L.A. technology entrepreneur Felipe Pimiento does something every day that you shouldn’t try at home: He dunks his iPhone in water.
He gets away with this because of technology – Belgian nanotechnology, that is.
His startup, DryWired, provides invisible coating designed to protect electronics from water damage. The company coats the outside and inside of smartphones with a protective plasma so thin it’s difficult to comprehend: less than a thousandth of the thickness of a human hair. Because of this coating, his phone can survive under three feet of water for about 30 minutes, said Pimiento, DryWired’s chief operating officer.
The company licenses the technology from Europlasma NV, a Belgian machine manufacturer that has been developing protective plasma and using it to coat machinery for 15 years. Pimiento learned of the company at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, last year. He immediately saw wider potential, given the many clumsy smartphone owners.
“I saw this for the first time and I went crazy,” he said.
DryWired hopes to sell the technology to companies that manufacture or distribute consumer electronics or sell them retail. If a phone maker such as Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., for instance, agreed to partner with DryWired, the startup would set up a coating center at the manufacturing site, where engineers would use the Europlasma machines to coat the whole phone, inside and out. If a distributor agreed to partner, it would set up a coating site at the distribution center.
As cellphones become more expensive and people spend more to replace them, DryWired is betting that manufacturers and retailers will want to give their products a competitive advantage by making them water repellent with nanotechnology – the term for engineering at the molecular level. Apple iPhones can cost $650 for people purchasing them outside carrier contracts.
“Cellphones were never cheap,” Pimiento said. “All of a sudden, you’re paying hundreds of dollars for an iPhone. I’m afraid my son is going to throw mine into the toilet. You have to protect all those devices that are becoming a crucial part of your life.”
Since DryWired doesn’t sell retail, he wouldn’t speculate how much the process might cost an individual. A competitor with a similar service has a base charge of $59 to coat an iPhone.
Americans often have to replace or repair broken cellphones, according to Ty Shay, chief marketing officer of SquareTrade, a San Francisco company that sells protection plans for consumer devices including smartphones. Immersing a phone in liquid was the second most cited reason for damage, according to a survey by SquareTrade.
“This is kind of an epidemic,” he said.
Pimiento was born in Colombia and produced digital content for pop music concerts in Los Angeles for 13 years. He secured the licenses for the technology in May. The startup unveiled its product at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month. The company has five employees in Los Angeles and recently moved into a West Hollywood office behind a Kitson clothing store. The company has one coating center in Beirut, Lebanon, and is setting up another in Miami in the next month to help demonstrate the technology to potential customers.
Angel investors and silent partners have financed DryWired, and Pimiento said he’s in the process of raising more money. He would not say how much money the company has raised.
Pimiento often demonstrates DryWired by sinking his iPhone into a jar of water while it plays a rock concert video. He had his phone treated at DryWired’s Beirut coating center.
Still, making a phone waterproof does not fully solve the problem of people accidentally destroying their devices. Most cellphone destruction comes from people dropping them on the ground, not from water damage, Shay said.
“But we’re for anything that makes these devices more durable,” he said. “A lot of people say it’s the possession that they’re least able to live without.”
Belgium’s Europlasma only recently began making nanocoating for consumer electronics. Europlasma licenses to companies such as DryWired to sell its technology in designated markets, said Filip Legein, managing director at Europlasma.
“We’re licensing to companies more familiar with the end-user market,” he said. “You need good branding and good distribution channels.”
DryWired’s main target is emerging markets, especially in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia. India and Brazil, for example have developing economies where the demand for smartphones is growing. The Miami coating center will position the company for selling to distributors who send products to South America, Pimiento said.
Humidity could also drive demand in areas where phones might be more vulnerable to water damage, he said. Taking a shower in the summer with your phone in the room, especially in a climate with high humidity, could quickly ruin the device.
DryWired is entering into a competitive market with several companies already taking market share. P2i in Abington, England, and HzO in Draper, Utah, make and sell similar technology.
HzO makes its technology in-house. The company’s chief executive, Paul Clayson, said his company created its technology specifically to protect phones from submersion in water.
“We made our technology for that very purpose,” he said.
Not every seller of protective nanotechnology courts manufacturers and distributors. Liquipel LLC, a Santa Ana company founded in 2010, offers a coating service directly to consumers – it’s the company that charges at least $59. People can mail their devices to the coating center to have them protected.
DryWired has no customers yet, but already envisions areas where the company could take hold. It might sell coating services to government contractors – especially aviation companies that want to protect their electronic components from water damage caused by storms and humidity. As military personnel increasingly use electronic devices in the field, they might need additional ways to keep their devices water resistant.
Pimiento said he’s not done testing the capabilities of the coating technology. He’s put phones into mango and pineapple juice, and even vodka.
“We’re doing everything you can imagine to push the limits of this,” he said.
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