Mojo Vision has raised $22.4 million as it pivots from a very compelling dream to a more practical product with broad potential and slimmed-down ambitions.

The funding comes as Mojo Vision appointed new CEO Nikhil Balram and after the company laid off about 75% of its staff back in January. Previously, the company focused on making an augmented reality device built into a contact lens. It built a prototype of that lens, powered by the world’s smallest display using micro-LED technology. But in the midst of the pandemic, it couldn’t raise enough money to bring that product — complete with a software and hardware stack — to the market.

So the Saratoga, California-based company narrowed its vision. It scaled back from 120 people in January to 35 now, and it has managed to raise the $22 million funding round to commercialize its micro-LED display technology in the form of semiconductor chips for a broader market. It “decelerated” its work on the smart contact lenses, but did not kill that project entirely. Mojo Vision still holds all those patents and may revisit it someday, Balram said in an interview with VentureBeat.

“The contact lens was a very sophisticated system — an entire system with a hardware and software stack. The micro led was a critical component of that,” Balram said. “It’s a lot more straightforward, relatively. It was a critical element to do so that the contact lens could exist. But there are far fewer aspects to make a product like this.”

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The micro-LED display technology, which was developed for the lenses, could have applications in consumer, enterprise and government sectors, Balram said. In a way, focusing on making the chips is a narrower and more practical business, rather than building out the whole system for the contact lenses. Someone could still take the micro-LEDs and build contact lenses, but those micro-LEDs could also be used for other purposes.

Existing investors NEA and Khosla Ventures led the round, with participation from additional investors including Dolby Family Ventures, Liberty Global Ventures, Fusion Fund, Drew Perkins, Open Field Capital and Edge.

Using leading-edge semiconductor technology, Mojo Vision is building the next generation of micro-LEDs that the company hopes will disrupt the global display industry, whose revenues, according to leading display market research company DSCC, are forecasted to exceed $160 billion in 2026.

The company has identified market opportunities in the areas of augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), automotive, light field display, large format displays and others that require high-performance micro-LED displays in order to provide true value and to drive broader adoption.

Mojo Vision's smart contact lenses.
Mojo Vision’s smart contact lenses are now on the back burner.

In 2019, as it was pulling together the hardware for its full contact lens system, dubbed Mojo Lens, Mojo Vision developed the smallest, densest dynamic display ever made, a critical component of its smart contact lens.

This original monochrome display technology from Mojo Vision delivered a world record pixel pitch of over 14,000ppi, making it the smallest, densest display for dynamic content. The smart contact lens is on the back burner so that Mojo Vision can direct resources to the development and commercialization of its world-class Micro-LED display technology.

“The micro-LED itself is a very compelling technology,” Balram said. “As somebody who’s seen 30 years in the industry, our micro-LED is a once in a generation disruption of the market. I’m familiar with what everyone is doing in the space. And I found what Mojo is doing to be unique.”

Mojo Vision leadership team

Nikhil Balram is CEO of Mojo Vision.

Balram joined Mojo Vision about a year ago to lead the display group. Now he is the CEO, replacing cofounder Drew Perkins in that position.

“We ended up deciding to focus the company on the micro-LED business. So I stepped into the role of CEO,” Balram said.

Balram has over 30 years of semiconductor and display technology experience. Most recently, he held the position of CEO at AR systems company EyeWay Vision. And prior to that, led the display group at Google, leading development of display systems for all Google consumer hardware products, including AR/VR.

His past positions include chief executive officer at Ricoh Innovations Corporation, vice president and general manager at Marvell Semiconductor, and chief technology officer of National Semiconductor’s Display Group.

“Dr. Balram is widely recognized and respected throughout the display industry for his technical and business successes,” said Achin Bhowmik, president of the Society for Information Display (SID), the professional society for the display industry, in a statement. “He was awarded the prestigious Otto Schade Prize in 2016 for his outstanding contributions to the advancement of image quality of information displays.”

Mojo Vision cofounder Mike Wiemer, whose vision and expertise led the Mojo team to build the world’s smallest, densest micro-LED display, will continue as chief technology officer at the company.

Other key team members with deep experience in display technology include: Paul S. Martin, senior vice president of display engineering, and Grace Lee, vice president of display product management. Mojo Vision cofounder Perkins will remain as chairman of the board.

The Mojo team includes micro-LED, display, and semiconductor specialists with experience at companies such as Google, Apple, HP, Marvell, National Semiconductor, IBM, AU Optronics, Lumileds and Philips. Mojo Vision’s innovations are protected by a portfolio of over 220 patents so far.

“The market opportunity in the display industry is big — over $100 billion. Sometimes in order to do something very big, you have to start very small. That is exactly what we are doing at Mojo,” Balram. “We started by developing the world’s smallest, densest dynamic micro-LED display, and now we are applying that innovation to power the next generation of displays. Mojo is combining breakthrough technology, leading display and semiconductor expertise, and an advanced manufacturing process to commercialize
micro-LEDs for the most demanding hardware applications.”

“This round of funding will enable us to deliver our breakthrough monolithic micro-LED technology to customers and help bring high-performance micro-LEDs to market,” Balram said.

Mojo Vision technology

Mojo Vision can create extremely small and dense displays.
Mojo Vision was able to create extremely small and dense displays. They also used a tiny bit of power.

Balram said the company will be a fabless semiconductor company, designing its own chips but using contract manufacturers to make them.

Mojo Vision’s display and semiconductor subject-matter experts are developing micro-LED technology via advanced semiconductor manufacturing process, delivering tiny pixels with ultra-high brightness, high efficiency and slim form factor. Mojo Vision has developed a proprietary High Performance Quantum Dot (HPQD) technology to make very small, very bright, very efficient RGB pixels.

“If you look at display technologies, the way a disruption of the market happens is that you need a new beachhead application, something that you can’t do well with the existing technology. And then you need a reason why that technology can cross over to the mainstream,” Balram said.

That happened with liquid crystal display (LCD) screens that replaced CRTs and enabled the laptop market. As the tech matured, the slimmer form of the screens was the main selling point. Now the company can make slightly bigger micro-LEDs that can go into things like glasses, rather than just contact lenses.

“We all came to realize that if you want the vision of AR glasses to become a reality where people are walking around in all kinds of connections and having access to information, then you need a display technology that super bright, very efficient, very high-density pixels, and very small,” Balram said. “So the AR glasses are still the beachhead market for this technology, and that’s driving the value and the investment. The reason the rest of the market is interested in it is because of the efficiency that micro-LED will deliver to display technology that is five times to 10 times more efficient than the LCD screen on my laptop, or on my living room wall.”

These markets could develop much faster than the the contact lenses because “there are lots of people putting their shoulders to it,” Balram said. By contrast, the contact lenses were like a medical device for people with vision problems, and that required a lot of work to satisfy government regulators.

The company’s technology includes the following advances:

  • Dynamic displays up to 28,000 pixels per inch
  • Efficient blue micro-LED devices at sub-micron scale
  • High efficiency quantum dot ink for red and green
  • High brightness at a million-plus nits
  • A display system that incorporates an optimized CMOS backplane, wafer-to-wafer bonding, and custom micro-lens optics
  • A high-volume manufacturing process that is based on 300 millimeter gallium nitride (GaN) on
  • Silicon, and an end-to-end 300 millimeter flow.

The company said micro-LEDs are the only display technology that can meet all the display requirements of the emerging AR/VR marketplace. As companies work on more immersive, experiential products, micro-LEDs will be critical components to the displays within these systems, enabling more high resolution, life-like images.

As for the team that wanted to build the contact lenses, Balram said, “I think the workforce is still super motivated. The people joined us because they want to change the world. And the contact lens would have changed the world — it still might change the world as well. But think a separate new application like AR glasses, or it might be used in your laptop or your TV could reduce the power to 10% of what it is today. I think about the impact from a sustainability perspective.”

With the contact lenses, the company had to push the technology at its customers. But with micro-LEDs, there is a lot more pull, Balram said. The tech could, for instance, one day save power in the displays that are ubiquitous in modern electric vehicles.

As for revisiting the contact lenses someday, Balram said, “We still think it’s a brilliant concept. But the market was not ready to continue to fund something that was a ‘moonshot.’ We demonstrated the concept worked and that was a big step forward.”

But the company did not shut down the technology and it has some government contracts that will help it continue with a small team.

“If the market conditions allow, at some point, you always have the option of reinvesting in that area,” Balram said.

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