30 Jun 2020
PragmatIC sat down with Andrew Williamson to find out why CIC invested in PragmatIC and why he sees such a great future for its new generation of flexible integrated circuits. Going far beyond conventional electronics to bring connectivity to a wide range of market applications.
Andrew is the Managing Partner in Cambridge Innovation Capital. After gaining his PhD in Physics from Cambridge, UK, he started his career leading a research group applying High Performance Computing to materials science at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Andrew then moved into start-up formation and technology investing with Physic Ventures in San Francisco and True North Venture Partners in Chicago, before moving back to the UK and joining CIC.
1) When did CIC first invest in PragmatIC?
Actually, very early on in CIC’s history. We were founded in 2013 and did our first investments in 2014. PragmatIC was our first semiconductor portfolio company. We invest in companies across the technology and life sciences sectors that have an affiliation with Cambridge, which is the leading hub for innovation in Europe.
2) What made PragmatIC attractive?
We get involved when a company has a proof of concept and a clear value proposition. We also look for those with the potential to disrupt on a global scale. This is easy for software companies to achieve on a small budget, but much more challenging for others with physical products. For PragmatIC, it was a case of a number of things coming together in a perfectly-choreographed sequence; many years of research in flexible electronics, the availability of open-access pilot production facilities at the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) and the very large market applicability of the technology.
Taking these in order. The extensive fundamental research had proven that the technology was feasible. Access to the semiconductor manufacturing equipment at CPI enabled PragmatIC to develop their proof of concept, and significantly reduced the investment required to take the company to the next stage. And finally, there was a lot of data about the substantial potential for RFID. I personally have studied this market segment in several of my roles, and it is clear that if the cost can be reduced, then the market could be expanded by an order of magnitude or more. Of course, it isn’t an individual decision; a team of people perform the due diligence on our companies. One of CIC’s board at the time helped out on this one – Mike Muller, co-founder and at that time CTO of Arm. Mike was very excited about the prospect of having flexible integrated circuits, so much so that Arm also invested alongside CIC.
3) So why did you continue to increase your investment?
CIC invests at Series A with the aim to support several rounds of funding. At the time we invest, we build a model of how we think the company will progress and, for those that are successful, we are ready to back them in follow-on rounds. As I noted earlier, Arm also invested in the first round as they see the potential in PragmatIC, plus the fact that Avery Dennison, the leading global supplier of RFID, was willing to invest in the second round was a good signal at that time. Our intention is to continue to support PragmatIC as they make progress towards their vision of shipping a trillion FlexICs in the next decade.
4) What can you see in your crystal ball for CIC and PragmatIC?
Well firstly, we would like to find more companies like PragmatIC, focusing on deep tech. Software/AI companies are simpler to invest in, since they do not require the large capital outlay of companies developing hardware. This is why initiatives like CPI and some of the government’s other catapult schemes are key in unlocking great fundamental science research and getting companies over that hurdle of proof of concept development. Secondly, there are a series of markets where this technology is a good fit. RFID alone could be a trillion units a year, manufactured on hundreds of FlexLogIC lines distributed around the world, and addressing diverse verticals such as healthcare, logistics, retail and gaming.
But that is just the start. I see a great future for PragmatIC since this is a platform technology for developing flexible integrated circuits. Their recently launched FlexIC Foundry opens up the potential for a wide range of market applications beyond RFID and has the potential to create multiple new markets that would never have been considered with conventional electronics.