Meet MantiSpectra, MicroAlign and Luxisens
Biochemical analysis on the spot
Thanks to a novel photonic integration platform, near-infrared spectroscopy can now be integrated into handheld devices. Based on an innovative spectral sensing chip first developed at TU/e, spin-off company MantiSpectra now brings the power of spectroscopy to the masses.
Though Simone Cardarelli had originally planned to become an academic, as of April 2021 he is the enthusiastic director of the promising start-up MicroAlign. ‘In terms of product development, we will focus on optimizing the fabrication process of our micro-alignment system,’ Cardarelli tells.
Accurate multi-optical fiber alignment
Meticulous movement monitoring
A thin matt consisting of plastic optical fibers might fundamentally improve the care for newborns, elderly or bedridden patients. Founders Henrie van den Boom and Richard Visser explain how their start-up Luxisens is bringing a novel optical two-dimensional pressure sensing system for real-time movement monitoring to the market.
“As researchers we went outside our comfort zone to explore what problems in the real world we could solve with our technology.”
‘Near-infrared spectroscopy has existed for more than sixty years,’ MantiSpectra’s co-founder Maurangelo Petruzzella explains. ‘Until a few years ago, you could only use bulky and expensive systems for it.’ In 2017, as part of the TU/e’s Photonics and Semiconductor Physics group, he was co-author of an article in Nature Communications demonstrating the possibility to integrate the key components of such a system on a photonic chip - only tens of microns in size. However, the chip the paper described could only be tuned over a range of a few tens of nanometers. ‘During my subsequent postdoc project, we have developed an alternative and much simpler design that can be used in the real world. Our current sensor (ChipSense™) is made of a series of pixels and is sensitive from 800 to 1700 nm, enabling real-time chemical analysis in a wide range of applications.’
The novel sensor, based on the indium phosphide-on-silicon technology developed at TU/e, can be integrated into handheld devices and can be produced in large quantities at low costs. Together with his team and the early adopters of the technology, Petruzzella is now developing various application cases. ‘We are investigating how our technology can be integrated into their system and what is the accuracy of our method compared to alternative solutions that they are now using. Our technology is opening new scenarios where other quantitative solutions do not exist.’
One of the sectors the company is focusing on is that of agriculture. ‘We can use our system to measure the quality of a commodity along the food production chain. The main advantage of spectroscopy over other chemical analysis methods is that it enables real-time chemical analysis without destroying the sample. Our technology thus makes it possible to monitor the evolution of a commodity over time. That is not only interesting from an industrial perspective to assess and trace the quality of goods, but it also opens up novel research possibilities. Take for example plant breeders: in the future, they will be able to accurately estimate the physiological properties of their crop in real-time and correlate that with the changing environmental conditions such as humidity or light.’
The number of applications is constantly increasing and, driven by the first users, new applications emerge. ‘Our systems can be used not only in greenhouses but also in the field when attached to drones, tractors, or harvesters.’ And outside of agriculture, the entrepreneur also envisions a plethora of opportunities in other very diverse fields such as forensics, medicine, or recycling.
‘As researchers, we went outside our comfort zone to explore what problems in the real world we could solve with our technology. It is nice to experience how something that started from basic, first-principle, research is evolving in something that will affect our daily lives in a way that we cannot fully predict right now.’
More info: www.mantispectra.com
“With our technology PIC designers can focus more on improving and expanding the intrinsic functionality of photonic chips, and less on the assembly part.”
MicroAlign founders (from left to right):
Marco Fattori, Simone Cardarelli, Nicola Calabretta
‘I carried out my Ph.D. research at TU/e’s Electro-Optical Communications group,’ Simone Cardarelli starts his tale, ‘where I was working on Indium Phosphide based photonic integrated chips. The aim was to move optical beams within a single chip to improve the manufacturing process of multiple-port photonic devices. After looking at on-chip solutions we changed focus toward off-chip possibilities. And that is when we developed the novel technology for accurate and fast alignment of multiple optical fibers that we are now bringing to market with our company MicroAlign.’
At the core of the technology is a newly designed micro-actuator, Cardarelli explains. ‘There is a trend toward PICs with multiple optical ports, requiring multiple optical fibers to be connected to the chip. Current-day technology optimizes the alignment of all fibers on average. But our technology optimizes the alignment of each fiber individually, leading to the absolute minimum in the amount of light that is lost and thus a reduction of the laser power you need.’
Smallest ever actuator
Though still in its infancy, the company already succeeded in acquiring NWO Take off Phase I and Phase II grants, and in attracting Innovation Industries as an investor. This first budget allows the company to set up a team, define an IP roadmap and further develop its technology. ‘In terms of product development, we will focus on optimizing the fabrication process of our micro-alignment system,’ Cardarelli tells. ‘Essentially, we have invented the smallest ever actuator for densely spaced optical fibers. To be able to employ our solution in the photonics industry, we need to define the necessary fabrication steps to produce our device with the specifications demanded by the market, like the required accuracy, movement range, and speed.’
The feasibility study has shown that MicroAlign’s solution is interesting for many different parties in the product chain, where a possible first adopter would be the manufacturers of assembly and testing equipment, the company’s director says. ‘With the aid of TU/e colleagues, we are now exploring which further applications could benefit most from our technology.’
He sees a bright future ahead. ‘With our technology PIC designers can focus more on improving and expanding the intrinsic functionality of photonic chips, and less on the assembly part. That way we open up a vast array of new possibilities for future applications of photonics.’
More info: microalign.nl
“Even when we put our mat underneath a mattress, it is still able to detect patient movements as small as those caused by heart beat and respiration.”
Henrie van den Boom
‘This invention is an excellent example of how one man’s expertise, persistence, and perseverance can pay off,’ states Richard Visser. The story of Luxisens started when Assistant Professor Henrie van den Boom was challenged to explore how losses in plastic optical fibers could be used for beneficial purposes. The Assistant Professor came up with a smart design that uses losses as a means to accurately measure pressure differences.
‘Essentially, our sensor consists of two layers of plastic fibers,’ Van den Boom explains. ‘We send LED light from the controller module via an optical cable through the bottom layer. The top layer, where the fibers are oriented at a ninety degrees angle with respect to those in the bottom layer, is connected to a series of optical receivers. When pressure is applied on the matt, light from the lower layer is coupled into the top layer, where it can be detected.’ The result is a very sensitive two-dimensional optical pressure sensor. Since the entire matt is made of plastic, it is cheap and very robust.
Detect respiration from underneath a mattress
Van den Boom: ‘After discussions with potential users about possible applications, we realized sensor mats which can monitor sleep-related movements. Even when we put our mat underneath a mattress, it is still able to detect patient movements as small as those caused by heartbeat and respiration.’
Experienced entrepreneur Richard Visser was immediately impressed with Van den Boom’s invention. ‘This is a cheap, robust, and easily scalable technology with a multitude of possible application areas,’ he says. ‘Since the matt itself does not contain any electronics and no electrical currents run through it, it is very safe and impervious for external electromagnetic influences. So you can not only safely insert it underneath a sleeping person, but also in an MRI scanner to detect and later filter out unintended movements. It can be used to monitor infants, for example, to detect patterns and changes in respiration to prevent sudden infant death syndrome. But I also envision applications in home security: a large scale sensor matt underneath your lawn for example to detect intruders entering your garden.’
As a very young company, officially founded in July 2021, now the first priority is to build a team and gain the interest of stakeholders. Visser: ‘We are now looking for the fittest application to introduce the product to the market. The aim is that by the end of this first year we will have at least one commercial customer who is developing a pilot product with us.’