InvenSense: The End of the Road for a Sensor Pioneer

December 24, 2016 by Majeed Ahmad

TDK's takeover of MEMS specialist InvenSense shows that the humble sensor is going to be a crucial building block in future designs.

TDK's takeover of MEMS specialist Invensense shows that the humble sensor is going to be a crucial building block in future designs.

The sensor supplier that market research firm IHS called "the most successful MEMS startup ever" has also fallen prey to chip industry's unprecedented wave of consolidation. TDK has agreed to acquire the inertial and microphone MEMS vendor InvenSense for $1.3 billion.


InvenSense's Struggles, TDK's Successes

The company that offers motion sensors for smartphones to play augmented reality games like Pokemon Go has been confronting challenges like shrinking margins and prospects of commoditization of accelerometers and gyroscopes.

And its efforts to spread its wings and go beyond inertial sensors with on-chip motion processing algorithms to other MEMS products proved harder than anticipated. TDK, on the other hand, has been actively seeking to beef up its MEMS sensor portfolio. The Japanese components supplier already offers temperature, pressure, magnetic, and other sensor categories.


InvenSense's motion-tracking components are based on inertial MEMS sensors. Image courtesy of InvenSense.

In August this year, TDK announced the acquisition of the French MEMS design and production house Tronics (see TDK Acquires Tronics, Adds More Sensors to IoT War Chest). That deal clearly underscored the Japanese component supplier's keen interest in inertial sensors, also the bread and butter of the MEMS specialist InvenSense.

At the outset, the deal seems to be centered around the smartphone business, where both TDK and InvenSense are key component suppliers. InvenSense's accelerometers and gyroscopes have been powering both iPhone and Samsung handsets.

Likewise, TDK is a major vendor for smartphone parts like GPS front-end modules, thin-film RF components, and batteries. But the smartphone market isn't what it used to be. So, amid maturing of mobile device space, sensor firms are inevitably looking toward new segments such as automotive, industrial and IoT for future growth.

InvenSense's Sensor Journey

InvenSense's claim to fame has been a system-on-chip (SoC) solution that married the MEMS element with an ASIC which held the electronic content. It was an end-to-end solution that created lower-power and more accurate MEMS devices—and electronic OEMs immediately acknowledged the value proposition.

The company was founded in 2003 by Steve Nasiri, a sensor industry veteran who eventually invented the Nasiri Process, which bonded an ASIC wafer onto a MEMS wafer in a way that endured longer and was cheaper to produce. InvenSense went public in 2011.


The Nasiri Process allowed InvenSense to manufacture smaller MEMS devices with greater accuracy at a reduced cost. Image courtesy of InvenSense. Click to enlarge.


Over the past few years, InvenSense has been making sensor technology investments to foray into new markets like automotive and healthcare. In 2013, for instance, it bought ADI's MEMS microphone business to build an audio sensor portfolio on top of its motion-tracking MEMS sensors.

Then, in summer 2014, InvenSense snapped up motion-sensing algorithm specialists Movea and Trusted Positioning to enhance its MEMS inertial sensor offerings in areas such as navigation, auto-calibration, and sensor fusion.

However, these ambitious technology moves were followed by a slowdown in the smartphone market, where InvenSense's large customers like Apple and Samsung were continuously squeezing the margins of MEMS sensors.

And then came the chip industry's consolidation era. We are seeing the fallout in real-time now.