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With Atlanta rising as a new hub for tech, early stage firm Tech Square Ventures gets a new partner

Atlanta is coming up in the tech world with several newly minted billion-dollar businesses hailing from the ATL and the city’s local venture capital community is taking notice.

Even as later stage firms like the newly minted BIP Capital rebrand and  with increasingly large funds, earlier stage firms like Tech Square Ventures are staffing up and adding new partners.

The firm’s latest hire is Vasant Kamath, a general partner who joins the firm from Primus Capital, a later stage investment vehicle based out of Atlanta. Before that, he was managing investments for the private office of the Cox family.

Originally from Augusta, Ga. Kamath left the south to attend Harvard and then went out west for a stint at Stanford Business School.

In between his jaunts North and West Kamath spent time in Atlanta as an investment banker with Raymond James in the early 2000s, the beginnings of a lifelong professional career in technology. Before business school, Kamath worked at Summit Equity Partners in Boston investing in later stage technology companies.

Kamath settled in Atlanta in 2010 just as a second wave of technology companies began making their presence felt in the city.

The new Tech Square Village general partner pointed to Atlanta’s underlying tech infrastructure as one reason for the move to early stage. One pillar of that infrastructure is Georgia Tech itself. The school, whose campus abuts the Tech Square Ventures offices, is one of the top engineering universities in the country and the breadth of talent coming out of that program is impressive, Kamath said.

There’s also the companies like Airwatch, MailChimp, Calendly and others that represent the resurgence of Atlanta’s tech scene, Tech Square Ventures’ newest general partner said.

Not only are young companies reinvesting in the city, but big tech giants and telecom players like T-Mobile, Google, and Microsoft are also establishing major offices, accelerators, and incubators in Atlanta.

“There’s a lot of momentum here in early stage and i think it’s building. It’s the right time for a firm like TSV to take advantage of all of the things,” Kamath said. 

Another selling point for making the jump to early stage investing was the relationship that Kamath had established with Tech Square Ventures founder, Blake Patton. A serial entrepreneur who’s committed to building up Atlanta’s startup ecosystem, Patton has been the architect of Tech Square Ventures’ growth through two separate initiatives.

In all, the firm has $90 million in assets under management. What began with a small pilot fund, Tech Square Ventures Fund 1, (a $5 million investment vehicle) has expanded to include two larger funds raised in conjunction with major industrial corporate partners like AT&T, Chick-Fil-A, Cox Enterprises, Delta, Georgia-Pacific, Georgia Power, The Home Depot, UPS, Goldman Sachs, and Invesco. Those funds total $54 million in AUM and the firm is halfway toward closing a much larger second flagship fund under the Tech Square Ventures name with a $75 million target.

All this activity has led to a blossoming entrepreneurial community that early stage funds like Tech Square Ventures hopes to tap.

“We see a fair number of folks from these large corporations spinning out and starting things themselves,” said Kamath. “For a decade plus, you have multiple entrepreneurs doing really well and increasing acceleration in terms of climate and exits.”

And more firms from outside of the region are beginning to take notice.

“I think that is happening,” said Kamath. “You might seen investment from outside the region. At the seed stage it’s harder you do need to have feet on the ground right when they’re starting and building their business. Once they’ve been vetted and had that early round of investment you will definitely see a lot of activity. We’re seeing more investment at the Series A and B from out of town. That’s the strategy.”

It all points to a burgeoning startup scene that’s based in a collaborative approach, which should be good not only for Tech Square Ventures, but the other early stage funds like Atlanta Ventures, Outlander Labs, BLH Ventures, Knoll Ventures and Overline, that working to support the city’s entrepreneurs, Kamath said.

From dorm rooms to board rooms: How universities are promoting entrepreneurship

Earlier this year, 15 top U.S. universities joined forces to launch a one-stop shop where corporations and startups can discover and license patents.

Working in concert, Brown, Caltech, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, the University of Illinois, Michigan, Northwestern, Penn, Princeton, SUNY Binghamton, UC Berkeley, UCLA, the University of Southern California and Yale formed The University Technology Licensing Program LLC (UTLP)  to create a centralized pool of licensable IP.

The UTLP arrives as more higher education institutions are beefing up their investment in the entrepreneurial pipeline to help more students launch startups after graduation. In some instances, schools serve as accelerators, providing students with resources and helping them connect with VCs to find seed funding.

To get a better look at the new program and more insight into the university-to-startup pipeline, we spoke to:


The UTLP initiative seems to be more focused on licensing IP to existing companies, rather than accelerating university startups.

Orin Herskowitz: The UTLP effort is really much more about licensing to the somewhat broken interface between universities and very large companies in the tech space when it comes to licensing intellectual property. But I know USC and Columbia and many of our peers, especially over the last three to seven years, have pivoted in a massive way to helping our faculty students fulfill their entrepreneurial dreams and launch startups around this exciting university technology.

The word “broken” jumped out at me. Historically, what has the problem been?

Orin Herskowitz: Universities have traditionally been a source of amazing, life-saving and life-improving inventions, for decades. There’s been a ton of new drugs and medical devices, cybersecurity improvements, and search engines, like Google, that have come out of universities over the years, that were federally funded and developed in the labs, and then licensed to either a startup or the industry. And that’s been great. At least over the last couple of decades, that interface has worked really, really well in some fields, but less well in others. So, in the life sciences, in energy, in advanced materials, in those industries, a lot of the time, these innovations that end up having a huge impact on society are based really on one or two or three core eureka moments. There’s like one or two patents that underlie an enormous new cancer drug, for instance.

In the tech space though, it’s a very different dynamic because, a lot of the time, these inventions are incredibly important and they do launch a whole new generation of products and services, but the problem is that a new device, like an iPhone, or a piece of software, might rely on dozens or even hundreds of innovations from across many different universities, as opposed to just one or two.

Obviously not every breakthrough necessitates the launch of a startup. I assume that the vast majority of these things that are coming would make the most sense to work with existing companies.

Jennifer Dyer: We’ve all had this renewed focus on innovation within the university and really helping our students and faculty that want to start companies, launch those companies. If you look at the space, helping educate our students that launching a company in a high-tech space may mean that they have to go out and acquire 100 different licenses, so maybe it doesn’t make sense. We’re going to be doing nonexclusive licensing, and it doesn’t preclude anyone from moving forward with this technology. This is probably the first pool for nonstandard essential patents in the high-tech space, which makes it somewhat unique. Because if you look back, most of the pools have been around standard essential patents.

The question of exclusivity is an interesting one. You wouldn’t grant exclusive rights for the right fee?

Metalenz reimagines the camera in 2D and raises $10M to ship it

As impressive as the cameras in our smartphones are, they’re fundamentally limited by the physical necessities of lenses and sensors. Metalenz skips over that part with a camera made of a single “metasurface” that could save precious space and battery life in phones and other devices… and they’re about to ship it.

The concept is similar to, but not descended from, the “metamaterials” that gave rise to flat beam-forming radar and lidar of Lumotive and Echodyne. The idea is to take a complex 3D structure and accomplish what it does using a precisely engineered “2D” surface — not actually two-dimensional, of course, but usually a plane with features measured in microns.

In the case of a camera, the main components are of course a lens (these days it’s usually several stacked), which corrals the light, and an image sensor, which senses and measures that light. The problem faced by cameras now, particularly in smartphones, is that the lenses can’t be made much smaller without seriously affecting the clarity of the image. Likewise sensors are nearly at the limit of how much light they can work with. Consequently most of the photography advancements of the last few years have been done on the computational side.

Using an engineered surface that does away with the need for complex optics and other camera systems has been a goal for years. Back in 2016 I wrote about a NASA project that took inspiration from moth eyes to create a 2D camera of sorts. It’s harder than it sounds, though — usable imagery has been generated in labs, but it’s not the kind of thing that you take to Apple or Samsung.

Metalenz aims to change that. The company’s tech is built on the work of Harvard’s Frederico Capasso, who has been publishing on the science behind metasurfaces for years. He and Rob Devlin, who did his doctorate work in Capasso’s lab, co-founded the company to commercialize their efforts.

“Early demos were extremely inefficient,” said Devlin of the field’s first entrants. “You had light scattering all over the place, the materials and processes were non-standard, the designs weren’t able to handle the demands that a real world throws at you. Making one that works and publishing a paper on it is one thing, making 10 million and making sure they all do the same thing is another.”

Their breakthrough — if years of hard work and research can be called that — is the ability not just to make a metasurface camera that produces decent images, but to do it without exotic components or manufacturing processes.

“We’re really using all standard semiconductor processes and materials here, the exact same equipment — but with lenses instead of electronics,” said Devlin. “We can already make a million lenses a day with our foundry partners.”

Diagram comparing the multi-lens barrel of a conventional phone camera, and their simpler "meta-optic"

The thing at the bottom is the chip where the image processor and logic would be, but the meta-optic could also integrate with that. the top is a pinhole.

The first challenge is more or less contained in the fact that incoming light, without lenses to bend and direct it, hits the metasurface in a much more chaotic way. Devlin’s own PhD work was concerned with taming this chaos.

“Light on a macro [i.e. conventional scale, not close-focusing] lens is controlled on the macro scale, you’re relying on the curvature to bend the light. There’s only so much you can do with it,” he explained. “But here you have features a thousand times smaller than a human hair, which gives us very fine control over the light that hits the lens.”

Those features, as you can see in this extreme close-up of the metasurface, are precisely tuned cylinders, “almost like little nano-scale Coke cans,” Devlin suggested. Like other metamaterials, these structures, far smaller than a visible or near-infrared light ray’s wavelength, manipulate the radiation by means that take a few years of study to understand.

Diagram showing chips being manufactured, then an extreme close up showing nano-scale features.The result is a camera with extremely small proportions and vastly less complexity than the compact camera stacks found in consumer and industrial devices. To be clear, Metalenz isn’t looking to replace the main camera on your iPhone — for conventional photography purposes the conventional lens and sensor are still the way to go. But there are other applications that play to the chip-style lens’s strengths.

Something like the FaceID assembly, for instance, presents an opportunity. “That module is a very complex one for the cell phone world — it’s almost like a Rube Goldberg machine,” said Devlin. Likewise the miniature lidar sensor.

At this scale, the priorities are different, and by subtracting the lens from the equation the amount of light that reaches the sensor is significantly increased. That means it can potentially be smaller in every dimension while performing better and drawing less power.

Image (of a very small test board) from a traditional camera, left, and metasurface camera, right. Beyond the vignetting it’s not really easy to tell what’s different, which is kind of the point.

Lest you think this is still a lab-bound “wouldn’t it be nice if” type device, Metalenz is well on its way to commercial availability. The $10M round A they just raised was led by 3M Ventures, Applied Ventures LLC, Intel Capital, M Ventures and TDK Ventures, along with Tsingyuan Ventures and Braemar Energy Ventures — a lot of suppliers in there.

Unlike many other hardware startups, Metalenz isn’t starting with a short run of boutique demo devices but going big out of the gate.

“Because we’re using traditional fabrication techniques, it allows us to scale really quickly. We’re not building factories or foundries, we don’t have to raise hundreds of mils; we can use whats already there,” said Devlin. “But it means we have to look at applications that are high volume. We need the units to be in that tens of millions range for our foundry partners to see it making sense.”

Although Devlin declined to get specific, he did say that their first partner is “active in 3D sensing” and that a consumer device, though not a phone, would be shipping with Metalenz cameras in early 2022 — and later in 2022 will see a phone-based solution shipping as well.

In other words, while Metalenz is indeed a startup just coming out of stealth and raising its A round… it already has shipments planned on the order of tens of millions. The $10M isn’t a bridge to commercial viability but short term cash to hire and cover up-front costs associated with such a serious endeavor. It’s doubtful anyone on that list of investors harbors any serious doubts on ROI.

The 3D sensing thing is Metalenz’s first major application, but the company is already working on others. The potential to reduce complex lab equipment to handheld electronics that can be fielded easily is one, and improving the benchtop versions of tools with more light-gathering ability or quicker operation is another.

Though a device you use may in a few years have a Metalenz component in it, it’s likely you won’t know — the phone manufacturer will probably take all the credit for the improved performance or slimmer form factor. Nevertheless, it may show up in teardowns and bills of material, at which point you’ll know this particular university spin-out has made it to the big leagues.