Video interviewee: Ms. Li Han Chan, CEO
Also featured on video: Mr. Kelvin Chen, CTO
With a background in angel investing, Li Han Chan is well acquainted with the entrepreneurial spirit. An introduction to Kelvin Cheo, whose work at NUS included pioneering ‘freeform’ lens design, provided the opportunity for her to co-found and lead a new business to exploit an exciting new technology in international markets.
A radical new approach to lens design
Most optical lenses are rotationally symmetrical in shape, because they are made using a process that spins the lens material on equipment resembling a lathe (in layman’s terms, the lens is progressively ‘shaved’ to achieve the desired profile). However, this causes a problem for digital imaging. As Li Han explains, “all the imaging sensors in the world are rectangular in shape, but a rotationally symmetrical lens creates a circular image. This leads to a lot of wasted image quality that doesn’t fall on the sensor.”
Look at a freeform lens from the side, rotate it through 90 degrees, and you’ll see that its profile changes. This is because an asymmetric design allows DynaOptics to optimise the image to match the shape of the sensor.
Li Han observes that it will take time for manufacturing techniques to catch up with the true potential of this technology. Starting with a consumer product range, backed by a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, has provided a route into mass production: “you can ramp up from zero units to five or ten, but before you know it, we’ll be at 10,000 lenses a month, then 50,000. We need to be at a million a month for the mobile market.”
Getting the first product to market
This first product range offers wide angle and telephoto lens attachments that clip onto the outside of mobile phones using a special cover. Branded OOWA, these provide better image quality than other clip-on lenses.
“We found that this was an easy first market to get our freeform lenses into, prior to doing more complicated versions. We have a number of business-to-business applications in the pipeline. There’s a camera and optics in everything – in automotive, in augmented reality, in LED lights. Imagine being able to make many different shapes much more accurately: the potential is huge.”
Getting good protection from the start
Li Han and Kelvin were both aware from the start that the company’s IP strategy would be crucial to its future success. “Our investors are mostly from the US; they tend to be quite conservative and want IP to be filed. In our case, granted patents de-risk the uniqueness of our technology and thus increase our value, so that for future rounds of financing or at exit, we’ll have a portfolio of high-value protection.” In the meantime, the patents provide enforceability and a means of addressing the threat of copycats.
“Our patents cover a number of different shapes. In some of these shapes those lenses have to move, so our patents cover that movement, and the software that controls it. For example, our zooming is done by moving the freeform lens perpendicular to the optical axis. The manufacturing realities today don’t provide an easy single step to achieve that ultimate end goal, so we’ve created a pathway of multiple products to get us there”.
Some of the fundamental IP relating to optical zooming comes from NUS, from whom the technology was licensed at an early stage, when DynaOptics took over the patent filing. Since then, the business has filed a succession of new patent applications independently.
So far, only one patent has granted (because it was fast-tracked in the US) based on a subset of the 60-odd claims contained in the first filing. “Our priority was to add value to the business by getting some IP granted. This helped us find out where the world thinks we stand from a patenting point of view. It also gave us an opportunity to test the efficacy of our patent agent, and gain a better understanding of how patents are defended in different offices around the world.”
The DynaOptics strategy has identified six key territories for patenting: US, China, Europe, Korea, Taiwan and Japan. These have been chosen for two reasons: they have the biggest penetration of mobile markets, and include the countries that are leaders in lens manufacture.
What IP can and can't do
Li Han is pragmatic about how much protection patents can afford her business. “We’ve not come to the point where we have been challenged on our patents or had to enforce them, but people in our market sue others all the time. If that happens, we may or may not have the money to enforce our rights. Also, in China, you may or may not find that filing useful – people may blatantly infringe your IP and still not feel like they’re on the hook.”
She is also open about how much science is in the application of DynaOptics’ IP strategy. “You make the best decision you can at the time, based on the information you have. I’m not even talking about, ‘How should I craft this? What about this word I’m going to use?’ - I’m talking about the basics, like ‘Should I file this? Should I file this now? And where should I file it?’”
In a specialist field like lens design, DynaOptics has found that it pays to source industry-specific expertise:
“the patent business is a very human one, more so than I think most people would care to admit.”
Currently the company is using a specialist who used to draft patents for Olympus cameras. “There’s a massive difference in their ability to craft a patent that’s actually useful. It’s really easy to spend a lot of money and end up with nothing.”
Whilst patents are
the most important IP assets for DynaOptics, the company has also obtained
trade mark protection for its OOWA brand in the key markets where it plans to
sell in the near term, namely China, Singapore and the US. But as Li Han
concludes, “all this is not valuable until it becomes valuable – you just have
to decide what’s a good use of money.”