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Wednesday, Feb 8, 2023

Phones in Line For Power Play

Open seats next to electrical outlets at coffee shops, airports and other public venues are some of the hottest real estate in Los Angeles, crammed with people on the move reviving their fading cellphone batteries.

If uBeam Inc. founder and Chief Executive Meredith Perry has her way, the headache of being stuck with a dead battery and no access to an outlet will be a thing of the past.

Perry’s Santa Monica company is developing transmitters that convert electricity to sound waves that can be beamed to receivers embedded inside gadgets up to 15 feet away. The sound waves are then converted back to electricity, which charges the device – automatically.

“We’re confident our solution will be able to provide the holy grail of a Wi-Fi-like charging experience,” said Perry. “We want to be in every coffee shop, movie theater, everything.”

She’s not alone. UBeam is locked in a race to market with a Bay Area company that could shape up to be as hard fought a battle over standards – and huge sums of money – as the Betamax-VHS war of the 1970s.

Potential value of uBeam – if it survives a looming war.

She has lined up backing from some of the most prominent venture capitalists in Silicon Valley and Los Angeles for the technology she devised as a student in 2011 at the University of Pennsylvania, where it won her a student entrepreneurial competition.

By the next summer she had raised $1.5 million in seed funding from such notable firms as Menlo Park’s Andreesen Horowitz, Peter Thiel’s Founder’s Fund as well as Yahoo Inc. Chief Executive Marissa Mayer. Santa Monica’s Upfront Ventures led uBeam’s $10 million Series A round in October, which included many of the company’s seed investors.

A recent TechCrunch story citing unnamed sources said the company is looking to raise a $50 million Series B round that would value the firm at $500 million or more and that uBeam has scored interest from Starbucks Corp., Apple Inc., Samsung and Starwood Hotels.

Perry, 25, declined to comment on potential partnerships, new funding or the specific hurdles that remain before mass production can begin.

“We’ve proved out all the technology and now we’re just optimizing the experience,” she said.

Stiff competition

One reason for Perry’s reticence might be that uBeam has competition in the wireless charging sector.

Consumer products that utilize a base or mat for charging have been around for more than a decade, and several companies are using that type of technology to charge phones. Powermat Technologies Ltd. has partnered with consumer products giant Procter & Gamble to roll out its charging mats in Starbucks stores across the country later this year. The nine-year-old company, headquartered in Neve Ilan, Israel, has also signed agreements with McDonald’s Corp., General Motors and AT&T Inc.

But when it comes to uncoupled wire-free charging, or put another way, technology that doesn’t require a device to be touching a transmitter, uBeam’s primary competitor is San Jose’s Energous Corp. Founded in 2012 by Michael Leabman, Energous is developing a product called WattUp that it plans to license to device makers and manufacturers.

“I really think it’s a race,” said Andrew Uerkwitz, a senior analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. in New York, referring to uBeam and Energous.

Energous raised $24 million March 28 through an initial public offering priced at $6 a share. Trading above $8 lately, its market cap is hovering just above $100 million.

Instead of ultrasound, Energous’ product transmits radio waves that can charge devices, also at a range of 15 feet. And because the companies use different technologies to accomplish the same goal, the victor will be the one that convinces device makers that its solution is best.

For that reason, Uerkwitz said the battle between the two is reminiscent of the standards wars that occurred between Blu-ray and HD-DVD or, going way back, VHS and Betamax.

Consumer electronics companies, Uerkwitz said, won’t be interested in putting multiple uncoupled charging standards inside their products. In addition, airports, hotels, malls and other large public venues won’t want to spend the money to build infrastructures to suit both uBeam and Energous. Therefore, they’re happy to sit back and see how things play out.

“You’re hard-pressed to find a market where two different standards for something as utilitarian as charging worked out,” Uerkwitz said.

Remaining optimistic

Perry agreed that one standard will win out.

“There’s probably room in the market for one company,” she conceded.

George Holmes, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Energous, said that while there would eventually be a winner, the race won’t be decided until long after both products come to market.

“Some guys will pick one, some guys will pick another,” he said. “It’ll have to get wrung out.”

In January, Energous signed a collaboration agreement with Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn Technology Group in which the parts supplier for corporations such as Apple, Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp., agreed to evaluate the WattUp technology to determine its suitability for future Foxconn products.

That same month, Energous signed a funded product development and licensing agreement with a tier-one consumer electronics company, though it didn’t disclose which one.

“The way to figure out who’s winning the race is to see who’s partnering with who,” Uerkwitz said.

Perry would not comment on whether uBeam has struck similar deals.

One advantage uBeam has is that its technology does not require Federal Communications Commission approval. Because WattUp utilizes energy harvested from radio waves, the technology must be deemed safe after a multistage FCC review before it can come to market.

“There can be no assurance that we will be able to obtain this approval or that other governmental approvals will not be required,” the company said in a recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

However, Holmes said its new partners have vast experience when it comes to the regulatory process, so they can guide things along at a much swifter pace.

Uerkwitz, the analyst, said that question should be answered by end of this year or early next. He suspects that Energous is at least a year ahead of uBeam in terms of getting its product to market, though it’s tough to make bold predictions when such hard science is involved.

“In these types of races, you can catch up quickly,” Uerkwitz said.

For that matter, Holmes added, a major electronics company could suddenly announce that it has figured out how to do wireless charging on its own.

“That’s what keeps me awake at night,” he said

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