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.
In this exclusive interview, Rob shares his captivating story, from childhood curiosity to founding a groundbreaking technology company.
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The Roots of Innovation
Rob’s childhood was steeped in the magic of his grandfather’s basement, where the echoes of World War II lingered. His grandfather, a self-taught electrical engineer and war veteran who was a radio operator, introduced him to the enchanting world of radios and electronics.
Rob vividly recalls the fascination of piecing together seemingly random components to create devices that connected people across the globe. This early exposure ignited a passion for making tangible, impactful products.
The Call of Engineering
Driven by a love for crafting physical structures and devices, Rob delved into engineering, focusing on solving real-world problems. Unlike many in his field, his interests leaned towards the tangible—skate parks in the backyard rather than lines of code on a screen.
Rob’s grandfather played a pivotal role in crystallizing his engineering aspirations, emphasizing the power of technology to connect people on a personal level.
He remembers wanting to make products that were real and that people could use and hold. Things that would ultimately impact people’s lives.
Academia and Applied Physics
The academic journey took an unexpected turn when Rob entered the realm of applied physics at Harvard for his Ph.D. In the world of research labs, he found joy in exploring the unseen and the novel.
The turning point came with a groundbreaking paper on metasurfaces, a technology that would later become the foundation of metalenz. The paper made waves in Science Magazine, attracting attention from major players in the tech industry.
Rob remembers how he got the chance to do research in a lab during his undergrad and Master’s years. This lab time gave him the opportunity to view things with a never-seen-before, unique perspective. The free rein he got led to doing self-directed research in a group at Drexel.
Ultimately, this research inspired him to do his Ph.D. at Harvard and would eventually lead to the formation of metalenz.
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Birth of metalenz: From Paper to Reality
The transition from academia to entrepreneurship marked the birth of metalenz. Rob and his colleagues were able to show how a single metasurface, or flat optic that is a thousand times thinner than the width of a human hair could produce images that were as good or better than a $5000 microscope objective.
A single tiny chip could have better images than the highest-end microscope objective.
Cell phone OEMs and cell phone manufacturers quickly realized that this innovation could completely change mobile phones. It could make the cameras smaller and cheaper.
Several other applications emerged, such as medical testing, medical grade equipment, scientific laboratory equipment, and new sensors in cell phones.
Even though Science Magazine is an academic journal, it’s common knowledge that it connects with the more popular world, and VCs and entrepreneurs tend to follow it.
As a result, Rob and his team started getting cold calls from some of the biggest semiconductor companies in the world.
Rob’s team faced the challenge of moving from a theoretical concept to a tangible business, leading to the formation of metalenz and an initial focus on licensing the technology. He wanted to explore if this invention could make it to the market and transform it into real devices that people could use.
Navigating the Investment Landscape
Rob has an amusing narrative about raising seed capital for metalenz. He recalls how he had yet to complete his Ph.D. when the company was founded. On his advisor Federico Capasso’s urging, he finished his Ph. D.
Rob remembers being held “hostage” by having to publish one last paper. Even though they had taken some initial seed funding, Federico sent an email to all the investors telling them not to contact Rob until he had finished his Ph.D. thesis and the paper.
Rob also had to learn how to speak intelligently and convince venture capitalists, a task which was very different from presenting at an academic conference.
The process required selective conversations with investors who understood the complexity of the technology and a shift in narrative from technical details to a broader vision.
Securing capital for a hard-tech company posed its own set of challenges. metalenz’s journey involved strategic partnerships with corporate ventures, attracting investors like Intel Capital, Applied Materials, and 3M Ventures.
Rob also talks about how they started out with camera lenses for cell phones, but then also started using the hard technology to start printing the lens similar to printing computer chips.
That’s how they moved optics into the foundry. metalens licenses the technology, and in 2022, the company partnered with STMicroelectronics, a giant in the semiconductor world.
Rob and his team worked with them to bring up the technology in their foundries so they could sell. advanced 3D sensing modules. To date, STMicroelectronics has sold 1.5 to 2 billion of these modules and, as of 2022, has transitioned to using metalenz technology.
Weathering the Storm: Series B Funding
The Series B funding presented a unique set of challenges, coinciding with an economic downturn. Metalenz had to articulate its vision convincingly, navigating through a tough fundraising landscape.
Despite the market uncertainties, Rob emphasized the importance of being selective in conversations and honing the message to align with investors looking for long-term, impactful ventures. The company successfully raised $50M in funding.
Storytelling is everything, which is something that Rob Devlin was able to master. Being able to capture the essence of what you are doing in 15 to 20 slides is the key. For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend Peter Thiel (see it here), where the most critical slides are highlighted.
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metalenz Vision: Changing the World Through Optics
At its core, metalenz aims to reshape how people interact with the world. By leveraging metasurfaces, metalenz can integrate complex sensing systems into consumer devices like never before.
Rob and his team have taken “an academic technology and put it into real-world applications in real-world devices,” as he says.
metalenz has taken complicated bulky sensing systems optical systems and shrunk them down for the first time to a size and price point where they can be in mobile devices. That’s the impact the technology has had on the world.
Devices that have been locked away in scientific or medical labs will now be enabled to be put into every phone. Rob envisions a future where every phone becomes a gateway to advanced medical testing, secure face recognition, and a plethora of capabilities previously confined to scientific labs.
Rob points out how people are using their phones for more things than just a camera. Phones are being used for digital payments, including credit cards, and monitoring blood glucose while keeping identities secure.
Rob Devlin’s journey from his grandfather’s basement to the helm of metalenz is a testament to the power of curiosity, innovation, and resilience. metalenz stands at the forefront of transforming optics and sensing, opening new possibilities for how we engage with our surroundings.
As the company continues to evolve, its impact on the world is poised to be nothing short of revolutionary.
Listen to the full podcast episode to know more, including:
- 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.