Theodor Nielsen, nanotech expert, founder, and CEO of NIL Technology (NILT).
Face recognition software that unlocks your phone relies on advanced optical hardware to function. Lenses in wearables immerse you in 3D storytelling. And remote guiding of workers for complex industrial repairs all depend on the latest achievements in optics. Consumers and professionals around the world are already exploring the possibilities and benefitting from optical nanotechnology, and much more is to come. But the technology can be applied in even smarter ways and used in a range of different areas and devices, making our lives more efficient, sustainable, and safe, says nanotech expert, founder, and CEO of NIL Technology (NILT), Theodor Nielsen.
“The next big tech revolution to come is in optics — it is a nano-optics revolution. There’s a growing need for companies that can manipulate light more efficiently through even smaller miniature devices, so it can be implemented everywhere without making the device as bulky as it is today. Extremely precise nano structuring is required to achieve this, and NILT is here and able to produce these solutions today.”
The ambition belongs to the ambitious founder of NILT, Theodor Nielsen. A company that since its founding in 2006 has specialized in nanoimprint lithography (NIL), and which lately has transformed itself into a company focusing on advanced optics; the technology that is built into much everyday technology and devices, like smartphones and VR/AR headsets.
“Remember the first generation smartphones 25 years ago? They were bulky, heavy with buttons, and with pixelated, black and white screens. Comparing those to today’s phones, you can hardly see a resemblance. Todays’ smartphones have more computational power than was used for the moon landing. However, the camera is still using old-school optics that are bulky and sticking out the back. The optics in the camera has not undergone the same technological development,” Theodor Nielsen says.
Now, NILT is on a mission to bring revolutionary changes to smartphone cameras by significantly reducing the size and complexity of the camera lens systems. The company focuses on metalenses, a new technology in terms of form, performance, compactness, and efficiency, compared to the traditional bulky lenses used in smartphones today.
“Metalenses, or meta optical elements (MOE), that we refer to in the company is a groundbreaking new technology with large potential. It enables flat cameras in smartphones, and this will be a gamechanger”, Theodor Nielsen says. In 2019, World Economic Forum named metalenses one of the top 10 emerging technologies. Theodor Nielsen explains that few companies in the world have been able to develop metalenses, as it is a highly complex technology. However, NILT has recently demonstrated meta-competencies and is now ready to mass-produce custom-made meta optical elements (MOE) to be used in smartphone cameras and other optical applications.
How it began
Theodor started the company in 2006 in Copenhagen together with Brian Bilenberg, one of his fellow Ph.D. students at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). In the beginning, they focused their business entirely on creating very precise nanostructures with nanoimprint lithography (NIL). However, when the company became profitable, they saw a market opportunity in applying their nanostructure skills to create better and more advanced optical products. And in 2018, they transitioned from being a tech-focused company to a product company focusing on advanced optical solutions.
NILT has two product lines that serve both the market and industry. Theodor describes the tech industry as one ecosystem, where NILT is part of the product chain at various stages:
“When a product or device arrives at your door, it has been through a broad range of different companies, including NILT. When creating 3D sensors in smartphones, for example, you need infrared light sources, and NIL works very closely with the producers of these to custom make the optics. This requires precise nanostructures and nanotechnology, and that is what NILT has been doing for the last 15 years.”
Theodor Nielsen (right) with his partner Brian Bilenberg (left).
Optics are the new green
Climate change is on everyone’s awareness — including NILT’s. Theodor believes that science is a very fundamental and critical part of the solution, and more specifically, the development of combining collecting optical information using advanced optics to be used with AI algorithms:
“Lately, machine learning and AI have been hyped as the technology of the future — and with good reason. But people often forget the importance of data because for an AI to work properly, it needs data to process and learn from. And that’s where optics come in, as vision is an extremely important source when talking about data.”
Theodor thinks it possible to create optical sensors that can detect more than the human eye, which would take AI-learning to the next level. And to Theodor, the possibilities of such optic technology are almost endless in terms of future energy-saving sustainable solutions to the problems of modern life:
“Imagine data-reliant radar systems in wind turbines that sense changes in the wind even before they reach the turbine blades and therefore provide essential data to direct the turbines in the most energy-effective direction? Or self-driving cars with fewer stop and go’s and thereby less energy consumption? Imagine the impact such technology could have had on the spreading of COVID-19, had we all had built-in sensors that could detect fever in humans, presence of virus instantly by sensors in our smartphones.”
A strong Scandinavian tech tradition to lean on
Being a Danish tech business Theodor and his partners in NILT stand on the shoulders of a long, strong Scandinavian high-tech tradition and expertise from companies like NKT Photonics, GIGA, and Nokia. In Denmark in particular, we have had some great entrepreneurs in the past and visionaries in nanotech in particular. Theodor refers to 25 years ago when Denmark invested massively in nanotechnology and the infrastructure created around the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), its cleanroom facilities, and education, which he believes to be second to none in the world.
Looking to the US
NILT also has offices in Sweden, Switzerland, and the US. The company has strong expertise in Copenhagen, but needs to recruit more expertise outside Denmark’s borders. The company’s focus on in-house product development also needs US funding opportunities, Theodor explains, as a reason for their move towards the US market.
“There’s a drive to create new technology present in the US which goes hand-in-hand with access to capital. It becomes a self-sustaining spiral, which creates the perfect circumstances for our company and our customers.”
Many of NILT’s competitors excel in one or more of the product stages needed in optics technology product development. Still, NILT’s vision is to excel in all of them to give their customers the most efficient service and high-quality optics, Theodor says:
“Our business strategy is to produce as much as possible in-house and with selected partners. So we design the optics, we prototype them, and we test them, and we also send them into mass production. And while the mobile, automotive, and VR/ AR markets are global, the US is a development center for everything high-tech.
Funding from EIC
Recently, NILT received funding from the EIC, which they have combined with capital from professional investors and a number of VCs. That money is mainly being spent on two things: Building up the volume in-house manufacturing line to create solutions for scaling into mass production. And developing and fine-tuning the technology behind the advanced optics to match customer requirements for the future. Theodor Nielsen and NILT are excited about these investments:
“We have made proof of concept, we are now developing the optic solutions of the future, and we are also ready to enter mass production with the first of our solutions. We’ve got the firepower and the mind set to accelerate our innovation and technology development, so we can overcome the next hurdles and work for a smarter, more sustainable future with investors who believe in us and our solutions.”