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Motion-sensor chip maker InvenSense files to go public

Motion-sensing chip maker InvenSense has filed papers to go public in an initial public offering.

Sunnyvale, Calif.-based InvenSense makes gyroscope chips that can sense motion. Its chips are used in a variety of motion-sensing applications, including the gyroscope in Nintendo’s Wii MotionPlus handheld game controllers.

The company filed its S-1 registration statement today with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The number of shares to be offered and the price range have not yet been determined. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are handling the offering as joint book-running managers, while Oppenheimer & Co., Piper Jaffray, Robert W. Baird & Co., and ThinkEquity are co-managers for the offering.

It’s hard to say what prompted the filing. Tesla’s IPO has been priced and that may create some excitement for public offerings. On top of that, Apple just announced that its new iPhone 4 cell phones will have gyroscope chips in them. (Market researcher iSuppli believes that chip maker ST Microelectronics is supplying a $2.60 gyroscope chip to Apple for the iPhone 4). Apple’s phones already have accelerometers in them to sense motion, but gyroscopes are much more accurate in determining position and momentum. And if Apple is going to use them now, the thinking is that all smart phone makers will have to use them.

On top of that, as you can see from the illustration above, InvenSense is hoping to drive the use of motion controllers into all kinds of consumer electronics devices. InvenSense hopes that devices such as cameras, video camcorders, digital TVs, set-top boxes, remote controls, 3D mice, and remote-controlled toys will use the gyroscope chips.

The company has competition from other chip makers as well as from those who think 3D capture cameras are better sensors than gyroscopes. Microsoft’s Kinect game system, for instance, uses the 3D capture cameras, allowing a game system to sense motion even when a player is not using any game controller at all.

Old-fashioned gyroscopes were mechanical devices. But the technologies got a makeover with the arrival of micro-electro mechanical systems, or MEMS, which are tiny mechanical devices that are etched in silicon chips. By making tiny gyroscopes in MEMS chips, InvenSense can make the devices more reliable and affordable.

The S-1 reveals that InvenSense has shipped over 60 million chips in its history. Revenue grew from $7.8 million in fiscal 2008 (which ended at the end of March, 2008) to $29.0 million in fiscal 2009 to $79.6 million in fiscal year 2010. the company lost $6.8 million in 2008, $66,000 in 2009, and made a profit of $15.5 million in 2010.

During fiscal 2009 and 2010, Nintendo was the company’s biggest customer thanks to the use of Invensense’s dual-axis gyroscope in the Wii MotionPlus. The Wii MotionPlus can use accelerometers to detect which way someone is swinging a controller. But the gyroscope helps detect subtle movements, like the twist of a wrist as you slice with a controller that mimics a sword thrust in a game. Nintendo revenue was a whopping 85 percent of InvenSense’s revenue.

The InvenSense technology is high-performance and accurate. It’s also affordable because InvenSense figured out how to make the MEMS chips using a standard manufacturing process known as complementary metal oxide semiconductor. That process is common throughout the chip industry.

Among the risk factors: The Wii’s sales may decline in coming years and with it so will sales of the Wii MotionPlus. Nintendo may also choose to develop a second source for gyroscope chips in order to reduce its dependence on InvenSense. Rivals include Analog Devices, Robert Bosch, Epson Toyocom, Freescale Semiconductor, and others.

InvenSense was founded in 2003 by Steven Nasiri, chief executive of the company and the inventor of the company’s manufacturing process.


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