Cambridge Mechatronics raises over $40m to fast-track smartphone imaging technology

13 Feb, 2024
Tony Quested
Cambridge Mechatronics Limited (CML), a world leader in the design and control of Shape Memory Alloy actuators, has closed a funding round of more than $40 million to fast-track its actuator and controller IC product portfolios and accelerate nextgen smartphone imaging technology.
The senior leadership team at Cambridge Mechatronics Ltd (CML). Picture courtesy of CML.

CML tells Business Weekly there are plans to grow headcount this year, mainly focused on chip design and advanced control algorithms, but also adding heads to the China and Korea operations in its global network of operations.

The oversubscribed funding round was led by Atlantic Bridge – an international tech investment firm with over €1.2 billion of assets under management across a platform of eight funds – with Intel Capital and Supernova as co-leads and further participation from Sony Innovation Fund.

CML, which has over 700 patents pending and granted, is world’s leader in the design and control of Shape Memory Alloy (SMA) actuators.

Its actuators using SMA wire can be controlled to sub-micron accuracy, making them particularly suited to applications requiring fast motion, high precision and high force levels, in a compact and lightweight design. CML has previously been funded by high-net-worth individuals, family offices and trade partners. This is the first time the business has received investment from leading VCs.

The company currently employs 142 people at its global HQ in Cambridge and satellite offices in San Fransisco, Tokyo, Seoul, Shenzhen and Shanghai. The China support team comprises 15 people split across the two sites. Both operations have recently moved into larger premises as CML is providing an increased share of local support to manufacturing partners and handset OEMs.

These additions reflect the ongoing focus on pivoting CML to full systems solution provider, including actuator designs, driver IC and control firmware. It also highlights the commitment to the company’s manufacturing and customer base and expansion into Korean markets.

CML’s technology proposition significantly differentiates from the norm. Other companies have made SMA actuators but only CML has been able to demonstrate the submicron precision control necessary for applications such as smartphone cameras.

A CML source told Business Weekly: “In the smartphone camera industry we are starting to displace the incumbent technology VCM (Voice Coil Motor) as our technology delivers a more powerful actuator in a smaller form factor – and without any electromagnetic interference with other components.

“We have already shipped inside 70 million smartphones, including the world's top ranked smartphone camera according to independent industry experts DXOMark.”

While CML is bound by protocols not to go into specifics about partnerships with significant players, today’s investment announcement flags up Sony as a new backer which the company is excited about as the Japanese multinational tech titan is widely regarded as a leader in the worldwide smartphone camera industry – CML’s primary focus.

In that sector there are well over four billion camera modules shipping each year: the segment of that wider market that CML can readily address –(Optical Image Stabilisation) – currently stands at 700 million and is growing fast.

As SMA is a DeepTech play the smartphone camera market is only the start. CML’s powerful, compact actuators have countless applications in other consumer devices such as AR/VR, drones and laptops and other markets including industrial, medical, automotive and defence.

Also on the radar is drug delivery where CML is developing a compact microfluidic patch pump – another industry already racking up billions of units produced every year.

So the world really is very much CML’s Oyster and they would appear already to have the pearls in hand. While in the near term its focus is on growing the fabless semiconductor side of the business and market share, longer term the opportunities for SMA actuators are broad and varied. “We consider all options still open,” says the source.

Smartphone innovation is dominated by camera technology, fuelled by the growth of social media and video sharing platforms. CML is primarily focused on developing disruptive solutions for improving smartphone imaging, including SMA actuators and controller ICs. SMA actuators generate a high force-to-mass ratio, performing precision movements of camera components to achieve autofocus (AF) and optical image stabilisation (OIS), in a more compact and lightweight design.

Compared to incumbent voice coil motor technology, SMA is free of electromagnetic interference. CML’s new SMA Variable Aperture provides continuous aperture control in a form-factor significantly smaller than the industry standard.

The patented Zero Hold Power technology holds components such as the aperture in place during image capture whilst consuming no power.

Why did Atlantic Bridge decide to lead the round? Partner Osman Kent revealed: “We led this investment as we believe Cambridge Mechatronics has a unique and proven deep technology platform for SMA, which will usher new imaging paradigms for smartphones and beyond.”

The view was shared by Arun Chetty, Managing Director at Intel Capital, who said: “We believe CML’s proven technology has the potential to revolutionise other markets such as precision drug delivery devices and haptics.”

Regis Saleur, CEO and Managing Partner at Supernova Invest, said the investment in CML marked an exciting milestone. It represents the company’s very first investment into a UK technology company. “CML’s technology aligns very well with our existing portfolio in DeepTech and Photonics,” Saleur said.

Antonio Avitabile, Managing Director – EMEA at Sony Ventures Corporation pointed to the terrific opportunities in the sector in which CML excels, saying: “SMA actuator technology is transformational for the smartphone camera industry where Sony is a market leader.

“CML’s extensive patent portfolio and proven commercial traction, well-position the company as a leading innovator in this space. We look forward to supporting CML as it expands its product portfolio of SMA technology in the smartphone industry and beyond.”