Little Chip, Big Implications

TechPortal startup offers technology breakthrough with vast market potential

You might say they “zeroed” in on a groundbreaking idea.

It was November 2008, and doctoral student Fred Tzeng was brainstorming research projects with his adviser, Payam Heydari, UC Irvine professor of electrical engineering and computer science. After much discussion, they conceived of a concept – a way to more intelligently convert analog signals (sound, light, heat, motion) to the digital format required by modern electronics, using 10 times less power than the current conversion process.

If it worked, their low-power analog-to-digital converter technology would extend battery life, enhance functionality and lower the cost of portable electronics. Potential applications ranged from automobiles, airplanes, industrial machinery, medical devices and sensors to satellites, CD players, scanners and cellphones.

After a few failed attempts, Tzeng and Heydari configured a simulation that showed promise. With the help of UCI’s Office of Technology Alliances, they applied for the first of three patents, and the seed of their business was planted. ZeroWatt Technologies went on to win the 2009 Business Plan Competition at UCI’s Paul Merage School of Business.

The new company incorporated and sought grants from NASA, the U.S. Navy and the National Science Foundation. NSF gave the entrepreneurs a Small Business Innovation Research grant of $150,000, which allowed Tzeng to quit his two part-time jobs and work full time on ZeroWatt.

To take the fledgling company to the next level, he and Heydari needed a place to set up shop, so they turned to TechPortal, a business incubator at the UCI-based California Institute for Telecommunications & Information Technology for startups using technology licensed by the University of California.

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