The revolution of printed electronics is here and it’s coming from Europe!

ISORG, one of the world’s pioneers in sensors printed on flexible substrates, launched the serial production of fingerprint sensors last fall.  At their brand new factory in Limoges (France), SmartEEs met with Emmanuel Guerineau, co-founder and managing director of this French nugget, proof, if need be, that Europe is a fertile land for innovation and flexible electronics.

  • ISORG was created in 2010. Was the choice of printed electronics a starting point? Why this choice? What arguments convinced you to go with this technology?

Jean-Yves Gomez, my partner in the creation of ISORG, had anticipated that the organic materials developed for photovoltaics would allow the development of image sensors and human/machine interfaces. At that time, it was a completely blank field of research. So we decided to position our company on this so far still unexplored market of printed photos detectors.

In 2010, we decided to position ourselves on the market for printed electronics to meet the needs of medium and large area optical sensors that were still not covered because they were not feasible with traditional electronics. It seemed to us that recent advances in organically printed electronics could potentially meet those needs.

Therefore, our initial vision was not to develop a product in flexible electronics but to develop material printing solutions with photo-electric properties allowing the development of new sensors.

  • It was the evolution of technology that inspired you, not the search for a technical solution to a given problem.

That’s right. Printed and flexible electronics offer fantastic application possibilities.

Thanks to the technology we have developed, we can now envision meeting the needs of extremely different markets, from medical imaging, biometrics, to industrial needs using human/machine interfaces. The maturity of demand is of course not the same in all these markets but the potential is there.

In the short term, the most mature and promising market for us is biometrics. Printed electronics have major advantages: the ability to produce sensors from large areas, on very thin layers and easy to integrate mechanically. This allows us to produce solutions that are compatible with flexible OLED screens, including future generations. This gives a “conformable” product that is non-brittle and robust.

Flexible print electronics characteristics of flexibility, finesse, lightness and conformability are real competitive advantages for many applications.

  • Among the markets addressed by ISORG is the market for smartphones. What are the competing technologies for ISORG today?

Today, large-scale sensors that would cover the entire screen of a smartphone do not exist in the market.

The solution we have developed meets the biometric standards (fingerprint reading) required in mobile telephony. This improves the ergonomics of the phone (you can put your finger anywhere to authenticate for example) and strengthens its security (opportunity to provide specific authentication – multi-fingers – for some applications). Today, phones are increasingly used as payment terminals and our technology is the appropriate answer to a growing security need. 

The second advantage is the conformability of our solution. The smartphone market is valued at 1.4 billion units a year, which is considerable. And our solution is compatible with the next generation of flexible OLED display.

Finally, the industrial dimension is of course key in this market. One of the major advantages of printed electronics is that large-scale sensors can be produced at extremely competitive prices.

Beyond the interests of our technology that are now recognized by market players, ISORG’s strength has been not just to provide technology, however efficient, but to provide a turnkey application specific for telephony to industry manufacturers. Using sensors, we have developed a biometric module combining both an optical solution and a dedicated electronics that make it a finished industrial product.

  • Hasn’t being a new player with a disruptive technology been a hindrance to your development?

This was one of our first challenges! Very soon we realized that our customers needed not only a technology but specific industrial applications.

We had to build the whole ecosystem. But that is what makes us strong today. Building an ecosystem for printed electronics means being able to bring together skills in material chemistry, printing processes, electronics, optics and application systems. ISORG had to develop partnerships and collaborations to develop materials that would deliver compatible performance with the applications we wanted to develop. Platforms also needed to be developed.

This concept of ecosystem is crucial for the print and flexible electronics sector to grow. This is a great opportunity to have consortium like the SmartEEs project that accelerate the maturity of the ecosystem. It will certainly be a facilitator for the development of future industrial applications.

  • ISORG works with suppliers and partners in Asia and Europe. Is this distribution of the global value chain a choice or a necessity? Is it due to the particularity of the ISORG market or is it a more global trend?

Since the beginning of ISORG, we have been building both a technological and an industrial project hence, we made technological choices so that the final solution could naturally lead to an industrial scale and that we would be able to produce high volumes. The production of sensors will therefore take place in the Limoges plant, which was designed to produce small and medium volumes.

On the other hand, to address the smartphone market with ISORG technology, we have licensed our technology to OLED manufacturers in order to be as close as possible to the rest of the value chain.

Among our international partnerships, we also pride ourselves with the excellent historical collaboration we have had over the past 6 years with the Japanese Sumitomo with whom we have co-developed the material used to print the active layer.

This does not mean that there are no players in Europe in these markets, particularly in research and development. In this regard, our collaboration with the CEA was crucial for us as well as our partnership with German industrialists. But it is true that for certain materials, certain manufacturing elements and the ability to produce in high volumes, as for electronics in general, we have to leave Europe.

This is another opportunity we saw in the development of printed and flexible electronics: to repatriate know-how and value back to Europe. Another major interest of the flexible electronic technology is that none of its production factors are likely to lead to relocation. In particular, this is not labour-expensive production.

  • ISORG innovates with a disruptive technology. What developments do you expect in the print electronics market?  After printed screens, printed photovoltaic films and printed photo-detectors what will be the next step? 

We have organized our roadmap according to the maturity of the markets. Today our priority is on biometric applications with a variation on smartphones and another on securing access/recognition and identification.  For example, we’re working on fingerprint sensor tools suitable for border control.

The market of medical imaging is also a promising one. It generates high added-value at low volumes. These volumes allow us to produce them in the Limoges factory.

Furthermore, based on specific requests, we have developed some industrial applications that remain niche markets. In particular, we have begun to explore logistics applications to operate surfaces.

  • According to you, are flexible electronics a differentiator? Why should companies turn to this technology?

Printed electronics really makes sense compared to traditional electronics in the flexibility of production it offers and its ecological footprint. The production plant we have set up in Limoges allows us customised designs at relatively low costs. The Limoges plant has been designed in clusters to allow this versatility and agility which are major advantages.

  • ISORG raised 24 million euros in 2018, how did you make your choices in financing ISORG’s growth? Was the choice of fundraising obvious? What is at stake for ISORG in this area?

We did need considerable investment, both in research and development, to develop our technology but also to build our industrial production capacity. 

We had to carry out both projects head-on to be able to convince and prove the industrial maturity of our disruptive technology.

The funding of research and development was done by combining several financing methods: research aid and bank loans. Recourse to Venture Capital in 2018 was relatively logical because we were much closer to the market.

  • Has working on a disruptive technology been a hindrance or an asset?

Objectively, this was an additional difficulty. In general, there are very few players willing to finance electronics in the broadest sense. So it was all the more difficult to find investors willing to engage in print electronics. We had no reference or success stories that could bring elements of comparisons and ease the process.

Fundraising for Deeptech remains an issue compared to the Eldorado that platforms represent. The market offers good opportunities; the potential is real but it is still difficult to find the means to reach them.

  • In a broader way, what are France and Europe’s strengths in terms of innovation?

The European Union provides large budgets to finance the growth of the flexible and printed electronics ecosystem, but it really needs to put in place the tools to enable the emergence of new European industrial players in this area.

  • What are the growth prospects for flexible electronics? Which market in particular, for ISORG but also on a wider perspective?

From our point of view, tomorrow’s markets are undergoing a process of hybridisation and in the development of sensors in the broadest sense:

  • The hybridisation of traditional electronics with printed and flexible electronics will, for example, provide solutions for the autonomous vehicle market, in particular through infrared cameras to assess distances, identification of objects etc. 
  • Printed electronics will also enable the development of all kinds of sensors. Being easily integrated, conformable and having a low carbon footprint. Flexible and printed electronics is a major asset for the digitalization and development of IoT in a constrained environment. 

For the French version of the interview click here