Backstories: ActiveMEMS

In this episode of Backstories, learn how Erkan Aktakka went from a childhood selling sunflower seeds on the streets of Ankara to launching a venture that could open up new sensor applications in the Internet of Things, a $30 billion market.

Erkan Aktakka has had some pivotal moments in his life, not the least of which was the earliest: being born into a family of engineers who instilled in him a passion for math, science, and building things. Another key moment was learning about micro-electromechanical systems, or MEMS, a type of fabrication system that, as the name implies, combines extremely small mechanical devices — think hinges, beams, diaphragms, or gears — with electronics. MEMS has enabled an interface between the digital and physical world that in turn has driven massive advancements in the scale and accessibility of sensors, robotics, and other technology that consumers now take for granted — things such as printheads inside inkjet printers or navigation sensors and microphones inside cellphones.

Through his startup, ActiveMEMS, Erkan is commercializing a cutting-edge microfabrication process to manufacture MEMS devices paired with high-performance piezoelectric materials that convert mechanical stress into an electrical voltage. As a first market, ActiveMEMS is pursuing vibration energy harvesters for wireless industrial sensors, which would free end users from having to spend time and money replacing dead sensor batteries in certain applications.

What was your earliest professional aspiration?
I have been always fascinated by philosophy and science, and people who spend their life in exploration of the unknown. My parents are chemical engineers, and my sister is a mechanical engineer. I viewed them as role models, and was always drawn to science. Though, the idea of making a business goes way back, too. When we were boys, my cousin and I tried selling things on the streets of Ankara as our summer projects: sunflower seeds, a lottery for kids’ toys, and second-hand books. Of course, this was just a fun experience as kids. In school, I was interested in engineering and was good in math and physics. I suppose every Cyclotron Road fellow you talk to says that.

Yes, I think just about every one!
And I bet everyone also said they had a math or science teacher who had an influence on them?

Yes, many did but it’s not universal. Was that the case for you?
Well, aside from enjoying math and physics, my high school physics teacher was a great mentor, so initially I considered studying physics as an undergrad. But my teachers advised me to be more applied, especially since in Turkey there aren’t as many prospects for theoretical scientists.

I decided on electrical engineering. In Turkey, in order to get into higher education you have to take the annual national university entrance exam. It’s about one and a half million candidates and you are judged almost entirely on your score. I placed number one in that exam the year I took it, so it gave me an unrestricted opportunity to choose the university I would like study my profession at.

Erkan Aktakka inspects a silicon wafer at the Lurie Nanofabrication Facility at the University of Michigan.

Wait, in the entire country, out of 1.5 million students, you had the top result from the exam? That’s incredible.
Yes, suddenly there were newspaper interviews, and initially it felt like a lot of pressure. But then once I got used to it, it helped me with setting more ambitious goals in my studies. When I visited my alma matter, the Middle East Technical University, as a prospective student, I was hosted by a highly successful professor, Tayfun Akin.

At the time, of course, I had just graduated high school and knew nothing about MEMS, but was really impressed by his energy. He gave me a tour of his lab where they were making these small microchips that are not only electrical but partly mechanical — leveraging semiconductor manufacturing methods traditionally used for digital circuits but now also used for new applications in sensors and actuators. That made me realize that MEMS is actually very physics oriented, and a multi-disciplinary field that combines electrical, mechanical, and chemical engineering and even biological science. You can use MEMS devices as an interface between the digital and physical world, which I really found to be exciting.

From there you moved to the U.S. and got your Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 2012. How did that experience solidify your path?
The NSF was funding a wireless microsystems and sensors research program at Michigan while I was a grad student, and I was fortunate to study with Prof. Khalil Najafi, who is a world-renowned expert on MEMS. After a couple years of post-doctoral work, I joined the research faculty at Michigan. I enjoyed doing frontier research and the freedom to choose what to work on. But over time I wanted to see more real-life applications of our hard work in the lab, and many colleagues and professors encouraged me to think about a startup opportunity for the technology we built.

What’s it like to have switched from pure research to building a startup?
I like seeing how things get out of the lab and into the market. Building a business is intellectually inspiring, too — you learn people skills, financing, market analysis, etc. I still get to spend a lot of time perfecting the technology in the lab and looking ahead to the next generation of devices, but I also have to achieve product-ready specs for the market and solve the problems of robustness, reliability, and seamless integration.

Erkan Aktakka showing a prototype at Cyclotron Road’s Activate 2018 event. Photo: Paul Mueller Photography

What do you do when you’re not working?
I’ve started rock climbing and hiking with my wife. She is from the Midwest but has lived in Washington and Wyoming, and loves the West and the outdoors. She has created a passion for that in me, too.

If you could have picked any time to start your company, would it be now? Or 10 years ago or 10 years in the future?
Now is the best time to move this technology out of the university, as there is increasing demand for self-powered industrial sensors, and this technology is mature. Sensors are the backbone of the Internet of Things in a variety of smart manufacturing and transportation applications. The number of connected IoT nodes is expected to reach tens of billions of units within the next decade. But we know that this IoT dream will not be realized fully if we do not solve the problem of providing maintenance-free and low-cost power to each of these sensor nodes. ActiveMEMS is creating ways to deliver renewable power to these sensors in a maintenance-free and low-cost manner that makes them a better long-term investment and enables their market expansion into new applications.