Blog / December 12, 2016
Vesper CTO and Co-founder Bobby Littrell is feeling the love from the tech industry. It started on December 7, 2016 when Bobby won the Annual Creativity in Electronics (ACE) Awards Innovator of the Year.
Next Bobby and the engineering team that he led in developing the VM1010, Vesper’s ZeroPower Listening piezoelectric MEMS microphone, won the Sensors Expo 2017 Engineering Excellence Award on June 28, 2017. And on July 19, Bobby was named a finalist for CTO of the Year in the Mass Technology Leadership Council’s (MassTLC’s) annual awards. We’ll be collectively holding our breath on September 14 because that is when MassTLC will announce the winning CTO.
How did Bobby go from PhD student at the University of Michigan to applause-inspiring CTO and co-founder of Vesper – which is still the only company to commercialize piezoelectric MEMS microphones?
It all started with a mouse. Wait. That was Walt Disney. For Bobby, it all started when he was doing research in cochlear mechanics when he was a PhD student at the University of Michigan in 2005-2006. Bobby built a version of the cochlear but he did not have anything that would sense the motion or actuate as a membrane. While hair cells in the biological cochlear handle the sensing, approximating hair cells electronically was simply impractical. That’s when Bobby turned to microphone design. He soon realized that he wanted to develop a better MEMS microphone, one that was more resilient to environmental conditions and had the potential to outperform the quality of the capacitive MEMS microphones that were shipping in laptops and smartphones at the time.
The Piezoelectric Answer
After researching what others had published on piezoelectric MEMS microphones, Bobby thought that he could design a lower-noise microphone that would perform better. It was not an especially easy task before him – and it took several years of intensive design work — but in 2009, Bobby had built a second-generation microphone that was 10x better than all other piezoelectric MEMS microphones. Bobby went into grant-application mode, eventually securing grants from SBIR research grants from National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Everybody wanted something different, so it seemed: NSF was interested in smart sensor applications, NIH wanted to further hearing aid technology, and NASA needed more resilient MEMS microphones to measure aircraft noise. While delivering microphones that satisfied all parties’ requirements was still a priority, Bobby also realized that he would need to target high-volume consumer markets to truly succeed in MEMS microphones. With the demands of consumer electronics in mind, Bobby continued to refine the microphone’s performance and its size – which is now a staggering 700x smaller than his early designs!
Building a successful commercial business meant having the best executive team possible. From early on, Bobby had the support of his PhD advisor at the University of Michigan, Professor of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering Karl Grosh, who co-founded Vesper with Bobby. Hiring people who had already been through the ropes of the MEMS industry was the next critical step. Bobby brought on Vesper CEO Matt Crowley in January 2014. Next on board was Craig Core, who is literally a MEMS pioneer because he was on the Analog Devices design team that built the first commercial MEMS device 25+ years ago. (Get the backstory in EE Times: “MEMS Movement, 25 Years Later.”)
Vesper had our first tape-out of the VM1000, our inaugural microphone, in August 2014. By May 2016, we were shipping the VM1000 in volume. And this summer, we began shipping the VM1010, the first ZeroPower Listening MEMS microphone, in volume. Not bad for a PhD student studying cochlear mechanics.
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