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uBeam Lay Off Around Half of the Employees?

Over the last week I've heard from a number of people as to some significant events at uBeam - last Monday the 10th June around half th...

Friday, December 20, 2019

uBeam (Sonic Energy) Gets Another CEO

Merry Christmas everyone. It's been an insane last few months for me personally and professionally, and I've just not been able to post anything. I'm aiming to change that starting next month, but for now here's a short post on uBeam (now Sonic Energy, not at all trying to clean up their terrible Google search history...)

A press release on the company website now lists Will Kain, formerly uBeam board member and Acting CFO, is now the Acting CEO. Previous CEO, Simon McElrea, didn't quite make it to his one year anniversary and has departed for reasons unknown, but to leave without an actual CEO in place always causes a raised eyebrow.

From the release:

Will Kain, Board Member and Acting CEO, has announced that uBeam Inc. is officially changing its name to SonicEnergy™, effective immediately. The new name is being implemented across the company and should be completed by year’s end.

Kain explains that the new name better reflects the evolving focus of the company, adding “This is an exciting time with the exploding IoT market and resulting opportunity for wireless power. This name change reflects both the evolution of the company as well as its vision for the future focused on IoT, and our expanded B2B partnerships.” He continues “As a company with its roots in ultrasonic technology, we have been planning this name change along with other strategy changes for some time. With our upcoming participation at CES in Las Vegas in January, this is the perfect time to refine our image with a new, more relevant name.”

Along with this name change, a newly redesigned company logo has been revealed and a new website at www.sonicenergy.com prominently features the company’s focus on their newly-developed 2.0 technology platform and the dynamic team behind it. The company’s ownership and staff have not changed as a result of this name change.

"expanded B2B partnerships"? I'd like to know if they even have a single one. 

"staff have not changed"? Hard to change the staff when 50% were laid off in June and several have left since. Try going through the page on LinkedIn for staff at uBeam, it's several pages before you find more than one or two not "formerly uBeam", and even then I know some of them have left. The technical team left, IMO, is just enough to keep the smoke machine going.

So a CEO who replaced an Acting CEO who replaced a cofounder/CEO who may have been pushed instead of jumped, is now being replaced in less than a year by another Acting CEO who is a money and not tech guy, just as they are doing a massive down round raise. Hmmmm, really not a good look there.

That it's a finance guy really does point to the tech side being sidelined and that it's now an operation just to sell this thing to a greater fool, IMO. My opinion is that greater fool is unlikely to be a company with deep pockets and any sense, there's just nothing there - no useful hardware and the IP portfolio is not strong - and so I'd expect them to go to the "greater fool of last resort", the general public. I'm expecting to see them attempt to IPO and pull an Energous (I'm hearing Ossia is trying similar), and a CFO type is exactly who you'd want for that role. If it's not that, then the other explanation is "Downround failed, CEO exits, CFO steps up to liquidate the company".

That's it, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

uBeam is now Sonic Energy - And Raising a Down Round

Last we left uBeam they'd laid off half their staff and co-founder Perry had left entirely. In the last few days, uBeam has rebranded themselves as "Sonic Energy" (though apparently has some difficulty in spelling their name correctly, continuing the stellar performance we've come to expect from their marketing department). I'm guessing uBeam is something of a problem in Google searches on the company, I wonder why. 

But importantly, they're raising a new round (calling it a Series 1, which is new to me, it's really a massive down round Series C), led by Upfront Ventures (Lead in the Series A and B) again alongside OurCrowd (convertible note inbetween A and B and possibly in the B). They are looking for up to $7.5m at a pre-money valuation of $20m (about 27% of the company to the new investors), which compares to the estimated $120m to $140m post-money valuation after their Series B. 

It's most certainly a down round, where the valuation is lower in a later round, and has serious consequences for wiping out existing shareholders - which is particularly interesting as I believe the major shareholders getting taken down are Upfront, OurCrowd, and Perry herself.  Are two of those three taking major write-downs in their prior investment, just to regain it with the new investment? Doesn't that mean they are putting money in to end up exactly where they are now (or perhaps worse)? Unlikely that this will be happening - more likely is that the Preferred stock holders, Upfront and OurCrowd, will have some anti-dilution terms in their agreements and will maintain their existing % ownership as well as add the new %. Perry, no doubt, will be reduced from what I think was the single largest shareholder to a minority shareholder, a point probably not lost on Upfront and OurCrowd. 

To me it's telling that across multiple major funding rounds it really has only been Upfront and OurCrowd (crowdsourcing) that have been seen to invest. No other institutional investor or strategic with strong due diligence capabilities have taken a stake in the 5 years since the Series A, which if it were the billion dollar idea claimed and just on the verge of explosive growth I think we'd see. Can't the amazing VCs at Upfront persuade some of their other big VC buddies to participate, why rely on crowdfunding and small investors? So right now it seems to me the only people willing to invest are those with a financial incentive to ensue ongoing funding (ideally from others) and those who have no due diligence capabilities.

It's also interesting that OurCrowd are back in for another round - they are hardly touting the success of the Series B investment, and appeared to have taken that off their site.

Where are uBeam/SonicEngery going with this? I expect the narrative the company is putting out is that they have a solid technology at developer kit level, IP to back it, a revamped team and company, and building relationships with key partners - and suggesting to investors this is a quick "in and out" and the company will be sold in a couple of years. If the developer kit was so amazing they'd be showing it off a lot more publicly, and other large VCs would not be allowing crowdfunders to take a slice of this future growth. In my opinion, the exercise for the CEO is as it has always been - put lipstick on this pig and get it sold to a greater fool.

My advice to anyone thinking of investing again at this stage - don't be that greater fool.

Perry's Future
And what is former CEO Perry doing? Seems like it's brain/machine interfaces with Elemind, based in Boston, and "next generation wearable neurotechnology". Over a year ago she had tweeted about something that allows you to fall asleep at the touch of a button, I wonder if this is it?

She had pictures of herself with Marc Cuban in June, so perhaps this funding well has not run dry for her? It doesn't seem to be a company she founded, so has been brought in as a CEO, perhaps as the source of the funding contacts. Maybe, finally, she can use this as the vehicle to give those pesky engineers the finger the way she has always wanted to.

Text of Series 1 offer:
OurCrowd is reinvesting in uBeam (which recently rebranded to SonicEnergyTM) in an up-to-$7.5M Series 1 recapitalization round led by Upfront Ventures, a leading Los Angeles-based VC with investments in companies such as Bird (recently valued at $2.5B by Sequoia), Goat (recently raised $100M from Footlocker) and Ring (acquired by Amazon for over $1B).

uBeam seeks to deliver Always-On Wireless EnergyTM at a distance, utilizing ultra-safe ultrasonic technology to deliver reliable, wire-free charging. uBeam has developed proprietary transducers, transmitters, receivers, and custom enterprise software. The company plans to deliver wireless power to a wide range of electronic devices in the high growth Internet of Things (IoT) sector, including automotive, aerospace, healthcare, industrial and home.

 Listen to a webinar with Simon McElrea, uBeam's CEO, and Jon Medved, OurCrowd CEO and Founder, to learn more about uBeam:

ubeam iii webinar
Wireless Charging Market

While the wireless charging market is growing at a CAGR of over 40% and expected to reach ~$21B by 2023, it remains largely untapped due to current technological limitations with induction-based charging methods and many power-at-a-distance technologies being limited by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC). uBeam claims that it has a patent-protected ultrasound technology that is FCC approved and safely transmits wireless power at a distance. IHS Markit also forecasts that by 2030 there will be 125 billion electronic devices that will need safe and always-on power. The largest vertical in this growth market is in IoT (smart home, aerospace, automotive, healthcare, commercial, etc.). uBeam is focused on this space, having already secured POCs with three global tier-1 Original Equipment Manufacturers in the aerospace and electronic device verticals, while also working to provide software and support, enabling potential partners and clients to monitor and run large networks of wireless energy.


With 16 employees, primarily in R&D, the company believes that, upon completion of this Series 1 raise, it will have runway through the first half of 2021, when it hopes to start generating over $6M dollars in annual revenue. During this period, the company plans to continue engaging with high volume manufacturing partners to scale the product while delivering on customer milestones and expanding its IP portfolio.

OurCrowd is working with Upfront Ventures to help finance the company through its current business pivot from mobile phones to the IoT space. The current recapitalization round offers investors the opportunity to finance a deep technology company with $40M of historic capital already injected, but at a $20M pre-money valuation.


Simon McElrea, CEO – Simon replaced Meredith Perry as CEO at the beginning of 2019.  Before joining uBeam, Simon served as CEO of Semblant, a UK and Silicon Valley based B2B nanotechnology company specializing in the protection of IoT, automotive and consumer electronic devices. Prior to Semblant, Simon was Vice President of IP, Licensing and Marketing at Energous, a wireless-charging company that completed its successful IPO in 2014. Simon has also held a series of technology commercialization leadership roles at Amkor Technology (Nasdaq: AMKR), Honeywell (NYSE: Hon) and Johnson Matthey Electronics (LON: JMAT). An author of over 30 US patents, Simon holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, with honors, in Engineering Science from Oxford University.

Will Kain, CFO - Will Kain, who joined uBeam as a Board Director and CFO in June 2019, has spent the last 12+ years in leadership positions with early-stage energy and water technology companies.  In addition to his duties at uBeam, Will is currently Principal and CFO at Rusheen Capital Management, an early growth-stage private equity firm investing in energy and sustainability technologies. Will started his career with UBS Investment Bank in New York, after earning his BA in Economics and Government from the University of Virginia.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Perry Out at uBeam

uBeam cofounder and ex-CEO, Meredith Perry, recently updated her LinkedIn profile to show that not only was she was no longer in either of those roles as of September 2018 (or was it May 2018?), she is now no longer a board member at uBeam as of this month.

For someone who controls a pretty hefty amount of stock in the company, it's hard to be removed from the board. So resigned? Pushed? Founded her new venture and no time to do the arduous task of one 4 hour meeting per quarter? (She is asking about best banks for startups on her Twitter account, which you'd think having already done once she'd know...)

Interestingly it's almost 4 years to the day since I sat with a board member and lead investor and told him that IMO Perry was a liability and needed to take action or the company was in serious trouble. Well 4 years and near $30 million later and maybe he listened to me? :)

So how much longer does uBeam have? IMO it has to be measured in single digit months, possibly weeks as there's a new Acting CFO according to the webpage. We'll know soon enough.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Wired and Qi Charge Rates for a Pixel 3

Since I've been writing about wireless charging, I thought I should do some quick tests especially after being challenged by Qi advocates that I'm being harsh on the technology. A couple of years back I tested with a phone and was getting around 2 to 3 W rate, and wasn't impressed, but it has apparently improved since then (or my data point was skewed). I took my Pixel 3 which has wireless Qi Charging, and tested with two wired and two wireless options. The phone is about 2 months old, so hard to get a better test case, and the battery is around 10 Wh in capacity. For the wired tests I used the USB C cable and adapter that came with the phone (18 Watt), then an Anker 60 W PowerPort Atom PD 2 with a USB C cable rated for up to 100 W(about $60 worth of charging gear). For the wireless Qi I used the Google Wireless Charger for Pixel ($80) and an LK Qi Fast Wireless Charging Pad ($16). (Annoyingly the LK cable in the box only goes to a USB A, you need a USB adapter to actually plug into).

Google Wireless Charger (Left) and LK Fast Wireless Charger (Right)

Now this was not a scientific experiment where I placed the phone on the chargers with sub-mm precision, made sure the environment was identical each time, or run multiple tests to check for outliers, so there's going to be some error here. I also didn't use any high end equipment to measure the performance, just the % battery as reported by the phone itself, and the clock, so especially early on there will be some integer related errors - however this is more as an example of what a user will actually experience, and in the end the results were pretty definitive.

The Pixel charges faster to about 50%, then starts to slow down. The out-of-the-box wired approach gets to 50% in under half an hour, and a full charge in about 1h15min, while the more expensive wired charger takes around 35 minutes to get to 50% but then 1h46min to get to 100%, with about 25 minutes of that being the last 10%, not sure why it slowed down so much (I did look at the battery temperature, it didn't report as high). Assuming 10Wh in the battery, that means an 11W rate for the first 50% of the charge and 8W overall with the default charger, and around 8.6W/5.7W for the Anker charger. It looks like, with this one data point, that there's no point in spending the money or using anything other than the default wire charger for a Pixel 3.

For the wireless Qi approach the official Google Wireless Charger for Pixel takes about an hour to get to 50% charge, and 2h30min to fully charge, giving a 50% charge rate of ~5W and overall at 4W. I did not see the 10W fast charging claimed for a Pixel 3 - my results are a bit slower than I saw in this article, which got 22% charge in 15 minutes (an effective 8.8W rate). I have a plastic case on my phone, I tried with and without the case and it really made no difference to the rate. For the LK Charger, it's 1h40min to 50%, and nearly 4 hours to 100%, for 3W charging to 50% and 2.6W to 100%. It was painfully slow, and I had to do the test a couple of times as I fell asleep while waiting and woke up the next day at 100% charge.

Unsurprisingly, wired wins, and by a lot. Up to 11W is pretty good when only a few years ago wired USB was at around 2.5W, and getting to 50% in under thirty minutes is really handy if you need to top up quickly. The charge rate with the official Pixel charger was about half, so 5W for the first 50%, but I have to say it felt adequate, and I wasn't really frustrated by the speed of charging. The LK on the other hand charged at 3W and was really frustratingly slow, and near 4 hours for a full charge. For me it seems there's a break point between 3 and 5 Watts that makes a huge difference if I'm awake, if I go to sleep it just charges overnight and it really makes no difference if it took 2 or 4 hours.

While it was adequate to charge at 5 Watts with Qi, I still found I prefer wired, as for the most part I really wasn't running out of charge during the day. Now that I was paying attention, I was finding that I'd leave home at around 8.30am at 100%, and still be at 20% charge at midnight, with some days even getting to late morning the next day before running down to 0%. I don't use GPS much, so that may help, but that's a lot of use time in a phone, so a quick wired charge in the evening while I have dinner is usually more than enough. It was kinda handy to drop the phone onto the stand, but it wasn't so good that I stuck with it consistently.

The Google charger comes with a few extra features such as auto-do-not-disturb, slowly brightening lights before an alarm goes off, and photo display. I didn't particularly like these things, and found them of no value. My wife, however, did. She tried out the Google Wireless Charger for her Pixel 3 and I was quickly told I wasn't getting it back, and now it's what she uses exclusively. I got left with the LK, which sits on my nightstand and I sometimes use it if I'm going to sleep to charge overnight, but otherwise it sits idle.

So, for me I'd say the Google Wireless Charger does a reasonable job, but not so good that I personally find it worth the $80. If it did 10W the marketing claims (or someone can tell me why I'm limited to 5W actual during the first 50%), then that would be different and I might be more easily persuaded. It's clear I'm not the target market though, and it was a big win with my wife - if you're not looking for the absolute fastest charging and like the additional features, the Google Wireless Charger seems a good buy. At $16, for occasional use the LK charger is adequate, but I wouldn't miss it if it were gone.

So Qi wireless charging has come along in the last few years, and for the right person, is a good choice and for the Pixel 3 go with the official Google Wireless Charger, especially if you think you'll like the features that it comes with.

Friday, June 28, 2019

Ossia and FCC Approval

Earlier today (Thu 27th) the FCC published that Ossia, the RF at-distance wireless power company, had been granted Part 18 approval for their charging system. This has many similarities to the Energous system that got similar approval around 18 months ago, but also a number of differences. The first similarity is that it seems a lot of cost and effort to deliver very little power across an annoyingly short distance though in a more elegant manner than Energous. If you want to look up the data for yourself, you can go the the FCC OET Authorization Search page and enter "Ossia" under Applicant Name. Ossia are clear in its intended application:

The Cota power system is intended to power sensors, actuators, small displays and other devices in a commercial or industrial environment for which changing batteries and/or connecting wires is impractical.

So no charging your phone, or any other significant electronics, and also it seems to be for fixed receivers, not mobile.

This is a large area transmitter, around 0.36m^2 (imagine a ceiling tile), and outputting 5 Watts, not that much more than a cellphone or a wireless router. For comparison, at the claimed 145 dB SPL uBeam would be emitting 100 Watts acoustic from the same area panel.

Having had a little time to read the 100+ pages of data, I'll summarize the results:
  • Uses 2.45GHz band (12.25cm wavelength), compared to ~900 MHz used by Energous (33cm)
    • Tries to be tightly +/-10MHz, to limit interference with WiFi?
  • A 16 by 16 antenna array (256 total), compared to the linear 12 antenna used by Energous
  • A 60 by 60cm ceiling tile size transmitter, compared to a flat bar for Energous
    • Means a 0.3 wavelength spacing, so good steering possible
  • A maximum of 5 Watts emitted, compared to 10 Watts max for Energous
  • Claiming 1 Watt delivered, unclear if to the receiver or battery, possibly 500 mW to 1 Watt actual, max. Energous in the 30mW to 150 mW range.
  • Limited by a SAR of ~1.42 W/kg, compared to ~0.97 W/kg for Energous (FCC limit is 1.6)
    • No increasing power from here
  • Max range 1 meter, compared to 90 cm for Energous
  • Creates a more confined beam, better steering, but no "hotspot"
    • They claim to be able to steer around objects, some viability to that claim with a large phased array and test results 
  • A 15 by 15cm receiver with unspecified output
    • Ossia website says "meaningful power at 1 meter" but no numbers given
  • No indication of a "keep out zone" that Energous 
    • Ossia website claims the phased array steering means it's not needed
  • Fans on the transmitter, possibly for compute/ADC heat phase-shift electronics
    • If 30+ Watts for electronics, efficiency is likely ~1.5 to 3.0%
  • ~10 mW CW output from the receiver, for location
  • No consumer use allowed, professional installation only and a 20cm offset from people from transmitter and receiver
  • I cannot see a significant business case for this system, even at OK power the range and stationary nature limits it
  • No personalized message of congratulations from Ajit Pai, FCC Chair

So the summary seems to be that Ossia have a larger 2D phased array at a higher frequency and so can control the beam better than Energous, transmit half the power, to a fixed receiver the size of two phones, needs professional installation and never closer than 20cm to people, barely enough power to charge a phone, but potentially a very low efficiency. They also cannot increase the power beyond where they are without breaching the SAR safety limit (I'd guess they scaled down to the 20mW per antenna to get under the SAR limit, and some indication they started at 40 mW per antenna). The worst case seems to be immediately behind the receiver, on page 94 of the RF Exposure report Part 2.

Front of the Ossia Cota Transmitter Panel

Without impedance information it's hard to calculate what the power is even if we assume a half-wave dipole and multiple antenna, and know the field strengths. Obviously it's less than 5W received, they claim "meaningful power at 1 meter" but no numbers given, and no use cases such as "charge your phone" so I would guess it's starting to confirm the low power number in the high 100s of mW. (Update: This article claims around 1 Watt delivered so I'll guess it's somewhere from 500 mW to 1 Watt at the battery, max under ideal conditions) If it were much greater than a Watt I think they'd be saying that very loudly, so ~10 to 20% efficient on receive (emitted to battery and *not* overall system efficiency, which is wall socket to battery). (These are estimates, I will reserve the right to update later! Which I did...) I'd be interested to see how WiFi and Bluetooth work around this, even if they have restricted to one or two of the channels.

Back of the Ossia Cota Transmitter Panel

The receiver outputs a signal at a constant 9dBm, which is <10 mW. This is the signal that's used to determine location. Now that signal I expect gets received at up to 256 channels on the transmitter, sampled (assuming the same number as transmit), so Analog to Digital Conversion (ADC). Sampling will likely be in the high GHz to get the phase accuracy needed. You can look at ADCs in the 10GHz+ range, such as this AD913 part, and they are going to consume (say) 5 Watts per channel. If sensing/location duty cycle is 100% then that's 1.25 kW of heat just from the ADCs, and so fans will be needed. Wording in the report indicates they do this 50 times a second, so I expect a lower duty cycle, let's guess 10%? Even at 100 Watts for this with simplifications and good engineering, the system is using 105 Watts to charge ~1 Watt, so overall end-to-end efficiency is <1% which is not good. (This is not certain it's what they do, but given what I'd guess the phase delay precision requirements are to make this work, it's the most obvious solution).

Update 29th June 19. I'm glad I left the caveat on different ways of doing things, as a conversation with a colleague who has a lot of narrowband phased array radar experience covered alternative ways of doing this. My expertise is most heavily in broadband ultrasound for medical, and applications of using time reversal have been really precise in sending back the exact same signal, not just phase shifting a CW train. It's a reminder that general engineering expertise gets you so far, but specialized knowledge is invaluable. If anyone from Ossia was reading it they were probably rolling their eyes :). Very quickly, they would expect that they use phase shifters rather than ADCs, and that they'd expect the electronics to be around 30+ Watts to do this. With distributed electronics, it's just easier to put a fan on the back rather than heatsink everything. They also estimated you'd manage to contain about 80% of the power into the beam, would have around 75% loss of power in the 1 meter propagation path, and then around 50% receive efficiency, so you'd see about 1 Watt RF at the receiver, and about 500 mW converted to usable power. Assume they do a good job, that's in line with the 500 mW to 1 Watt estimate. That would put it at around 35 Watts in to get between 0.5 and 1 Watt out, so 1.5 to 3% overall end-to-end efficiency.

The compute on this to work out how to send the signal back should be pretty minimal. As an alternative to this system (barring, of course, a length of wire) I note the receiver is about a 15 x 15 x 3cm block so about 775 cm^3. At 500 Wh per L, that means around 390 Wh in a Li-ion battery that size, so anywhere from 2 to 4 weeks runtime at 0.5 to 1 Watt requirement.

Why limit to 1 meter? Well with a panel 60cm across, and 12.25cm wavelength, the near/far field boundary is at around 75cm, so it gets hard to have a bounded energy region beyond about 1 meter. That may be a consideration here on the regulatory side.

The report also makes it seem like the phased array nature of the array is used not to track a moving receiver, but to act as the safety system and try to route the signal around obstructions. Both the transmitter and receiver are likely fixed. How this is then useful in most circumstances is very questionable.

I'd be interested to compare this to a modern multi-antenna wifi router with MIMO like the ASUS AC5300 with the firmware hacked to up the power transmitted and see what gets received. Might be a fun 1 to 1 comparison.

What Ossia Want the Public to Think Their Tech Is

Most of the press articles on this are pretty light reading, simply regurgitating the talking points handed to them by Ossia. In the 18 months since Energous manipulated them, the press still fall for this approach, and it remains as frustrating as ever. Interestingly, what Ossia wants them to talk about is not this system, but mythical future ones, that what they have here is "a critical first step". It's like they are embarrassed by it, even the pictures they've given out are for non-existent desktop products. This is a shame as I think the engineering team has done as good a job as could be expected, this data shows they are ultimately limited by laws of physics and regulatory safety rules - ultimately I think this is as good as it gets. It's a successful approach though, they get the press talking about phone charging even in the headlines - something that's hard to do when you can't be within 20cm of your phone... Read for yourself the similarity in articles from IEEE Spectrum, Tom's Hardware, Tom's Guide, and VentureBeat.

What's the importance of this approval? The nominal use case of charging sensors in an industrial environment IMO doesn't hold up when everything is fixed and <1m distant, a wire or large battery does the job cheaper and better. It seems to me about as important as Energous' equivalent approval from 18 months ago, good for marketing/smoke and mirrors, but meaningless if you want to charge anything.

As far as I can see, no-one has beaten Powercast yet for just getting the job done without hype.

Note: I posted a version of this article earlier, but wrote it late at night and realized when I got up I had made some mistakes, and didn't have time to correct, so took the article down for a few hours until I had a chance to fix. So if you think you saw it and then disappear, you are correct.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

EEVBlog Does uBeam Again

You may remember that EEVBlog did a great video on uBeam a couple of years ago, which if you've not seen you should go watch now (also below). With the new information out on uBeam, Dave has done it again, and it's a nice straightforward description of the latest website and presentation. I encourage you to watch it if you want more accessible coverage than I write here.

The discussion of the video and business side is the first 16 or so minutes, but around 18m45s is where the more tech side of the coverage begins.

To save you going hunting for it, here's the EEVBlog uBeam debunking video from 2017.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Yet Another uBeam Video

I posted a uBeam promotional video earlier today, and a comment had a link to a presentation given by the current uBeam CEO at the OurCrowd summit a few months ago (OurCrowd were one of the larger funders for uBeam).

Most of it is unremarkable, with the usual marketing claims, but three slides have some interesting info - this is a post that gets reasonably technical, just warning, so a summary of my opinion of this video is:
  • The uBeam proprietary transducers seem a variation on existing commercial devices
  • Measured surface data shows the don't perform evenly
  • They can't focus sound where they want to (2 meters target, 1.2m actual)
  • The transducers may be highly directional, limiting steering in the array
  • They will never deliver more than 1W to a phone, even under ideal conditions (10 hours to charge)
  • The transducers are 5 to 10mm thick, likely doubling the thickness of a phone
  • Estimated phone case cost - $150 minimum
At around 2:40 the slide shows the transducer with a measured response from the surface.

These transducers seem to be the proprietary designs that are essentially (IMO) a variation on the standard Murata devices used in car parking sensors, with what looks to be a bar rather than a disk of piezoelectric material and then a cone shaped 'speaker' on the front. I expect the bar to be either prestressed or a bimorph layered component. The transducer diameter is large, appearing to be larger than a wavelength of sound in the ~40 kHz range, which would mean in phased array operation steering would be hard as you'd send energy in unwanted directions. The other image shows what I expect is a "heat map" of the vibrational characteristics of a single transducer in operation - where you are looking at the round face, and red indicates a lot of motion, green indicates little. If this is a magnitude map, then it indicates this transducer is not operating particularly well, as you'd want red evenly around the surface to get maximum power out for the area available. Now they may have chosen a bad result just to "throw us off" but I don't see what that would buy them, and this tells me that the transducers are, unsurprisingly, inefficient.

The next interesting images appear at around 3:22 and seem to show data on performance (not clear if simulated or measured). Axes on the left image are hard to read but seem to show a linear reduction of power with distance, though some of the markings on the y-axis indicate it may be logarithmic. The very interesting one is on the right and says "Focused Power @ 2 Meters", which is really weird because if you look at where the peak amplitude is it's around 1 to 1.25 meters, so not particularly good targeting there if you are looking to deliver power safely. What surprises me though is that there are no grating lobes, as mentioned above the spacing means in phased array application I'd expect some beams at an angle, but it's really clean. 

Two possible reasons for this - one is that the transducers are highly directional and really only send energy forward, so there's just no power at angles to form strong grating lobes - the other is that they aren't steering or focusing at all, just driving all over the elements together and letting a 'natural focus' form, same as if you had a single large vibrating plate and not many individual elements. Were would that focus? Well, from the Y-axis it looks to be a 20cm wide panel, and an approximate distance for the near-field/far-field transition peak is (width^2/(4*wavelength)) then for 40 kHz (8.6mm wavelength in air) that gives a "focal peak" at 1.16 meters - amazingly right on top of where that peak shows up in the plot. 

I don't think they are focusing at all, something essential if you want to carefully target devices for efficient and safe power delivery. If they want to prove me wrong there, the same plot as the one on the right, but steered at 45 degrees up or down, and placing the focus at various depths along the Z-axis, would make it clear. Not sure if they aren't focusing because they can't, or because showing that data would be ugly, but I'd like to know.

Last slide of interest starting at 3:59 or so, has power delivered versus distance. Now I'm skeptical of these numbers, but let's take the uBeam ones at face value (not the Next Gen ones of course, since they fired the entire team that would be working on them). What this claims is that a phone sized object can get around 1 Watt of usable power, and given that at 145 dB a phone gets around 3W of acoustic power incident, then that implies a ~30% reception efficiency, which is impressive if they can show that (to be clear, I don't think it's that high in reality). So impressive that I'm shocked there isn't a demo that makes that clear and proves the doubters like me wrong. Hmmmm. If you notice, that implies the next gen devices would have been 2x as efficient, or near 60%, given a 145 dB limit, which is an incredible feat and humanity is worse off for us not receiving this technology. Given 'circles in squares' leads to an effective usable area of around 79% max, that's getting to the limit of what's achievable (yes, I know hex layouts are more efficient, except in finite sized areas where the perimeter is a substantial fraction of the area)

More than that though, the numbers are just weird. The limit on usable power received is "Incident Acoustic Power Density x Area x Efficiency" and given the latter two are fixed, only the Incident Acoustic Power Density is the limit. That is set by the regulatory limit at 145 dB (really it's 115 dB, 1000x lower, but we're being nice) so 300 W/m^2, and the area of the transmitter. Let's say a 30 x 30 cm transmitter is used, that's around 30W acoustic transmitted and with really good focusing you can target most of that to the receiver. That means as you move further out, with a large transmitter you can maintain power at the receiver by using more transmitter area and so power received should remain constant for a period (when limited by 145dB ceiling), then dip when you run out of transmitter area to compensate for the increasing in-air losses. Indeed because of the natural focusing effect you want to be increasing the array used as you move the receiver further out. Of course, efficiency continuously decreases, and transmitter cost goes up, but that's 'hidden' in this plot. There's no reason for a plot like this not to assume a huge transmitter, so maybe they are admitting the can't steer/focus arbitrarily, or perhaps they are simplifying for the lay audience, or maybe it's just kinda nonsense.

The power received here is for a phone sized object, around 0.01 m^2, but an individual transducer is around 100th of that. That implies at point blank range the max power per transducer is around 10 mW, and barely 3 mW at 2 m, under ideal conditions. Note for IoT charging, you don't get much space.

Nothing on cost here - a Murata transducer in bulk is a bit under $1, so even assuming they do an awesome job and produce at 50c (doubtful, most likely they'll be more expensive), then a phone case has around 100 of these, so $50 in COGS before anything else like electronics, putting the case at $150 retail, minimum. Ouch.

So, nothing surprising here, but a few extra bits of information that we didn't have before that mostly confirm our existing expectations.

Oor Wullie's Big Bucket Trail

An Oor Wullie Statue in Candleriggs, Glasgow

I was fortunate enough to get a week off and went back home to Scotland to visit family. Just as I was leaving, a summer long event started called "Oor Wullie's Big Bucket Trail". Oor Wullie (Translated: Our William) is a comic strip character from newspapers (specifically DC Thompson papers from my home town, Dundee), started in 1936 and still going today. For American readers, I'm thinking the analogy may be Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes.

From Dundee, with Wullie Showing layers of computer graphics, and Lemmings (studio was Dundee based) for those who remember that far back

For the 80th anniversary in 2016, there was an exhibition of large painted statues of Wullie in Dundee, and this summer they've gone even bigger with Oor Wullie's Big Bucket Trail with around 200 full sized statues in Dundee, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and Inverness, and around 300 smaller ones. The event aims to raise money for a variety of Scottish children's hospital charities. A variety of groups have painted the statues each with a different theme, and they are located in various parts of the cities - some are just fun, some represent Scottish historical or artistic figures, or aspects of Scottish life. Like cow parade (for those of you familiar with it), it's a fun outdoor and large scale exhibit - and it gets you walking around the towns to try and see more. The official site is here, and there's even an app to help you cross them off your list and learn more. You can also follow them on Twitter @OWBIGBucket and the hashtag #OWBBT

Town center in Dundee, with the permanent dragon statue in the background

I caught the first couple of days of it in Dundee and Glasgow, just before I left. I was up at 11pm walking around Glasgow the night before I left to get a couple more (Scotland is really far north, it's light late this time of year), but I never did find the Glasgow Green or Strathclyde Uni ones.

Oor Jimi in Glasgow

I had a few favourites for different reasons. Jimi Hendrix shows up as Oor Jimi, and given I live in Renton WA where Hendrix is buried, I liked it. Nearby was another that appealed to my childish sense of humour:

A Whoopie Cushion Wullie in Glasgow

Traffic Cone Wullie in Glasgow

I used to walk past this pretty much every day, and even tried to get up on the statue to place the cone once (and failed). It's just Glasgow. I wish I'd had a day or two more to go see the rest, it took me to a few places in the cities I'd not been to in some time, and they seemed to be getting a lot of positive attention. Hopefully it also raises a lot of money for charity in the three months or so it runs.

I'll post a few more pictures later but one last thing, I always try and get some good Scottish food when I'm home. My dinner of choice - Cullen Skink (soup with smoked haddock, cream, potatoes), haggis neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes, this time in a whisky cream sauce), and sticky toffee pudding. This was from the Bothy restaurant in Glasgow, and I'll be going back next time I'm home. 

uBeam Promo Video

I recently wrote about the large layoffs at uBeam, and the new website, however I had missed their new promotional video that was posted on the 5th June.

Similar to the website, it shows charging of phones by peoples heads (insufficient power delivery to be practical, tracking for such application never demonstrated, and IMO not safe), forklift trucks (just not even close to the power requirements there), and all the while powering huge numbers of distributed devices with a line-of-sight technology implying massive numbers of transmitters. It also has babies and animals so of course it's "ultra-safe" as it just bounces off the skin (as long as there's no hair, in which case there will be heating and possibly burns at high power, but that's just a detail) and the voice over assures us it's for any application. Hmmmmm, I smell something...

I will say, at least this website/promo theme isn't set in space, where sound literally cannot propagate, simply because the CEO "likes space".

This made me wonder about the timing of the firings - that it wasn't that they had run out of money, but rather that they had finally reached the combination of Murata-style devices they manufacture themselves to be able to claim "proprietary transducers" along with sufficient marketing materials (even though IMO the "product" is absolutely not viable) they can claim to have something to sell.  Sufficient smoke in the machine and enough mirrors there's a bit of hope a purchaser will not be paying attention? Knowing it's a dud and there's no future, did they then just deep-six the development team because they had done their job and were now simply surplus to requirements? I've said before I think their RF based rival, Energous, is a company designed to sell shares who uses engineering as their marketing, but have uBeam effectively done the same now? Quite why anyone with sense would buy into a tech that is at v0.9 and there's nobody to even provide support for the beta let alone build you a next-gen system, I do not know, but there seems to be dumb people out there with money to burn.

If true though, it's another reminder to employees - you are a "human resource" and the second you're not needed, you'll be removed no matter the impact to you. Be careful what you commit to any company, do the work you're paid for but don't forget that loyalty is a one-way street.

When (and why) did Perry leave as CEO?
According to uBeam, Perry left the company in September 2018 to "spend more time with her next project" (9 months later, still not appeared), handing over the reigns to interim-CEO McCauley. Shortly after that McCauley updated her resume to show she'd been interim CEO since July, and now it's updated again to show since May 2018. Three resume changes on a date that is not really ambiguous - as Goldfinger says, once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action.

Interestingly, the COO also left uBeam in May 2018, after barely 9 months on the job. He was someone immensely qualified to do the COO role, and even the CEO role - a position most who noted his hiring expected he had been brought on for. Is there a connection and is there more to this story than meets the eye?

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

uBeam Lay Off Around Half of the Employees?

Over the last week I've heard from a number of people as to some significant events at uBeam - last Monday the 10th June around half the employees had been laid off. No notice, no severance, no vesting, no farewell party, and the last day of employment at uBeam for them had been Friday the 7th June. The first emotion I heard from any of them was shock, that this was unexpected both in its suddenness and harshness. It seems the team that have been let go, around 13 of the 25 or so total, are most of the engineers who would have been doing actual product development (with an exception for some electronics/visualization work), as well as the product manager, so as clear a signal as possible from uBeam that there will not be a product coming from them (to no surprise for anyone who has read this blog).

While founders and CEOs get the press coverage and public sympathy, it's always the regular employees that take the brunt of the pain in situations like this. Startup founders are more likely to come from backgrounds of financial stability, CEOs the last to go even if their decisions led them along this path, but your regular employees are just trying to do their job, pay the rent, and then one day they find that the paycheque, and health insurance, won't be coming. If anyone reading this blog has positions or knows of places hiring especially in the LA area in tech companies, you should look to contact them (most are on LinkedIn) or I can get you in contact for a few of them.

While I'm hearing slightly different stories, what's consistent is that they were told the company had very little runway, a few weeks at best, and the board declined to put in more money to keep things on the current path. Rather, a drastically reduced budget was given, and half the staff had to go. Given who was let go, it seems there is no product in the future, and rather they will focus on selling, licensing, or otherwise extracting revenue from whatever IP currently exists. Tech staff that are left might be viewed as those who can make sure a physical demo actually works, and the tech people senior enough to impress potential purchasers. I personally don't see this as a route to revenue, without a product the IP has limited value, the transducers we've seen from them (called "uBeam's most critical component" in the prior fundraising round) look to follow the same basic design as the industry standard Murata type, leveraging width-mode piezo vibrations and a speaker-like cone. I can't see any advantages over the Murata, but I struggle to see them beating the leader on price, and both have sizes that are large relative to wavelength that make them unsuitable for phased array use (basically, they will send out energy in unwanted directions). In however long they have left, I don't see them selling the IP for anything above bargain basement prices (look for "for an undisclosed sum") and even that I think is a longshot. 

It's something of a surprise though this happened right now. The company's last raise was at the very beginning of 2018, and while numbers like $25 million were discussed, I have always felt that was a combination of the new raise and the prior convertible note round and the new money was more in the $11 to $14 million range (still not shabby!). It didn't appear uBeam hired any significant new staff (losing the CEO, COO, and CTO in 2018 while not replacing the CEO until Jan 2019), and had abandoned the production model in favour of licensing, so expenses should not have been that high. I had thought they would be halfway through the money by now, and looking at a cashflow issue somewhere between the middle and end of next year. That it happened now is very interesting and there are some possible explanations.

I think a likely scenario is that the prior round was tranched - that is they didn't get all of it in one lump sum but rather released by the board only on completion of certain milestones. One option would be that the money would be split into 2 equal tranches with half the money needing to get them to a milestone of a product or a licensing deal. Without either on the horizon, the board may have had little confidence in the future of the company, and decided to cut losses and squeeze whatever money they can out of what is there. It's a strategy I don't think will work, I noted last year I thought the best return to investors would have been to give the staff 60 days notice, shut the company down, and hand the remaining money back to the investors. Seems an aspect of that has been followed, but regular staff apparently don't merit consideration. This does not surprise me, when I was there employees let go were terminated on the day with no severance, despite encouragement from the senior engineering side to pay at least 2 weeks - it's the right thing to do (unless the employee is let go for cause), but also goes some way to alleviating concern in the remaining employees that they can be out with no money any day, never a good situation. 

Something I do wonder is if the money is tranched, whose money got spent? I was guessing that the round was pretty much 50/50 between OurCrowd and UpFront, around $6m or so each. If 50% got spent, was it split 50/50 or did the OurCrowd money go first, which would be unfortunate for the large number of individual small investors in the OurCrowd group but good for the LPs at UpFront. Or vice-versa? If anyone has any greater understanding of the situation or alternate scenarios, I'm interested to hear.

How long have they got? I don't know, but I can't see significant money being put in so perhaps 3 to 6 months at most? It's a terrible negotiating position to be in, as any buyer knows that waiting a month will likely result in effective downward pressure on price. Morale among remaining employees will not be good and if I were them I'd already be looking for new work. It would make sense to offer them a significant bonus should they stick out a set time period, but in a cash strapped company the likely bonus isn't going to be big enough to make up for a month or two gap in income when the end comes. If my experience of the company still holds, there was never thought nor attention paid to the needs of staff, they were simply expected to do what the company required and be grateful for the opportunity. While no longer CEO, Perry will still likely have significant board presence and will need to have been at the board meeting where this decision was made. A tweet from Perry on the 5th June might indicate that's when it happened, and may signal she accepts that it's game over.

Notice no public announcement, they want to keep the pretense of a viable company going, but also no press attention either - the corporate end of uBeam may be months away, but it seems to be dead as far are press are concerned.

It is a bit of a kick in the teeth for the new CEO who has not even had 6 months to get the company turned around. Even if it were possible (and I don't think it was by that stage) it's hard to make a turnaround in hardware so fast where that timeframe may be only one development cycle. Still, he gets to say he tried and it wasn't his fault, what could he do, and perhaps collect a healthy paycheque along the way. 

The website had recently been updated, with images showing them powering everything from tablets medical equipment, and home appliances (never going to happen) while showing pictures of babies and pets in a subliminal attempt to say "We're safe" along with the more overt "ultra-safe" marketing lines, the very carefully worded "no verified risk", a claim of full regulatory compliance (hmmm, I'd love to see the paperwork there), and third party studies proving safety (let's see them then). It looks somewhat like the Energous website, seemingly not only do all the at-distance wireless power companies follow the same trend of massive performance specs at first (TVs, cars, cellphones, multiple meters, faster than a wire!), to trickle charge, to IoT, but the websites look the same as well. They had also been advertising for a Chief Revenue Officer, and that ad seems to have disappeared - either plans there were shelved or someone is in the role and had a really crappy first week. A few pictures from the website are below:

It's frustrating as there were things that could have been done, changes that could have been made earlier to develop technology useful in a number of areas and a total of between $25 and $40 million spent to generate IP that might sell for 2% of that, if at all. I know several hardware companies with solid products and tech where $1 to $3 million would be a massive boost for them, and ten such companies worth of initial funding just disappeared. It's a shame that the two most senior engineers didn't sit down with a board member almost 4 years ago and let know issues at the company and the likely trajectory, while suggesting possible changes/pivots to make it all viable. Though if they had they may have been treated as second class employees from then on, motives questioned, never trusted for having 'snitched' on a member of the elite...

Another uBeam Anecdote
The situation does remind me of an incident from my time at uBeam. Normally there was supposed to be a meeting with myself, the other VP Eng, and CEO Perry at 9.30 each morning, though our bet each day was on how many minutes after 9.30 we'd get a text from the PA letting us know the CEO would be late. We'd watch her walk in usually looking tired at ~9.45 and it was maybe another 30 minutes before our meeting would start (damn whatever else you might have tried to do in that time, she was there, so the meeting starts now), but she was at least teeming with energy by then. This morning in question was different. The CEO was in her office already when the other VP and I walked in, with the new CFO while super-excited and energetic. "Great news" she tells us "My friends told me last night that Virgin Galactic is going out of business!". We look at each other knowing it was going to be one of those mornings, and could see where this was going. Perry was a self-described space-nut and was always trying to get us to hire people from Space X or similar, even though we kept telling her that the typical skillset was vastly different between companies. And so it came - "We can hire all their engineers!" and trying to head things off we immediately tried "That's interesting we can have recruiters try to target the likely employees". Perry scoffed at our feeble engineer approach, and informed us she would be mailing the CEO himself to find out who to hire, showed us the email, which read (and while from memory is confirmed with the other attendee, is pretty close)

"Dear [VG CEO]. I hear that your company is going out of business. Can you tell me who your best engineers are so I can hire them?"

Now we were in a fix. We couldn't let this go out, but neither could we tell Perry this was a dumbass idea, an insult to the VG CEO, and impractical for us, as any attempt to indicate she may be on a non-optimal path almost always resulted in the "I'm the CEO" response where she had to "show leadership" by not changing and instead doubled down (our eternal Catch 22). These situations were tricky and so at first tried the "If true he would have bigger issues let's give him a few days" line in the hope we could delay enough she'd forget and move onto something else, but no, she clicked send. The whole conversation was between 5 and 10 minutes maximum, and like many things at uBeam we could see the action being taken that would result in predictable (to us) consequences hours, days, months down the line and nothing we could do about it.

Later that day we asked if there had been a reply, and amazingly there had been. The response was (and again, from memory) "Dear Meredith, VG is not going out of business, in fact we recently raised a significant financing round. Please inform whoever told you this that it is not true and ask them to stop spreading the rumour". Perry just shrugged and carried on as if nothing had happened, and to be fair that type of bizarre event was pretty much the norm at uBeam. 

So I chortled to myself when thinking of this and imagined sending the email "Dear former-CEO Perry. I hear that your company is going out of business. Can you tell me who your best engineers are so I can hire them?" I'm sure she'd understand.

But back to the most important point - if you want to hire solid engineers, there's a few looking for a solid employer right now.

Update: I wrote a brief update and link to the promo video that matches the website here. It also asks when co-founder and former CEO Perry actually left the company.