Reinventing the microphone

Published: 02 June 2022

Text: Newslab

Photo: Angelique Culvin-Riccot

Sverre Dale Moen was involved in establishing the tech success Chipcon in 1996. Now he is the CEO of SensiBel. What these companies have in common is that they emerge from researchers at SINTEF and have favorable growth conditions in Forskningsparken.

When Sverre Dale Moen - now CEO of SensiBel - participated in founding the tech company Chipcon in 1996, it was quite atypical to start technology companies in Norway. "Gründer" (entrepreneur) was a term, but he cannot remember anyone talking about "startups."

"At that time, starting a startup was maybe seen as scary. Now, people find it exciting. Today, it's almost applauded. The mentality in society has changed," says Moen.

Sverre, originally from a small village in Østerdalen, emphasizes that SensiBel, which is revolutionizing the microphone market, is not his original idea.

"I am not the founder of SensiBel. It is based on fundamental technology that SINTEF has researched and worked on for many years, including at MiNaLab (Laboratory for Micro- and Nanotechnology)," he says.

Reinventing the microphone

SensiBel was founded in 2016 by SINTEF TTO, which seeks to commercialize research results, along with two of the researchers behind the technology: Jakob Vennerød and Matthieu Lacolle. Their patent has solved a fundamental problem with today's MEMS microphones, or micro-microphones, which are growing in both niche and mass markets and are used in noise cancellation and voice control, among other applications.

The mentality in society has changed, believes Sverre Dale Moen. When he started as an entrepreneur in the 90s, startups were seen as something scary. Today, it's applauded.

By reducing the size of traditional microphones, a lot of performance is lost.

"For example, when talking to Siri, she often doesn't understand what you're saying. You have to be close and speak very clearly, and that is largely due to the quality of the microphone. One wants a microphone to be as good as a human ear, but instead, it has difficulties hearing," explains Moen.

SensiBel has solved this problem by building the microphone in a completely new way, thus taking a historic step beyond 100-year-old technology. Instead of electronically reading the microphone's sound membrane, SensiBel's microphones are based on optical reading with a laser - from a membrane that is, astonishingly, a million times thinner than a strand of hair. This makes it possible to achieve the performance of a studio microphone in a microphone the size of a matchstick head.

"It's deep tech, very advanced technology. We have spoken to customers who have said, "We don't really believe in this; we don't think you can make it happen." And that has been very motivating and encouraging. We have thought, "We're going to make it happen,"" says Moen, and continues:

"And now we're there. We are delivering prototypes to customers. Our next step is to finalize product development and start production."

Sverre Dale Moen has extensive experience with startups and was brought in as CEO and the third employee of SensiBel in 2016. The company develops revolutionary microphone technology based on SINTEF research.

"Oslo Science Park radiates innovation and high-tech"

The latest news is that SensiBel has received additional capital totaling 15 million euros, from sources including the European Innovation Council (EIC) and the German venture capital fund Trumpf Venture.

"Our investors don't look at the stock market; they think long-term. We have investors who care about our team and understand that it's what matters. We have incredibly skilled employees - world-class in every aspect - and I don't think anyone else can develop this. But it's not because of me," says Dale Moen.

Today, SensiBel has 17 employees. Sverre was the company's third employee, after the developers Jacob and Matthieu, and since 2016, he has been involved in hiring, raising capital, product development, and patenting. He believes that being located in Oslo Science Park has made it easy for them to grow.

"Oslo Science Park is a natural place to start commercialization. SensiBel started in StartupLab, and now we have become a small tenant and will eventually need even larger premises," he says, and continues:

"It's a nice building to be in because potential investors and customers immediately understand that there is innovation, there is high tech. The building exudes it."

From incubation to the global market

The story of SensiBel is reminiscent in many ways of Chipcon, which also started in Oslo Science Park. After completing his engineering education at NTNU, Sverre Dale Moen started working as a researcher at SINTEF. Just as with SensiBel later on, the development from SINTEF became Chipcon's business model.

Together with two colleagues, he established Chipcon, specializing in Zigbee - a standard for decentralized wireless networks. When Chipcon was acquired by Texas Instruments in 2005, the company had been located in Oslo Science Park for almost ten years and had grown to over 100 employees.

Dale Moen believes that the proximity to important research environments - not only SINTEF but also the Norwegian Computing Center and the University of Oslo - makes it possible to develop unique technology that can give many years of advantage over competitors in the market. He calls it a common thread between Chipcon and SensiBel.

"Of course, good ideas can also be created without it, but some products require the ability to work with doctoral degrees and research," he says, adding:

"But it is important that research is commercialized and contributes to value creation."

Good old community spirit

After the Chipcon era, Dale Moen worked for several years as CEO of another innovative tech startup: New Index, which developed an electronic whiteboard. The company was acquired by Epson in 2011. With all this experience an important part of his role at SensiBel is to share his knowledge gained along the way.

"I don't think you can get a customer early enough. It's about saying that the product is good enough. It must be unique, but it doesn't have to be perfect. There can be several generations of a product," he says, and continues:

"Getting the product out into the world and having paying customers, it changes the team. And it changes the investors. You gain acceptance in the market."

And has anything specific changed in the years since Chipcon?

"The access to capital for startup companies is completely different now. The willingness to invest in startups has changed a lot," he says.

Sverre Dale Moen also believes that the Norwegian deep tech and startup community has an advantage that is ingrained in our culture.

"There is something about the healthy Norwegian mentality. Healthy good attitudes. People take one for the team instead of asking themselves, like some people do abroad, "What's in it for me?". It's a bit of good old community spirit - whether it's conservative or social democratic. We work together and achieve things together."