Caeleste – The Supplier Of Beyond State-Of-The-Art Custom Designed CMOS Image Sensors

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Below is our recent interview with Jan Vermeiren, Business Development Manager at Caeleste:

Q: Could you provide our readers with a brief introduction to Caeleste?

A: The easiest is to start with the mission statement: “Caeleste wants to be the supplier of custom designed Beyond-state-of-the-art image sensors”. This tells it all. We are a fabless design and production house for image sensors. We done not have standard products, we only design and make custom designed products; so we do not compete with our own customers. We also want to make for our customers the difference, they can buy confection image sensors from the established suppliers, but then their cameras and instruments will have the same basic performance as their customers. When they come to us, we listen to their requirements and based on our experience, we start drafting the specifications and the architecture for an “out-of-the-box” product, which in many cases will results in much better overall performance and cost as the confection products. We do not limit us to the sensor design alone; quite often we also look to the problem from a system perspective: how can the image sensor help in making the overall system more performant and cost effective.

When mentioning image sensors, most people think automatically about sensing visible light and making nice pictures. But there is much more beyond-the-visible: we also make image sensors capable of imaging in the Near Infrared (NIR) field or in the UltraViolet (UV). We go also further and make image sensors for X-ray applications and for the detection of high energy particles. Together with our customers or partners we also contribute to the design and manufacture of Infrared Focal Plane Arrays (FPA’s) beyond-the-Silicon-responsivity by making the Read-out circuitry. Gradually we are also supporting the life science community with neuron potential measurements and stimulation devices.

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Q: Tell us about the early days of Caeleste. What were the biggest challenges?

A: The company was established in 2006 by Bart Dierickx and Patrick Henckes. Bart was before CTO of Fillfactory, which was a spin-off of imec in the field of image sensor design and manufacture. Patrick was already a serial entrepreneur before joining Caeleste. Initially it was located on the attic of Bart; once the time had grown, they moved to an apartment close to a major railway station in Antwerp in 2010. When this location became too small we moved to Mechelen in 2014, where again a location close to the railway station was chosen. Three years later, the office space on the third floor became very crowded and it was decided to expand in the same location, by renting also the 1st floor.

Immediately from the start of the company, it was clear that the influence of external capital (VC’s, business angles, …) should be avoided in order to keep independence of operation. Caeleste has grown from a seed capital size company to a decent SME with 36 persons staff and a turn-over of 6 M€. During this period we had to re-invent the business model several times depending on the balance and P&L situation. Where the company started off as a pure consulting company, rapidly it started offering design services. Almost coinciding with the move to Antwerp also the business model changed to take more responsibilities and offer prototyping and pre-production services. The move to Mechelen, also brought the era of full turn-key solutions, where Caeleste is offering a full package from idea to full production of image sensors.

Q: What’s the vision that guides you?

A: See also the first question. We are looking mainly to markets with a long lifetime of the products and with very special request, such as scientific imaging, space applications, medical and life-science applications and industrial and professional imaging. we explicitly explude military applications. We think that with our experience and clever design, we can bring the difference for our customers. We are also completely independent wrt foundries; this implies hat we can propose the best possible technical implementation for the customer.

Q: What kinds of image sensors do you make? Can you provide some use-cases?

A: Discussed already above. We mainly are involved in high-performance image sensors. This implies quite often the implementation of “True” High Dynamic Range (HDR) pixels, extending the dynamic range to 100 dB or more without introducing motion or calibration artefacts. Low noise and high frame rate are also high on the wish list. As Caeleste is realizing custom imagers and our customers like our discretion and confidentiality, it is difficult to mention use-cases. We are working or have worked for many European Institutional customers like ESA and ESO. This also include that we are specialized in Radiation hardened design both for degradation over life time (TID: Total ionizing Dose) as for Single Event Effects (SEE).

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Q: What are your plans moving forward?

A: Belgium is too small to feed a player in the field of image sensors. Consequently, we took the decision to operate globally. Initially, we concentrated on the main regions for camera and photonics developments. Gradually we are further expanding our representative network and the regions under consideration. We like also to ameliorate the balans between project driven design activities and more stable production and test activities.