In the heart of Philadelphia, where the spirit of innovation thrives, Rob Devlin embarked on a journey that started in his grandfather’s basement and led to the creation of metalenz, a company poised to revolutionize the way we perceive and interact with the world.
metalenz has attracted funding from top-tier investors like 3M Ventures, M Ventures, Applied Ventures LLC, Intel Capital, TDK Ventures, and Foothill Ventures.
In this episode, you will learn:
- Rob Devlin’s journey from his grandfather’s basement to founding metalenz showcases the profound impact of childhood curiosity on innovation.
- Unlike many in his field, Rob’s passion for physical structures and devices fueled his drive to solve real-world problems through engineering.
- The transition from academia to entrepreneurship began with a groundbreaking paper on metasurfaces, marking the birth of metalenz.
- metalenz initially focused on licensing its metasurface technology, forming strategic partnerships with major players in the tech industry.
- Securing capital for a hard-tech company involved strategic partnerships with corporate ventures and selective conversations with investors who understood the technology’s complexity.
- metalenz weathered economic uncertainties during its Series B funding, emphasizing the importance of being selective in conversations and aligning the message with long-term investor goals.
- metalenz envisions a future where its technology transforms consumer devices, bringing advanced medical testing and secure face recognition to every phone, revolutionizing how people interact with the world.
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About Rob Devlin:
Robert Devlin is a highly skilled professional with 3.6 years of experience in various fields such as Labview, Matlab, photolithography, and nanofabrication.
He is proficient in software like C++, cvd, and Autocad and has expertise in areas like nanomaterials, scanning electron microscopy, and electron beam evaporation.
Currently based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Robert has worked at metalenz as the Co-Founder and CEO of the General Management department since January 2020.
Metalenz is a semiconductor manufacturing company focused on producing metasurface design software and photonic integrated circuit design services.
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Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro Cremades: Already hello everyone and welcome to the dealmakerr show. So today. We have a really amazing founder that you know is’s gonna be telling us about the rocket ship that he is riding you know he say gonna be telling us about how he passed from academia to the business side to really the entrepreneur entrepreneurial side of things. How he closed his series b doing you know the craziness in this macro environment and then also really taking a ah technology from university and really bringing it to market so without farther do let’s welcome our guest today Rob doveling welcome to the show.
Rob Devlin: That you out of Howjo Glad to be here looking forward to it.
Alejandro Cremades: So original in Philly where the chi stakes a you know are are made so what tell us ah a little bit of a walk through memory lane. How is life growing up.
Rob Devlin: Ah, it was Great. You know I Actually as I was growing up um, spent a lot of time my grandparents and specifically I actually spent quite a lot of time in my grandfather’s basement. There. So My my grandfather was a world War 2 Vet. He was a radio operator. I Spent a lot of my childhood in his basement with him making radios doing electronics and sort of learning from him he he was a self-taught electrical engineer and you know in in his basement there growing up. He made radios and. Always amazing to me how you could take a bunch of random components slap them together and the next thing you know you’re sort of hearing or communicating with someone across the world. You know, ah all of these little pieces all these high-tech pieces that ultimately let you connect with a person on the other end That. You’re not even seeing you’re not even you may not even know so it was quite an interesting experience in that respect.
Alejandro Cremades: Now Now your case you know like what got you into engineering you know what was the the whole thing about problem solving and and stuff like that. What what? what was the and the roots you know coming you know, triggering that? yeah.
Rob Devlin: I I Definitely always liked making things and it it always physical things. You know so I never really got too much into coding or or software anything I always liked making physical structures or devices you know, even as a younger kid I. Sort of would make um skate parks in my backyard. It drove my parents crazy but it certainly was fun to figure out how you got all of the pieces together built things and that satisfaction of seeing something that you went and thought out and and did and and built um it it was that piece and then. Really my my grandfather again who sort of crystallized that who galvanized me in terms of thinking about this and becoming ah an actual engineer. Um, you know is that that piece of taking technology putting it together but then ultimately still being able to connect. On a personal level through the technology that you’ve built having that technology be interacting with people or having people interact with the technology you built and so I wanted to make products I wanted to make something that was real that people could hold could use and would ultimately impact people’s lives.
Alejandro Cremades: So then let’s talk about you going into academia you know you doing your ph d now you’re like really pushing into applied physics at Harvard and and things like that and and and tell us about this experience. Why academia out of all things.
Rob Devlin: Yeah I mean I when I when I started out my undergrad and I was doing it in engineering I I thought a little bit about um, you know, maybe just going into industry and ah building a career and in one of these large engineering companies you know and. And the philli area you have companies like like Lockheed or other other large engineering companies. Um, but ultimately in my undergrad and in my master’s I got a chance to do research in a lab and when you’re doing research in a lab. You’re starting to look at.
Rob Devlin: Doing something and seeing something in a way that people have never been able to see before it might be something completely niche and you know boxed off in a corner. Whatever it is but that feeling of seeing something for the first time or finding something out uniquely for the first time and then also the. The free reign that you have in terms of building your own direction building your own research building something new. Um, so I got ah a good experience in my master is of of doing self-directed research in a group at Drexel and. That really made me want to continue pursuing this you know going down the ph d route ultimately leading me to Harvard where I then started. Um, you know my my research which would ultimately help lead to the formation of the company medalines. So.
Alejandro Cremades: So there was how those a paper that you guys say put together and that paper. Ultimately you know made the you know a good splash you know on Science Magazine and and you were getting flooded with calls. So what happened there.
Rob Devlin: Yeah, so the the group I was working in is working on this completely new type of lens completely new type of optic right? So cameras and lenses have been around for hundreds of years lenses have been around for thousands of years and really haven’t changed much. All of the other technology around us has been changing and in very dramatic and and drastic ways but lenses that we’re using in cameras that you use in your cell phone still have all of the same sort of fundamentals as Galileo’s telescope essentially it really hasn’t changed much. And in the group I was working in they were looking at a whole new way to think about lenses a whole new way to make lenses a way that you could make these lenses in order to bring giant scientific expensive, scientific equipment into cell phones into mobile devices for the first time. Um. And so within that group what we did is in 162 ah, we took this metasurface which is the core technology that we have now commercialized here at metales and we were able to essentially show that with a single metasurface. That’s just one single. Flat optic that is about a thousand times thinner than the width of a human hair. So this really tiny lens we could actually produce images that were as good or better than a $5000 microscope objective. So.
Rob Devlin: You’re talking about. You know the highest end microscope objective that’s out there and we were able to with this single tiny chip um to actually have better images than you would get with that. So at that point you know I was thinking still of continuing along the academic route I was thinking of being a professor. You know publish as many papers as I can and go and continue along the research route and what we what we got is actually when we went out and published this paper we got on the cover of science magazine the cell phone oems the cell phone manufacturers realized this can completely change the way that. We see incense from our mobile devices. It can change the cameras in our devices it can make them smaller. It can make them cheaper. It can bring medical testing medical grade equipment scientific laboratory equipment entirely new sensors into cell phones for the first time and so when we publish this paper. And we’re on the cover of science. Um, which even though it’s an academic journal because of how big of a journal. It is how how well known it is it reaches well out into the more popular world and vcs and entrepreneurs tend to follow it. Um. So we started getting cold calls from the largest cellphone oems in the world. We started getting cold calls from some of the biggest semiconductor companies in the world because ultimately the way we make our optics lets you bring lenses into the semiconductor foundries that are making chips.
Rob Devlin: Are making the electronics today and at that point you know it was sort of an organic growth of the company because we weren’t trying to force an idea into a company we we basically had a technology that people had seen the promise on paper. And now they saw it in reality and and basically we were we were getting offers from vcs and entrepreneurs and that’s the point where I said well you know even though I was thinking of going this academic route. Um, given this opportunity. We’ve got to see if this can really. Make it in the market. It’s 1 thing to have the interest of vcs. It’s 1 thing to have the interest of oems. It’s it’s a lot different to then go and take that and get it into real devices to see your product out there in the world.
Alejandro Cremades: So at this point metal lens is born. So what is the what does that journey of literally publishing a paper to making that paper tangible like an actual business. What does that transition and sequence of events look like.
Rob Devlin: Yeah, so the the first thing it looks like is having to finish my ph d so it was it was a funny experience where we actually founded the company before my ph d was finished but my my advisor Federico Capasso he is ah he was very adamant that I I don’t go the ah you know the the zuckerberg route or something else like that and and drop out and just sort of pursue it so he was very adamant that I still finished with my ph d so the very first thing was to figure out how I could get my ph d done and. Ah, there is even ah, a funny point where you know we had. We had now taken in some additional initial seed funding and ah my advisor sent an email to all of the investors saying no one no 1 contact Rob until he’s done with his ph d thesis so that was the first hurdle was. And he even held me hostage with another paper. He he made sure before I finished that I would even publish my last bit of research. So um, that was the first big hurdle the the other piece was then trying to figure out how you took this really technical topic and something that you know. So presenting at an academic conference and the audience that you have there is completely different than having to garner the interest of venture capital right? So it’s it’s you can’t get too caught up in the technical weeds you have to be able to speak intelligently to that.
Rob Devlin: You know, especially if you’re going through the the um due diligence phase and you have a technical counterpart on the other side you need to be able to speak speak confidently and and technically but ultimately to the vcs you need to sell that broad vision. Ah, you need to sell the the 10 years down the road. How is this going to change the way that people. Interact with their world and their devices and that part was I think one of the the biggest challenges as we were getting the company off the ground was how do you take this deeply technical hard tech right? This isn’t software. This isn’t fintech. This is deep physics. Hardware that now has potential in real devices. How do you then communicate that in a way that gets investors excited gets them to see the future and you know for academics. That’s not always an easy thing for us to do We’d much rather geek out on The. Hardcore physics and science and I think that that was the other the other big challenge and you know, um then of course understanding what it meant to take in external capital What that meant for ah the company. What it meant for the founders. All of those things were really steep learning curves which. For academics. That’s not that’s not there. You You don’t necessarily think about that sort of ownership and what you’re giving up and everything else you’re you’re publishing papers you want to give credit to your colleagues and you’re citing other folks. So It’s It’s a very that was another big challenge for us.
Alejandro Cremades: So so for the people that are listening to to get it. What ended up becoming metal lens. How are you guys making money. What’s the business model.
Rob Devlin: So where we started out and you know what? what we do at metal lens is if you look at traditional cameras traditional optics. You might have 4 or 5 different lenses in a camera to make a good image with a meta surface you can replace the functionality of those 4 or 5 different lenses with just. 1 single flat optic. So this lets you dramatically reduce the cost and the size of really complicated cameras of really complicated sensing systems. Um. And the other big piece of this is that it allows you for the first time ever to move the production of optics all of the optics in phones today are still molded and shaped very much the way they were hundreds of years ago and there’s a particular um set of manufacturers that make those. But. What you can do with hard technology is actually start printing these like you print computer chips. So it lets you move optics into the foundry and so the way that metal ends ultimately is is making money and has been able to get product out. There is in the beginning what we’ve actually done is to license the technology so we’ve. We’ve partnered and we’ve made an announcement here back in 2022 with stmicroelectrons a giant in the semiconductor world. Um, and we essentially worked with them to bring up our technology in their foundries and they sell advanced 3 d sensing modules.
Rob Devlin: They’ve sold 1.5 to 2000000000 of these modules to date so you know extremely high volumes consumer type volumes and what they saw is the potential for our optics to greatly simplify and improve their systems. So what we started out with was a licensing model actually is to. Find a way to license the the technology because ultimately um, you know one of the biggest challenges I think for for hard tech, especially when you’re talking about getting into consumer devices is that hurdle of. The customer will often see the value in your powerpoints and can say well great. Yeah I think I think this will work but they have tens of millions of devices. They need to act the same that can’t fail in the field. Um, so we started out by licensing and that that let us. Quickly get the technology validated in real devices and leverage a bigger partner to start the business off essentially.
Alejandro Cremades: So obviously you know for something like this. You guys need to um to get some money too. So how was the um, the journey of capitalizing the business because I I believe you guys have raised about 50000000 so what was that journey like.
Rob Devlin: Yeah, and in the early days again this came back to the fact that we are very much a hard tech company. Um, and you know there is ah a there still at that at that time as much as now a lot of investors prefer. More software. Um, you know it’s it’s easier to quantify to value to to see how you can get big returns on. Um so in the early days we we actually looked to a lot of corporate ventures even for seed funding. So some of the investors in metal ends are companies like Intel so Intel Capital was one of the early investors applied materials another giant in the semiconductor world three m ventures um, but then also the the other journey was along you know selling the idea selling the concept because we did want some pure vcs in the company and so. Finding the right fit there where they were folks that were still investing in the hardware side of things that that understood sort of at a high level at least the the technology. Um I think that was one of 1 of the biggest things was getting those connections and then ultimately. Um, figuring out how we tell our story in a way that could connect with with someone who is an investor looking for the return.
Alejandro Cremades: So for the serious B that you guys did you know it was quite an interesting moment in time you know it was literally the um in the middle of the crazy Economic Downturn Tool. So How tough was that the experience. And what? what did you learn that maybe you can share with the folks that are listening.
Rob Devlin: Yeah I think one of the the toughest things was you know when when we started out and we were thinking about our series b we we now had ah initial product out there in market. The technology was real. We. We found a place that we wanted to scale because ultimately we realized that. We can build complete new systems new sensing solutions around this unique technology that we have where we can actually couple algorithms and software that are unique to the hardware. We’re making um so we were really excited. We were really ready to go out and build. We had the initial. Product out there in market. Um, you know we had some revenue coming in through the the licensing. Um and when we started thinking about fundraising it was when everything was really great in the world. The venture capital of money was flowing like crazy. It was a february of 2022 companies were getting fantastic valuations and the public market looked like it was going to hit um all new highs and you know obviously as you start pulling everything together. It’s about three or four months of making sure you’re all ready and set to go. And by the time we started going out in fundraising. It was at the point where things had ah kind of fallen off the cliff. The public market was crashing and then sort of the trickle on effect meant that the private markets were sort of having a little bit of a recoil. Um, you know so it was certainly a hard time because ultimately.
Rob Devlin: Everyone was a little hesitant and we we definitely even though we had this traction even though we were now in in devices being used by consumers. We took an academic technology and put it into real-w world applications real-worl devices. Um. You know people people were very hesitant about where they were going to spend their money and it it actually pushed away from hardware even more because that’s ah, a longer term sort of bet here. It’s it’s a lot more complicated. It often requires more capital obviously than a software company. Um, but 1 of the things that we found is. Number one I think it’s it’s often, you’re going to have to go through a lot of Nos I’m sure you you hear this all the time on on your podcast and I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself just as an entrepreneur. Um the number of Nos and the amount of times that you’re going to get sort of that. Defeated feeling is is always much greater than the yeses you’re going to get and that sort of is just the nature of it. But one of the things we found is that being very selective about who you talk to? um, finding the right fit from the investors but we also were in this. Sweet spot as a company so you know what was happening at the time was really early seed stage companies were kind of driving this bubble in the in the venture world right? So they were getting the type of valuations that sort of were somewhat separated from.
Rob Devlin: Reality you know there was no real proof point but there was so much money in the private world that these companies were getting a really you know, really crazy evaluation and then you had the other end of the spectrum which you had the companies that were closer to going public but now the public market was having a huge downturn so investors sort of. Shied away from those and it it did push investors a little bit to the middle where we had a technology that was proven. It was in market. It was real but we were far enough removed from the public market and what we had to find and what we had to do was really sell how we could go from. Say this licensing and and component business to something that would ultimately um, be we would be able to build and grow and make into a company where we are selling complete solutions to the end oems to the end users and. Um, I think that was the thing that we had to to learn was number 1 how you select the conversations you’re going to have with investors. Um, because I think that ultimately lets you use your time more efficiently and hone your message a little bit more if you’re just doing the sort of. Go after every investor. It’s not going to be a directed message to that particular investor’s um, investment thesis and then how do you tell the story because we needed to be able to credibly say okay, we have some initial traction.
Rob Devlin: But now we’re going to be a ah complete solution company and we’re going to be able to be putting devices that are complete solutions into cell phones and turn this from something that is a ah three x return into something that can be 10 x can be 50 x can be. Ah, hundred x.
Alejandro Cremades: Now in this case, you know like obviously with with any investment. You know there’s a real big bet on a vision now and and and not all of the investors will do that but then also employees customers everyone so in that regard when we’re thinking about vision here for metal ends imagine that. You were to go to sleep tonight Rob and you wake up in a world where the vision of metal lens is fully realized what does that world look like.
Rob Devlin: Yeah, okay, perfect.
Alejandro Cremades: I think I lost you there Rob but you’re back will edit that piece. So don’t worry about it. Ah so I was just asking you if you were to go to sleep tonight and you wake up in a world where the vision of metallins is fully realized what does that world look like.
Rob Devlin: Yeah to me I think where metal ends is able to impact things. So again, what we do with our technology is to be able to take complicated bulky sensing systems optical systems and shrink them down for the first time to a size. And to a price point where they can be in consumer devices. Um, so I think what what we can do at melands and what we’re doing at metal ends now is we’re essentially changing the way that people can interact and understand the world around them and that’s by essentially being able to take. Devices that have been locked away in scientific or medical labs and be able to start putting them into every phone. So I think one of the things that we’re doing is we’re we’re essentially bringing an entirely new information set set that to date humans and billions of people have not had access to. Putting that on phones and I think that um what we’re able to do is really make it so that you can use your phone to go and start doing medical assays. You could use your phone to um, diagnose whether a growth is cancerous or not have that be sent off to a doctor. Because with these optics with these metasurfaces it lets you take these extremely large complicated devices and put them into form factors price points that make it compatible with mobile with consumer devices and you know that’s a place where everything is being pushed more and more to the phone.
Rob Devlin: Everyone is using their phone for more things whether it’s first the camera it’s become everyone’s camera now. Um for payment for digital payment. Everyone is now using their phone for payment whether that’s with credit cards or or something like that I think so what we can do is to bring even more. Complicated devices and put those into phones so you can potentially monitor your blood glucose you can every phone could have secure face unlocked to make your payment and make your identity secure in your phone. Um. And I think that’s that’s really where we see metal ends coming in. It’s it’s changing the way that people are actually interacting with the world around them because now you have these devices that um, frankly haven’t been available to the to the masses before in every single phone in the world.
Alejandro Cremades: So now imagine you know that we’re talking about the past but doing so with our lens of reflection imagine that I put you into our time machine and I bring you back in time to that moment where you are thinking about breaking from academia into the business world. And you’re able to have a chat with your younger self. You know, maybe we’re talking about back in 2017 and you’re able to have a sit down with that younger Rob and you’re able to give that younger Rob one piece of advice before launching a business. What would that be and why given what you know now. Almost seven years in
Rob Devlin: Um, that’s that’s ah, a great question I think um I think the the thing that I would I would really focus on and I would really emphasize is that you know when when you’re starting a company and when you’re going out there. You can often be. Over eager to have your technology adopted So Obviously you need to go out and you need to sell your technology you you need to be an evangelist for that technology. Um, but oftentimes you want it to be adopted so badly that the customer will come with a value prop. And maybe you actually even somewhere in your mind understand that that is not a strong enough value prop for your technology to really win the business or it’s not the most valuable thing you can do with your technology. But because you want that technology to be adopted. You. You want to make product you want to make something real. You will often go along with the customer and I think we did spend a lot of time going down routes that basically at the end of the day didn’t pan out because we we were so eager to. Get the technology adopted but you know when when you know what it is uniquely that you can do that? No one else can do It may take a little bit longer in now having to build all of the pieces around it. Um, it may require a little bit more.
Rob Devlin: Ah, just sort of not necessarily interacting or or selling to customers. But it can ultimately lead to an even bigger impact because you truly understand your technology. You’re critical of.
Rob Devlin: The the value prop that the customer thinks you have so it makes you learn more and it makes you think more about the application. The overall impact to the end user rather than just okay can I meet this spec that the customer is putting at me that might only be a 5 % improvement over their existing solution right. And that’s not going to be disruptive. That’s not going to really win the business and and make your technology stick make you change something about the world. So we spend a lot of time pursuing things that you know in retrospect. We were pursuing because the customer said yeah I think this could work. Um, but when if we were more honest with ourselves about what we could truly do with our technology I think we would have um, we would have been a little bit more focused early on and and not just tried to get everyone to adopt. Get everyone to buy in It’s okay to say no to customers at times I think that’s sort of the the biggest lesson here. It’s okay to say no to new projects because saying no pairing things back. That’s where you ultimately then can focus on building something that is is truly impactful that can have really long-term. And really broad impact.
Alejandro Cremades: So Rob for the people that are listening that will love to reach out and say hi. What is the best way for them to do so.
Rob Devlin: Certainly through Linkedin I I’m on Linkedin you can go through our website I’ll be at mobile world congress coming up I’ll also be at cs coming up so there are a number of different ways that that people can reach out and. Always glad to either have ah a chat or um I still even though I have gone away from the academic world if ah, if it’s a more technical person. Glad to go into the physics of what it is. We’re doing and why it is. We can do what we can do.
Alejandro Cremades: Amazing! Well hey Rob thank you so much for being on the deal maker show today. It has been an honor to have you with us.
Rob Devlin: Likewise Alejandro and thank you so much.
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