by Eileen Wise

Many people are not aware of advances in a technology that is already a big part of their lives, and is about to get even bigger. That technology is called “haptics” and is part of nearly all mobile devices, such as cell phones and wearable technology systems. When you get a call or a text, you are notified in two ways—by sound and by vibration. “Haptics” refers to the tactile sensation of vibration touching the skin.

Novasentis is a company in State College that is leading the nation in bringing to market a revolutionary electro-mechanical polymer that promises to herald a new phase in haptics with many new applications. “There’s nothing like this material in the world,” said Rick Ducharme, Vice President of Engineering. “The performance beats any incumbent technology including ones released in the most popular smartphones.”

The patented electro-mechanical polymer, known as EMP, was developed by Qiming Zhang, distinguished professor of electrical engineering and materials science engineering at Penn State. The polymer is clear, ultra-thin, and flexible, which makes it ideal for use with small, portable, and wearable personal electronic devices and accessories. “There are many possible applications for this technology,” Ducharme explains. “Everyone wants to try it, whether it’s inventors at home tinkering to every single industry you can imagine.”

Novasentis was founded in 2006 when CEO Ralph Russo, a former Apple executive, partnered with CTO Zhang and licensed the technology from Penn State. Then called Strategic Polymer Sciences, Russo and Zhang spent the first two years advancing the start-up’s concept of haptics and sensory technology. From 2008 to 2014, company executives and engineers explored several possible avenues for applications of the new haptics technology—in the fields of medicine, automotive technology, and computers.

Ducharme, who joined Novasentis in 2012, was enticed by the medical applications of the EMP. With a biomedical engineering degree from Cornell, Ducharme had gone to work for Cook Medical in North Carolina, and was designing a variety of medical devices. When he saw the potential of the strategic polymer for use in cardiac catheters, he was hooked.

“What makes this material unique is how incredibly thin, flexible, and tough it is. The way it works is that the molecules in the polymer are normally randomly distributed and when electricity is applied, the molecules line up in an array and stretch. When bonded to a substrate, the stretching and retracting bends the substrate material, creating the tactile sensation. And that substrate can be very thin. The actuators we’ve developed are only 120 micrometers thick—thinner than a sheet of paper.”

In the past two years, Novasentis entered a new and even more exciting phase. The company changed its name to reflect a new, more focused agenda. It coined the term Neo-Sensory™ Age, heralding a new generation of haptics technology for consumer electronic devices. It maintains its commercial activities via its California office while technology and manufacturing reside in its State College facility. And the company has defined its niche.

It is a fabless actuator maker (which means that Novasentis does not manufacture its own products, but instead licenses third party fabricators). Novasentis works closely with its customers—large original equipment manufacturers (OEMs)--to design the prototypes for a variety of applications in the wearable devices industry. Some examples are smart watches, head bands, fitness bracelets, smart shoes, and a whole host of smart wearable devices that are currently being designed with or without an electronic display. All of them could use Novasentis’ haptic actuators to provide the user with valuable information without having to glance at the display.

Says Ducharme, “We are a platform technology. We will maintain the intellectual property and the specific design. In this way we take advantage of all the work we’ve done already. But we also want to make the integration of the actuators as easy as possible for the OEMs. So we will continue to design prototypes.”

In 2013 Samsung Venture Investment Corporation infused $8M in funding. Earlier this year Novasentis named Francois Jeanneau, President and CEO to take this unique technology to commercial success.

“Our technology was developed by the team based in State College. We have access to laboratory and other resources in the area, so it made perfect sense for us to have our research facility there,” said Francois Jeanneau, President and CEO of Novasentis. “We are revolutionizing the nascent wearables industry by making an actuator that virtually disappears into the device and provides invaluable information via sensory feedback.”

With the new focus on wearable devices, it became clear that the R&D being in State College was the right decision. “We have Innovation Park, the Ben Franklin Technology Partners, the CBICC, and a large number of technology transfer companies getting their start in the area,” says Ducharme. “Intellectually, Penn State has the theoretical and technical knowledge and skill in materials and in sound and vibration. It’s considered a vibrations and materials ‘hot spot’ in the world.” Ducharme says that he also loves the climate, reasonable cost of living, and the myriad of outdoor activities and sports available in Central Pennsylvania.