Hertz Fellow Davor Sutija at Forefront of Revolution in Printable Electronics

June 20, 2017

Picture yourself at the supermarket. You pick out a bottle of extra virgin olive oil from a brand you haven’t tried before. Curious to learn more, you tap the bottle with your smartphone and can immediately view product information and tasting notes and compare it to similar oils from the same company. You decide to give it a try. You love it! And after you’ve used it multiple times in your favorite recipes, you tap the bottle again to rate it—and reorder it for home delivery.

That’s one example of the vision Hertz Fellow Davor Sutija has for the future of printable memory. He’s CEO of Thin Film Electronics, a Norwegian company that specializes in manufacturing writeable electronics, not on silicon chips, but by printing them on paper-thin metal foil. That makes it possible for companies to communicate with customers through a disposable medium and allows consumers to interact with the products they purchase.

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A roll of Thinfilm's NFC OpenSense tags printed on a thing plastic substrate.

“Many people think about the Internet of Things as machines talking to machines, the toaster talking to the refrigerator for example,” Sutija said. “But what’s really interesting is if you make ordinary objects a little bit smart, that means all of a sudden your cellphone-- which is really a supercomputer in your pocket-- can not only be a gateway to the Internet, but it actually starts being an intelligent agent.”

Through printable electronics, Sutija said, manufacturers aren’t limited by the size of a silicon wafer and can create rewritable memory at a cost of a few pennies. The devices can be used a few times and disposed of, requiring less energy and materials than traditional electronics. Over the past several years, Thinfilm has specialized in printing anti-theft tags that can be hidden in the soles of shoes or the lining of clothing, replacing the clunky plastic devices that have to be cut off or removed and can damage the product in the process.

Sutija’s company recently acquired a new manufacturing site in San Jose (formerly used by Qualcomm) that will hold its grand opening on June 15. The site will allow Thinfilm to scale up its production from a few million electronic tags per month to billions per year, meaning consumers can expect to see them in an increasing number of everyday products, including foods, over-the-counter drugs and medical devices.

“It’s now getting to the stage where people can see real-world, practical applications for printable electronics,” Sutija said. “This has been the technology of the future for the better part of a decade (but) we’re finally seeing a bunch of different technologies mature enough to take to market.”

The company licensed its patented thin-film memory technology to Xerox, which is producing tags that can be coded to add electronic signatures to goods, telling companies where they are in the supply chain and whether or not taxes have been paid, as well as allowing consumers to check a product’s authenticity or the number of “doses” left in printer cartridges. The technology is inexpensive, Sutija said--the only drawback is you have to touch or scan the product with a special device.

The next and most exciting step for Thinfilm, according to Sutija, is the ability for regular smartphones to read the tags using near-field communications (NFC), which works with swiping or tapping the product. Instead of going online for information about a product, consumers could tap the item with any Android or Windows smartphone, which will send them immediately to the product or company page. There, the customer could check authenticity, reorder the product, provide feedback, register warranties or become part of a loyalty program. And because of the low cost, Sutija said even smaller brands and startups could communicate directly with consumers by adding electronic tags to their products.

“Everybody is talking about delivering products directly to the consumer and this is a way for brands to level the playing field with the big technology companies such as Google or Facebook that until now have been dominating mobile marketing,” Sutija said. “Adding some intelligence to your packaging, allowing consumers who see the product to be able to learn about it and interact with it before they buy, really improves conversion and educates consumers about quality.”

Thinfilm is conducting trials with near-field technology, the first with Bay Area craft beer delivery service Hopsy in 2016. It has since extended the trials to olive oil and liquor companies, as well as others in regulated markets that can’t easily communicate directly with consumers, such as tobacco and medical marijuana. Israeli diamond company Sarine is adding NFC tags to its certificates, so with a simple tap, customers can determine if the diamond is genuine and can view videos of that particular diamond to give them peace of mind that they’re purchasing a quality gemstone.

In the future, Sutija said, NFC could be integrated with temperature and motion sensors to tell customers about the quality of products, and enable “smart medicines” that ensure patients are taking the right pills in the proper dosages set by their doctor. By tapping the bottle, for example, the patient can inform the doctor that they’ve taken the medicine. If there’s no tap, an alert can remind the patient it’s time for their next dose.

“The real intersection with the Internet of Things will be when you make those devices smart enough to measure temperature, if things are sealed or unsealed, or the quality of the product,” Sutija said. “At the end of the day, the Internet of Things is all about sensing and communicating, and that is the trillion-sensor future that people are predicting.”

Sutija has a business degree from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and attended UC Berkeley as a Hertz Fellow, earning a PhD in chemical engineering. He became a pioneer in photovoltaic solar panels and started his own company, SiNOR AS, in Norway. His career took him to FAST, a search company for e-commerce that was purchased by Microsoft in 2008. After two years with Microsoft, in 2010 he moved to Thinfilm, reconnecting him with his chemical engineering background.

“The Hertz Foundation really gave me the start in grad school with a fellowship that allowed me to explore things, and it meant I could have a career that was all about taking risks,” Sutija said. “It’s truly that entrepreneurial spirit that the Hertz Foundation fostered all those years ago that’s really been important in pushing forward the different things I’ve tried in my career.”