UBeam’s $10 Million Investment Has Caused A Big Debate

Meredith Perry uBeam
Meredith Perry, founder of uBeam. YouTube

Last week, a startup called uBeam, working on way to let you charge your iPhone without plugging anything into a power outlet received a $US10 million investmentfromUpfront Ventures.

It had already recieved about $US1.7 million from a bunch of famous angels.

uBeam is the latest moonshot startup darling in the Valley, founded by 25-year-old Meredith Perry. Angel investors include Google’s Marissa Mayer and Zappos co-founder Tony Hsieh.

Perry is working on something unprecedented. She is creating a device that will convert electricity into ultrasound, meaning sound waves not audible to the human ear, beam them into a charging device that will convert them back into electricity to power your mobile devices.

The device will require a charger (which can be attached to a wall) and a receiver put on each device you want to charge. You are free to roam about the room with your device, even as it charges.

But a physicist, named “Danny” has posted a blog called “
How putting $US10M into UBeam illustrates everything that is wrong with tech investing today.” He argues that the physics of uBeam at best won’t work and at worst, will be unsafe for your family, especially your pets.

Other folks in the tech industry, also physicists, are already disputing Danny’s post.

“There’s almost nothing right about his physics. It’s mind-boggling,” one of them tweeted.

The whole thing has sparked a big discussion on Hacker News, Tumblr and elsewhere on if venture capitalists really have the technical chops to recognise true scientific breakthroughs from ideas that are fundamentally flawed.

When VC Mark Suster wrote about the $US10 million investment on Medium, he called it “the most ambitious project I’ve seen since I became a VC.” (He joined the firm in 2007 after selling the startup he co-founded, Koral, to Salesforce.com.)

uBeam was the “largest A-round check” Suster ever wrote, he said. So he lined up experts to help him investigate the company and its tech before investing. He wrote:

Did the physics actually work? Check

Was it safe? Well … for starters it is just an inaudible soundwave being transferred — as in the kind also used for women during pregnancy. It also happens to be how your car likely tells the distance to objects when you park or if you have a side assist whether you can change lanes safely. Check

The proof will be in the product. uBeam says it has a few patents. Perry has created a prototype that the Valley has been buzzing about for years. Perry showed it around the TechCrunch Disrupt New York conference in 2012. The year before, she gave a demo at the AllThingsD conference. Those demos gained her the attention of the famous angels, which helped land that $US10 million investment.

By the way, uBeam isn’t the only one trying to safely capture electricity from the air and use it power our mobile products. A company called WiTricity, for instance, is also working on that, with Intel.
WiTricity is not using sound but magnetic fields to transfer energy. The company claims that this form of wireless electricity “is safe for operation around people and animals.”

We’ll leave it to the scientists to figure out how to make all of this — or any of it — work. But it does seem like one day, battery life will not be an issue. Our devices will somehow sip all the electricity they need directly from the air.