The Covid-19 pandemic introduced a new fear of spreading germs by touching surfaces, and with it, a growing demand for touchless technology.
Morrisville-based ClearSens is poised to meet this demand with its patented ultrasonic sensors that enable advanced ultrasonic imaging and touchless navigation using motion detection in midair. The startup participated in the ninth cohort of the RIoT Accelerator Program (RAP) late last year.
Co-founders Feysel Yalcin Yamaner (CEO) and Omer Oralkan (President) are both faculty in the department of electrical and computer engineering at NC State. Both did their PhD’s on transducer technology—Oralkan at Stanford University and Yamaner at Sabanci University in Turkey.
They began working together researching and developing ultrasonic technology in 2012. In 2019, after completing the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps (I-Corps™) program, they founded ClearSens.
ClearSens received a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Phase 1 Award from the Office of Naval Research to develop a wearable system for divers that reduces the risk of decompression sickness. To develop the technology, the startup is collaborating with researchers at NC State, UNC and Duke.
Decompression sickness (aka “the bends”) is a life-threatening condition that happens when dissolved gasses in body tissue expand and bubbles form due to sudden pressure changes during a dive. Currently divers follow a standard decompression schedule, even though everyone responds to pressure change differently—some people “bubble” less, others more.
ClearSens is making a device that will monitor the level of bubbles in a diver’s body tissue throughout a dive using ultrasonic sensors, so that divers can adjust their decompression schedule accordingly.
Yamaner said their inital prototype was successful in imaging the bubbles—which they tested in a hyperbaric chamber at UNC—so now they are writing a phase 2 proposal. In phase 2, they will hopefully develop the prototype to test on human divers, and then in phase 3 they will commercialize the technology, Yamaner said.
The popularity of gadgets like fitness bands and Apple watches makes the founders excited about the possibilities of integrating ultrasound technology into the lives of everyday consumers.
“While this would be a very specific device that’s operational underwater,” Oralkan said, “you can think of it as a wearable ultrasound device which could have broader applications in the future.”
ClearSens uses the same fabrication technology that is used in chip manufacturing, which enables them to make the sensors optically transparent and less than a millimeter thick, Yamaner said.
The devices are fabricated in a cleanroom environment where contaminants in the air are highly controlled, Yamaner said. Since the devices are in micron scale, even the tiniest dust particle can damage the functionality of the sensor. More technically, Yamaner said they start with a very thin glass substrate and form the sensors on top using photolithography—a micro-fabrication process to create patterns on very thin film—thin film deposition and etching techniques. All of those techniques are common in chip manufacturing.
This production process makes for easy integration of the sensors into glass surfaces, like the screens of phones or in cars, Oralkan said. And rather than reaching for a control in a car, the motion detection capabilities of the sensors would make touchless commands possible.
“We want this technology to have a positive impact on people’s daily lives,” Oralkan said. “The current project is important because it’s directly related to the health of the diver. These other project ideas will also have direct implications in the way that we interact with electronic devices that we believe will make life easier, and safer in some cases.”