based on 12 years of research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. It previously functioned under the name Integrated Power Solutions and was a tenant of the Elk River Business Incubator.
Small tech-related products and services
Cymbet is developing and manufacturing a thin film-based solid state lithium ion rechargeable battery. The company’s manufacturing technology allows batteries to directly bond to substrates ranging from ceramics to plastics, and function in sizes down to the microscopic level (5 — 25 microns). These new battery miniaturization techniques will help MEMS engineers balance the challenges of sufficient power and minimal invasiveness. Selected markets for Cymbet’s technology include: semiconductors, medical devices, MEMS/nano-based components and sensors, security and wireless communications.
Selected strategic partners and customers
Cymbet has made a two-year arrangement with Medtronic Inc. to test its batteries in Medtronic’s implantable medical devices.
Cymbet received $4.5 million in first-round funding in spring 2001. Participants included Merchant Venture Investments and Millennium Materials Technologies Fund. The same two firms provided $1 million in bridge funding in fall 2002. The company is now seeking $10 million in additional financing.
Barriers to market
Cymbet must bring its product to market quickly, offer an affordable price point and grow its manufacturing processes, all while watching out for other players in what will ultimately be an enormous market. Partnerships with larger firms, including original equipment manufacturers, may be a key to taking the lead.
“To be the first to enter the commercial market with a solid state battery that can be built on a wide variety of possible substrates, including plastics, semiconductors and other materials having a wide range of product characteristics,” said Mark Jenson, Cymbet president and co-founder.
Why they’re in small tech
“Coming from a semiconductor background, my heritage is small tech,” Jenson said. “When I first became interested in the solid state battery technology at Oak Ridge National Labs, the interest was from the perspective of, ‘What could I do with this if I could put it directly on a semiconductor device.’ From there the idea has grown to include sensors, MEMS and micro-implantables.”
What keeps them up at night
“I am surrounded by a very gifted management and technical team so many of the nightmares common to entrepreneurs are being suffered by those around me,” Jenson said. “Personally I am most concerned about making sure that our time to market is as fast as possible and that the market entry point is one that will allow Cymbet to develop reasonable revenue and reach a mature manufacturing capability without immediate significant price pressure.”
— Research by Gretchen McNeely