Wireless Charging Ready to Spark Mobile Revolution
More and more people want to unplug—but we’re not talking about some Luddite notion of going off the grid and living off the land, while eating grubs and milking cats for nourishment.
In fact, the exact opposite: This is about wireless charging technology, or the idea that mobile technology should indeed be mobile. It’s time to cut the cord, and a number of companies are developing and selling technologies that promise to keep phones, tablets and laptops charged wherever we go.
(Apparently, this isn’t just about convenience, but addressing a top mental health issue. A survey by LG Electronics MobileComm last year found that nearly 90 percent of people suffered from what the company dubbed “low battery anxiety,” a sort of panic that ensues when people see their device’s battery life fall below that critical 20 percent mark. First World problems, perhaps, but when 62 percent of millennials say they stop posting selfies or using social media over lower battery life, it’s time for industry to step up.)
We talked in depth last week about Energous (NASDAQ: WATT) whose stock enjoyed a mad dash to new highs in 2016, perhaps buoyed by persistent rumors of a partnership with Apple. The company is developing a wireless charging technology using radio frequencies, which would power mobile devices up to 15 feet away. But it’s not the only company trying to put more distance between you and your charger. We found five startups using everything from RF to sound to lasers in an attempt to get a bigger charge out of life.
A startup out of Bellevue, Washington, Ossia boasts a technology similar to Energous, which uses radio frequencies to power multiple devices up to 30 feet away. Founded in 2008, Ossia has raised nearly $25.5 million in five rounds, the most recent a $2 million Series C in January 2016. Ossia’s flagship product is called Cota.
Calling the Cota “smart” and “clean,” Ossia claims its wireless charging technology looks for patterns in device usage, monitoring devices as they leave and return to the charging area. Cota turns on when devices are in range or hibernates when not in use. The website Inverse reported last month that the company’s partners are now “free to build wireless charging technology into their products, with all the documentations, hardware, software, and licenses provided on a contractual basis.” The kit allows developers to build a fully-functional Cota system. Smartphones that use Cota technology could be on the market at the end of 2017, Inverse noted.
An Israeli company, Humavox seems to take a more practical but creative approach to wireless charging. Like Ossia and Energous, Humavox relies on RF technology to power mobile devices, but differs in that it still uses the charging station model like those developed by companies using inductive and resonant electromagnetic technologies, which require closer contact, such as Powermat. The Humavox platform, ETERNA, can be molded to be used in a variety of ways, such as a cup holder for your favorite easy chair or an eyeglass case for smart spectacles.
Financial info on Humavox has been hard to come by. An unusual merger proposed last year between Humavox and an Australian mining company, Aurum, apparently fell apart about a month after the announcement was made. The merger would have included a $16 million investment in Humavox. Humavox soldiered on, inking a deal last year with Starkey Hearing Technologies to implement wireless charging in audio devices. Sounds like they’re still in the race.
We liked WiTricity quite a bit when we first featured them in 2013 as a company to watch in the wireless charging sector. The company has only taken in $31 million in equity funding since its founding 10 years ago, but counts among its investors Toyota and Foxconn. This month WiTricity announced that Dell’s Latitude 7285 would incorporate the company’s magnetic resonance-based wireless charging for PCs—no more cords on the desk.
The magnetic resonance technology works similarly to electromagnetic induction chargers, in that it requires coils in the transmitter and receiver and works via a magnetic field, but is capable of wireless charging from a distance of several feet. The difference is the “resonance” part, where two magnetically coupled coils are tuned to resonate at the same frequency.
Another company out of Israel, Wi-Charge uses lasers to recharge mobile devices. Founded in 2010, the company took in an undisclosed amount of money on a Series A in January 2015. The transmitter unit must be connected to a normal power source (including USB). It emits a focused infrared beam to devices that carry a receiver. The receiver, in turn, captures the light beam and converts electrical power using a photovoltaic cell, just like solar panels convert sunlight into electricity, according to Wi-Charge.
One of the big advantages of Wi-Charge’s technology is the magnitude of power, according to IEEE Spectrum. It can deliver hundreds of watts of power, enough for industrial use. For example, IEEE Spectrum speculated that the technology could be used to power drones for border patrol (perhaps Mexico will invest?). “In this scenario, a drone will receive power along its way from a transmitter mounted on a patrol car or on top of a building or tower from a distance of dozens or even hundreds of meters away and can stay in the air for countless hours or even days.” That’s almost as cool as lasers on sharks.
Finally, have you heard about the startup from Santa Monica that uses sound for wireless charging? uBeam has raised $28.35 million from 27 Investors since 2012, the most recent a $2.6 million Convertible Note. Among the investment cadre is Andreessen Horowitz, one of our top 12 venture capitalist firms in tech, along with billionaire Mark Cuban, who owns the Dallas Mavericks.
How does their ultrasound technology work? It all starts with the transmitter. It works like a speaker, but instead of emitting audible sound, it emits high frequency sound that is inaudible to people and pets. The receiver picks up the sound like a microphone and converts it into usable electrical energy. Will it be a slam dunk?
Is the year for wireless charging technology? We wouldn’t be surprised if it hits critical mass within the next 12 to 18 months, perhaps on the scale of what virtual reality headsets did in 2016.
There are still some obstacles to that happening, of course, chief among them scaling the technology and ensuring that it is safe. We’re generally not conspiracy theorists but the idea of all those radio frequencies and lasers flying around—and toward devices tucked away in pants pockets next to soft tissue—does make us a wee bit nervous. The companies, of course, are reassuring: Ossia, for instance, says the power emitted from its charger inherently moves around obstacles. When it detects an obstruction, the system looks for other pathways to deliver power to a device.
Standardization is another issue, though this is one the industry has been working toward—and battling over—for some time. The two main contenders are Wireless Power Consortium and the AirFuel Alliance. The obvious reason to care about standardization is that when you walk into Starbucks with your smart phone, you don’t want to worry about who built the wireless charging thingamabob in your mobile device. You just want it to charge while waiting for your double mocha latte, hold the cream, please. And that’s the rub with these startups, which are developing their wireless charging technologies. The infrastructure isn’t there yet.
Still, if we can use lasers, then the future looks alright to us.
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