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27 June, 2016 - 11:04 By Tony Quested

Cambridge pioneer flexes its muscle across global markets

It takes special technology to wow a US audience accustomed to being consistently assailed by ‘the next big thing.’

Cambridge company FlexEnable lit a fuse under any sense of apathy with star turns at key consumer electronics shows in Vegas and Detroit and takes its flexible electronics roadshow to China and other global pitstops throughout 2016.

An often sceptical US media joined delegates in giving the thumbs up to the company’s world-first industrially proven organic transistor technology platform that enables flexible LCD and OLED displays and flexible sensors. American CEO Chuck Milligan is in no doubt that the world is FlexEnable’s oyster: the difference is, the company can fill the shell with several pearls.

Milligan says FlexEnable is still discovering new applications for the technology as it partners with blue chip companies and OEMs to push the boundaries of potential uses. That’s the beauty of presenting a versatile platform to tech developers and having them exclaim: “Hey, I know exactly what we can make out of this technology.”

FlexEnable is making prototypes across a range of sectors for partners from its Cambridge Science Park hub where 50 talented people, mainly engineers, are finessing the frontiers of flexible electronics.

Milligan says it won’t be too long before the company is able to see many of those prototypes turned into products by its Asian manufacturing partners. “I never imagined the company would grow as fast as we are doing,” he says. 

“We are discovering through our own development and feedback from partners new applications for the platform all the time. The potential of our organic transistors is huge and our low temperature, low cost proposition is unbeatable.”

The platform

Leveraging Cambridge University IP, FlexEnable says its platform is the key to truly flexible electronics over large and small surfaces. Its vision is to enable active surfaces in our lives: in our homes, our cars, our workplaces and even on our bodies. 

Breaking through the constraints of glass, FlexEnable’s technology allows electronics to be manufactured on flexible plastic film, the thickness of a sheet of paper, unlocking design freedom and enabling game-changing products. 

The potential

WEARABLES – Flexible displays and sensors will ensure wearables are thin, light and robust, yet have a perfect form factor and are comfortable for the user. They will facilitate a great user experience and compatibility with the user’s lifestyle and unlock new creative designs and features.
FlexEnable’s low temperature process is compatible with existing manufacturing processes, enabling a cost breakthrough for ultra-thin, light, robust and conformable displays and sensors.

MOBILE DEVICES – Organic electronics will improve the overall flexibility of mobile devices, enabling tighter bend radii and even foldable form factors. At present, LCD is the dominant display technology in the market, and now organic LCDs (OLCD), driven by FlexEnable’s flexible electronics technology, are a real option to mobile devices. OLCDs are thin, light, shatterproof and conformable enabling new form factors and use cases for mobile devices.

AUTOMOTIVE – FlexEnable’s technology answers the immediate market needs for low-cost and conformal displays in the automotive industry and the company is already working with volume display makers to make OLCD a real option for car designers in the very short term.

BIOMETRICS – FlexEnable has already demonstrated, with partner ISORG, the first large area fingerprint and vein sensor on plastic. As well as enabling large area fingerprint scanning from a sensor no thicker than a sheet of paper, vein sensing offers an ultra-secure additional layer of protection. 

HEALTHCARE – FlexEnable’s industrially scalable flexible electronics technology can cater for the needs of medical diagnostics. It can be used in: X-ray detectors; Lab-on-chip devices; Smart plastics and health monitoring devices.

Conformable organic LCD (OLCD) curved into a smartwatch form factor driven by FlexEnable’s OTFT technology

This is by no means a definitive list of existing or potential applications for FlexEnable’s technology but it does demonstrate its power and versatility. One of its prototypes which caused a stir at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year was a flexible display technology that can be wrapped around most objects – most importantly the human wrist – creating the ultimate wearable mobile device. FlexEnable is already talking to hardware partners who want to make the wristband smartphone a reality.

FlexEnable also showcased its thin flexible fingerprint sensors, noting that they could be wrapped around a door handle to add security without it being inconvenient to the user.

Indeed FlexEnable and a French partner, ISORG, believe their co-created new device will power a biometrics revolution. It is billed as the world’s first large area flexible fingerprint sensor on plastic designed specifically for biometric applications.

The technology is capable of measuring not only the fingerprint but also the configuration of veins in the fingers, providing additional security versus that of a surface fingerprint alone.

This new sensor breakthrough has been achieved by deposition of organic printed photodetectors (OPD), pioneered by ISORG, onto a plastic organic thin-film transistor (OTFT) backplane, developed by FlexEnable, to create a flexible fingerprint sensor that is ultra-thin, light, robust and lensless. Chuck Milligan said: “This invention brings game-changing capabilities for biometric detection that can be applied to almost any surface – anything from door handles to wrists.

“For example, imagine a mobile device whose surface or edges know who is holding or touching the device. Such capabilities are viable because of the flexibility, thinness, and much lower cost per unit area compared to silicon area sensors.”

FlexEnable also paraded the first conformed LCD in an integrated automotive application at the IAA 2015 show in Germany. It showed how FlexEnable’s proven display technology could be applied to glass-free, ergonomically shaped displays in cars without incurring the cost and stability issues of flexible OLED.

FlexEnable teamed up with sketch-to-scale solutions company Flex to design a flexible display that is incorporated into a car’s A-pillar and paired with a camera attached to the wing mirror. The innovation will offer drivers an enhanced view of the side and rear of the vehicle, eliminating blind spots and increasing road safety.

Flexible displays bring great opportunities for automotive interior design

As Business Weekly reported late last year, FlexEnable is building an impressive springboard to global growth. It launched a $15-$20 million fundraise from global investors to underpin growth and product development to 2018. The company also unveiled a world-class board to take the business to the next level as it explores fresh vertical markets.

Milligan was joined on the board by serial entrepreneur and investor Hermann Hauser, former Cambridge University vice-chancellor Lord Alec Broers, co-inventor of the core technology Professor Henning Sirringhaus, non-executive chairman Indro Mukerjee – who fashioned the new business out of PlasticLogic – US business builder Dr Ronald Black of Rambus, Nikolay Tychinin who serves as investment director at Rusnano and adviser Yurri Udaltsov who is deputy chairman of the executive board at Rusnano and head of its venture capital division.

That represents a lot of international experience plus technology and business building knowhow to ensure the range of opportunities for this world-leading technology is leveraged to the maximum.

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