Five recent nanotechnology engineering graduates from the University of Waterloo have come a long way since they came together over a shared interest in optics and frustration with the poor quality of their smartphone photographs.
Just over a year after they teamed up, their startup technology company, Scope Photonics, earned international attention with the announcement this week that it is a worldwide runner-up for the 2020 James Dyson Award for student inventors.
“It’s been a really fun year,” says Holden Beggs (BASc '20), a co-founder and CEO of the company. “There is definitely much more buzz around the technology and our vision of modernizing and digitizing optics than there was when we started.”
The award means Scope, which began as a fourth-year design project for the five classmates last fall, finished in the top four out of 1,800 entries from 27 countries.
It comes with an $8,500 prize and invaluable exposure as Beggs and his partners — Alisha Bhanji (BASc '20), Ishan Mishra (BASc '20), Fernando Pena (BASc '20) and Zhenle Cao (BASc '20) — work to develop and commercialize technology to overhaul smartphone cameras.
Alisha Bhanji (left) and Zhenle Cao demonstrate the concept behind Scope.
“Optics have been optimized and accessorized, but not revolutionized,” says Bhanji, who graduated along with her teammates in the spring. “We’re determined to change that.”
Judges for the prestigious contest — started by James Dyson, the well-known inventor of the bagless vacuum cleaner — were impressed by the team’s use of simulations as well as practical experiments to refine their concept to add a high-quality zoom function to smartphone cameras.
“Not only is it a compact and cost-effective solution, it also has the potential to be used in a variety of product applications,” says Peter Gammack, a vice-president at Dyson.
The technology at the core of Scope, which is based at the Velocity startup incubator in Kitchener, involves lenses made of millions of tiny rice-shaped molecules known as liquid crystals.
When electric voltages are applied, the molecules rotate, changing the way light bends as it passes through them.
“In terms of size, this is all in the realm of things you can’t see,” says Bhanji, the chief engineering officer.
The five members of Scope hope to revolutionize optics with their lenses.
Controlling the movement of the liquid crystals via the application of different voltages means the lenses can zoom in or out on a subject with no mechanical movement and without losing image quality.
Unlike existing optical systems — which date back to the 16th century and require physical movement and therefore room to zoom — the new technology is ideal for space-limited smartphones.
By stacking multiple liquid crystal lenses, team members eventually hope to enable zoom, wide-angle, macro and other functions in a single camera less than a centimetre in diameter.
They’re also looking ahead to applying the technology in areas including medical imaging and autonomous vehicles.
“Obviously, a single smartphone camera that can do all these different things is incredible,” Beggs says. “But if you think of where else cameras are useful throughout the world, it’s a whole other ballgame.”
The annual Dyson contest challenges university students to develop innovative products and concepts that solve tangible problems.
Waterloo Engineering projects have a long track record of success at both the national and international levels, including a global win by Voltera for its desk-sized circuit board printer in 2015.