The NEVCA is proud to share the stories of our 2018 NEVY Awards nominees through their own words. Hear their experiences of success, failure, and everything in between — most importantly, what has driven them forward to build and grow their vision, starting with the very first spark of inspiration.

Mic Drop: Vesper Pioneers Technology to Make Smart Speakers Smarter

By Matthew Crowley, Vesper CEO

Ever wonder what makes voice assistants like Alexa or Siri so smart? Well, it’s the microphone behind her. However, current iterations of voice assistants use capacitive microphones, which aren’t nearly as high quality or durable as their next generation — piezoelectric MEMS microphones. And a Boston startup is the only one making them.

Launched in 2014, Vesper is an Amazon Alexa Fund-backed startup producing microphones the size of a thumbtack but making some major noise. In fact, its microphones directly convert sound wave energy into an electrical signal, making waves in the microphone and sensor industry — the biggest change to microphones in 50 years.

How? Vesper offers the first MEMS microphones that withstand real-world use in smartphones and other connected devices. Vesper’s are the only MEMS microphones rugged enough to withstand water, oil, beer, dust and particle contaminants. They’re high-performance and enable acoustically rich experiences for any application — from smartphones and wearables to Internet of Things (IoT) devices and connected automobiles. They make batteries last longer than current capacitive microphones (yes, the ones in your existing smart speaker) due to its ZeroPower Listening, since it consumes virtually no power until turned on via a wake-word like ‘Alexa,’ unlike any existing product on the market.

Aside from the pioneering technology, the market potential is enormous. Voice-powered smart speakers are projected to be in 55 percent of U.S. households by 2022, according to Juniper Research, and new applications for voice interfaces are emerging every day.

With roots at the University of Michigan and initial funding from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF), Vesper’s leadership team is one of the most experienced in the MEMS industry. Together with CSO and Co-Founder Karl Grosh, CTO and Co-Founder Bobby Littrell developed Vesper’s piezoelectric-acoustic MEMS transducer design based on his PhD thesis at the University of Michigan. Today, Littrell is the recognized thought leader in piezoelectric MEMS acoustic transducers, is widely published, has received numerous awards and holds multiple patent filings in the area. Karl Grosh is a world-renowned researcher in biomechanics, cochlear mechanics, piezoelectric MEMS transducers and structural acoustics. In addition to his role at Vesper, Grosh is a professor of Bioengineering and professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan.

Bobby and Matt at Vesper.

From academia, Littrell set out to bring their invention to the world, recruiting a piezoelectric MEMS commercialization expert to lead the startup as CEO, Matthew Crowley. But it wasn’t always an easy road. The team hit a setback in early 2015 when they learned that the process controls available at its manufacturer weren’t good enough to make products and it would take another year-and-a-half to fix. This frustration was not a problem Vesper could solve on its own and it had to work closely with its semiconductor foundry and semiconductor equipment companies to get a manufacturable process, which it ultimately did. This was a great example of teamwork, partnership and perseverance to overcome a daunting technical hurdle.

The startup continued onward and experienced a breakthrough when it built the early ZeroPower Listening (ZPL) microphones and got them to work at a system level. As described by CEO Matt Crowley, “This was one of those bonkers science projects that just happened to work perfectly. Our first ZPL mic was an instant hit because it is the only viable technology for putting a hands-free voice interface in a battery powered device. It is quickly becoming the default architecture for voice interfaces. The product was designed into tier one OEM products in record time and consumers will be able to buy ZeroPower Listening products in Q3 of this year.” Talk about fast to market.

Based in Boston, the company is privately held and is funded by Accomplice, Amazon Alexa Fund, AAC Technologies, Hyperplane and strategic partners, with fresh funding on the horizon.

Its microphones are already in multiple products from Linkplay, with many more coming to market this year from big-name brands. Some of those products include a battery powered home security camera, multiple smart TV remote controls, a hearable that can summon a voice assistant without a button, a hands-free battery powered smart speaker and even a device to save piglets from getting crushed.

“It’s an extremely exciting time for us and we’re humbled by the incredible demand for our product,” Crowley said. “2018 is a pivotal year for us, and we can’t wait to get better microphones into hands and homes, drastically improving consumers’ ease of use and relationship with their connected devices. Get ready for your smart speaker to get even smarter. Voice is the future and we’re on the cutting edge.”

Collectively, Vesper’s management team has developed over 20 MEMS products, pioneered the commercialization of piezoelectric MEMS, secured dozens of patents, raised tens of millions of dollars and sold billions of components to the world’s largest and most respected OEMs.

Follow along as Vesper reinvents sound.

Every nominee is a winner in our eyes, but be sure to nab your NEVYs tickets now — and bring your team — to see who takes home the ultimate prize.

Vesper’s Website:

Follow Vesper on Twitter: @VesperMEMS

Follow us on Twitter: @NewEnglandVC

NEVCA on Facebook

NEVCA on LinkedIn

NEVCA on Medium

New England Venture Capital Association (NEVCA) members support entrepreneurs winning. Great VCs depend on great entrepreneurs.