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CIA-backed group investing in lens start-up

In-Q-Tel, which subsidizes technology of interest to intelligence agencies, is funding LensVector's work on lens tech free of moving parts.

LensVector, a Silicon Valley start-up working on new lens technology that rids mobile phones of moving parts, has secured new funding to tailor its products for a group with a particular interest in tiny cameras: the United States intelligence community.

LensVector's tiny lens uses no moving parts.
LensVector's tiny lens uses no moving parts. LensVector

Specifically, In-Q-Tel, the CIA-based organization that invests in technology companies, has funded the Mountain View, Calif.-based start-up, said LensVector Chief Executive Derek Proudian. In addition, LensVector also is being paid to develop specific products through the deal with IQT.

Proudian declined to reveal exactly how much money is involved in the new investment and development contract. However, he did say it will fund new work.

"We will have some specific personnel dedicated primarily to working with the agencies and also understanding the near-term and longer-term market opportunities," Proudian said. "There are specific features of the application we're doing in order to meet their requirements."

LensVector's technology uses electrical fields to control the refractive index of a transparent material. Varying voltage means a varying refractive index, which means light can be steered through the lens so it's focused. Samsung, which participated in a $30 million investment LensVector announced in February, is the sole announced customer for the technology so far, but it's not alone.

"We have multiple customers," Proudian said. "We're engaged very broadly across the mobile phone handset business as well as the notebook computer and pocket video category."

There's some specific appeal to the intelligence world, he added. "It has the advantage that it's completely solid state, so it's rugged. It's far and away the smallest camera technology of its kind available. Also, it's completely silent, which is valuable for security camera applications," he said. He also said LensVector's approach requires less power than traditional motors used in mobile phone camera focusing.

LensVector currently makes its lenses on a pilot production line in Mountain View with a capacity of about 1 million units per month. It's building a new line in nearby Sunnyvale, Calif., with a monthly capacity of 5 million units, and is holding meetings in Asia and the United States for a possible future expansion probably in 2011.