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CIA’s In-Q-Tel Invests in Electronic 3D Printing Inks Startup

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An Austin, Texas-based firm called Electroninks has announced receiving an investment from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the U.S. intelligence community founded by the CIA. The move is obviously a big one for the growing company but is just one of several electronics 3D printing-related firms to receive backing from the intelligence community and Department of Defense (DoD).

Electroninks is a unique business that began as a circuit-drawing Kickstarter project and has since flourished into a cutting-edge developer of conductive inks and other products. This includes the company’s printed circuit board (PCB) prototyping platform, CircuitJet, which the company has confirmed “is still in production and available for customers.”

Electroninks also offer materials for printed electronics and semiconductor applications. A particle-free silver leads the company’s offerings, but it also develops gold, platinum, nickel and others and works with partners to create “a total ink + process solution” for customers.

The company touts its products as replacements for metal paste, deposited metals, and nanoparticle inks, the last of which is the primary medium used by other electronics 3D printing companies. Electroninks has announced that its silver ink is compatible with multi-axis aerosol jet printing, likely the most widely used form of electronics 3D printing, offered by Optomec to such customers as Samsung for mobile device applications.

Melbs LeMieux, Co-Founder and President of Electroninks, confirmed to that it could be used with Optomec equipment, among others: “The ink is compatible with key commercial AJP suppliers including Optomec, IDS, and others. The new ink product can be easily integrated into production lines, or placed on robotic arms for multi-axis additive manufacturing of conductive interconnects and circuits. The use of the particle-free ink with aerosol jet printing makes it possible for manufacturers to reduce the size, power and weight of devices, making it ideal for interconnects and metallization in mobile and wearable products like foldable displays, biomedical devices and sensors, and conformal 3D parts,” LeMieux said.

Electroninks highlights the ability of its inks for “semiconductor packaging, aerospace, display, and biomedical applications”, with aerosol jetting specifically capable of “reduc[ing] the size, power and weight of devices, making it ideal for interconnects and metallization in mobile and wearable products like foldable displays, biomedical devices and sensors, and conformal 3D parts.”

Given all of the above, it should come as no surprise that the U.S. intelligence community would be interested in the technology. In-Q-Tel recently joined as a “strategic partner and investor.” The goal is to Electroninks to scale its production capabilities large enough to deliver to In-Q-Tel government partners and commercial use.

“In-Q-Tel understands the value that Electroninks’ technology and team know-how can provide to the manufacturing of interconnects,” said Victoria Chernow, Ph.D., Technology Architect, In-Q-Tel. “We believe our strategic investment in Electroninks will contribute to our partners’ mission needs.”

The CircuitJet PCB prototyping printer from Electroninks. Image courtesy of YouTube.

This isn’t the first time that In-Q-Tel nor the DoD has invested in electronics 3D printing technology. In fact, it was the DoD who first got the concept off the ground when the Defense Advanced Research Program Agency (DARPA) funded the Mesoscale Integrated Conformal Electronics project. This resulted in the development and 2003 commercialization of Optomec’s Aerosol Jet, capable of spraying conductive inks onto 3D substrates. Just this year, the company sold $2 million worth of Aerosol Jet equipment to a military customer.

Another early developer of electronics 3D printing technology is nScrypt, which has long worked with military parties. In 2020, it was 3D printing electronics for the U.S. Air Force (USAF), which coincidentally or not, gave nearly $1 million to BotFactory to develop an electronics 3D printer just a year later. The Air Force Research Laboratory has been involved in other electronics 3D printing projects, too, including one dedicated to flexible circuits and another in which microchips were printed with 7,000 times more memory than any other devices available in the commercial market, circa 2017.

Both DARPA and the USAF have backed Inkbit, whose smart vision-based 3D printing technology could yield possibilities for circuits and functional electronic devices. In 2021, the USAF also gave $1.5 million to Electroninks to create inks and printers for PCB 3D printing. In other words, it seems as though the USAF is turning to just about everyone to tackle every type of electronics 3D printing imaginable.

Then there’s In-Q-Tel, which invested in Voxel8, a startup that began with deposition of conductive inks into plastic 3D printed parts before pivoting toward 3D printing onto clothing and getting acquired by Kornit Digital. One wonders if there are any traces left of the CIA venture arm that have made their way to Kornit after the acquisition.

One may also wonder how a startup originally dedicated to STEM kits meant to teach children how to draw circuits wound up collaborating with the DoD. It’s not out of the question to think In-Q-Tel could have an interest there, as well.

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