Lenovo invests in trackpad startup Sensel

Sensel’s journey has been an interesting one to watch from afar. The firm crossed our radar several years back, courtesy of its Morph device, a colorful and clever piece of hardware that uses different silicone skins to transform a trackpad into various input devices. Ultimately, however, the startup learned the same lesson as countless before it: Consumer hardware is wildly difficult.

Ultimately, the company pivoted to selling its underlying technology to OEMs. Turns out the Morph was quite a good proof of concept for its underlying multitouch, haptic trackpad. It also turns out that a number of laptop manufacturers have been more than happy to license it.

Today Sensel announced an $18.8 million Series B. Led by Global Lighting Technologies Inc., the round follows a $28 million Series A and brings the Bay Area–based company’s funding up to $57 million since its 2013 founding. Notably, Lenovo also got in on the act this round. The company has been one of Sensel’s biggest hardware partners to date.

“Sensel’s goal of shipping high volume yet cost-effective haptic touchpads will be realized with our strategic module partner, GLT,” the company’s chief product and strategy officer Harsha Rao said in a release. “With any cutting-edge technology, rapidly scaling manufacturing is the holy grail. This partnership is critical to Sensel’s next phase, as it brings sophisticated automation, scale, and manufacturability to our innovative solutions.”

The company says the funding will go toward further scaling its tech and R&D for future products.

Sensel raises a $28M Series A to bring pressure sensing tech to more mobile devices

I was honestly a surprised to find out from Sensel that the company is only just recently raising its Series A. The Sunnyvale-based hardware startup has been around since 2013, bringing its first product, the modular music and computing Morph peripheral, to market a few years back.

Over the past few years, however, the company’s been undergoing a bit of a slow motion pivot. As fascinating as the Morph has been, the multiple touch input device has proven to be something more akin to a proof of concept for Sensel. I’ve met with co-founder and CEO Ilya Rosenberg at CES the last couple of years and watched as it changed its outward facing focus from standalone hardware offering to smartphone/tablet components.

The new $28 million Series A brings its total funding up to $38 million, courtesy of Susquehanna International Group, Morningside Group, SMiT, Palm Commerce Holdings Co. Ltd, Chariot Gold Limited, SV Tech Ventures and Innolinks Ventures. A big part of this funding will no doubt be used to play a role in that shift, as Sensel works with OEMs to bring its advanced sensing technology to different devices.

“Since Sensel’s founding in 2013, we’ve worked tirelessly to create a sensor that outperforms existing touch technologies on every metric and at a lower overall cost,” Rosenberg says in a release. “This financing brings us closer to our ultimate goal of improving how people experience the products they rely on every single day.”

Sensel notes that it will “continue supporting the Morph,” but the language seems to pretty heavily imply that the device will no longer be a focus — something the company more or less confirmed with me during our most recent meeting. But working with OEMs to implement its technologies on third-party device is potentially a much more lucrative way forward.

Sensel’s pressure-sensitive display tech works underwater

The Morph is a fun little computer peripheral. The small trackpad uses a series of silicone covers to recreating different interfaces, from a QWERTY keyboard to a drum pad. Ultimately, however, it’s the tech that drives the product — rather than the product itself — that may prove the most useful.

Sensel was on-hand at CES this week, in a much larger booth than the year prior. The Morph took up a chunk of the area, including a musician using different pads to play songs live. But the startup’s real star of the show were a series of thick, unbranded tablets. In a meeting with TechCrunch this time last year, the company noted that it was essentially shopping around the underlying technology for other uses. In a sense, the Morph is as much a way of proving that Sensel’s technology truly works.

Pressure Grid offers an alternative to more traditional capacitive touch, essentially building positional touch and force touch into a single sensor. It’s a less expensive way to accurately determine both the position and pressure (from 1g to 5kg) in one go. It’s also thin and capable of working with flexible displays, making the company well-positioned for what could well be the next wave of mobile devices.

And, as the company was more than happy to demonstrate on the show floor, it actually works underwater. Because what’s the fun of a waterproof phone, really, if you can use wet fingers?

Another key benefit here is the ability detect objects beyond the finger — that could mean using it with a pair of gloves or taking a regular old paintbrush to the service to draw some art. Sensel says it’s built fail safes into to the software, to cut down on false positives, which could definitely present an issue for a device that can register just about any object that comes into contact with it.

Sensel says it’s already begun working with industry partners to implement this technology into commercial device. Of course, like 3D touch before it, incorporating pressure sensitivity is going to take some customer training to make using it a natural part of day to day computing. 

Sensel is shopping around its Morph trackpad tech for use in other devices

 It took two years, but Sensel finally managed to start shipping the Morph to backers. The company apparently ran into every potential pitfall for a brand new hardware manufacture, include a microscopic design flaw that forced it to scrap an entire run, resulting in around $60,000 in costs. That’s not an insignificant number for a startup — even one that’s managed to raise… Read More