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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Dreaded SSSS

Just an anecdote about security, or lack of it, on my recent transatlantic flight - no tech commentary today.


Those of you who pay attention to air travel security issues may have heard of 'SSSS' which is an acronym for Secondary Security Screening Selection - basically a higher level of security screening. On my recent return flight from London to Seattle, I was 'lucky' enough to get this on my boarding pass - it's literally marked SSSS as you can see above. Apparently it's when you do something suspicious such as buy a one-way ticket or pay in cash for your flight, neither of which applied here. There's also been complaints it's racially/ethnically biased, however I'm as white as you get, and also have gone through the additional checks to get Global Entry and Nexus, so it's likely just random in my case (we'll see next time I fly).

So what did this mean for the flight? Well there was absolutely no difference at the regular security checkpoint at Heathrow, but I went to the gate a few minutes earlier than normal and spoke to the security people there. They thanked me for coming a few minutes early rather than waiting for boarding, and took me to a small area behind the check-in desk. They checked my passport, and then had me take all electronics out of my carry-on (2 phones, a laptop, a USB hard drive). They checked one of the phones turned on, then swabbed down the electronics and all compartments of my carry-on, before putting it in the machines for explosives residue test. After that came up clear, they stamped my boarding pass, and told me to make sure I handed it to a gate agent at boarding rather than try to use the automated gates they have at Heathrow. I packed up, it had taken 3 or 4 minutes, and they were very polite and professional. At boarding, I handed my stamped pass to a gate agent who also thanked me for not trying to go through the automated gates, and it took a few extra seconds to check me through manually, and after that boarding was normal.

Where it got annoying was at my connection in the US, which was at Chicago O'Hare. As I had to change terminals to a domestic flight, I had to go through security again, and unlike normal, I now didn't have TSA-Pre on my boarding pass, which is the faster and less invasive security line - I tried to reprint my boarding pass in case it would be added when in the US, but no such luck, and I had to join the regular line. Wow, I had forgotten how bad that is. Long, slow, and full of people who don't travel enough to know what to do, along with everything having to come out the bag, and shoes and belts off. Recipe for disaster. I had 90 minutes to make my flight, and I got out of security at about the time boarding was supposed to close. 

I made it to the gate just as regular boarding ended and they were about to call standby, so pretty close to losing my seat. And here was where the most ridiculous thing happened. The guy in front of me tried to board, and his boarding pass kept getting rejected. After a minute of trying the gate agent looked at it and said "Sir, this is a boarding pass for yesterday", and the passenger looked at him with a straight face and just said "I missed that one so I want to take this one", and credit to the gate agent he just said "That's not how it works Sir" and led him over to the main checking desk. After that, I boarded normally and no hassle.

So, overall it really was not a major setback or exceptionally invasive, just frustrating I didn't get to use TSAPre, but after all that security let a man with a day old boarding pass through security all the way to the gate. Yay. I feel so much safer...

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Awards Lists: Media Shows How Valuable They Are


You've likely seen the various awards that go around being quoted by entrepreneurs like "Forbes 30 under 30" or similar and thought "wow, that person must be amazing to have been given such a sought after and presitgious award, they don't just get handed out to anyone...". Well, I'm here to burst your bubble, and let you know that such lists are what are known as "clickbait" and are designed to be a quick and easy to write story, with zero controversy, and multiple page views with the associated ad revenue. Much more $/hr efficient than actual real investigative and careful journalism. Case in point, here's Influence Digest's "21 LA Based Entrepreneurs With Incredible Personal Brands" with, you guessed it, Meredith Perry, former CEO of uBeam, being an honored recipient.



"Meredith Perry is the inventor of Ubeam- a technology that uses ultrasound transmit power over the air to charge devices wirelessly. The tech influencer has been included in Fortunes “30 under 30”, Forbes, “40 under 40”, and has been recognized as one of Fast Company’s, “Most Creative People”. Meredith’s personal branding exploded after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and serving as an ambassador for NASA.

Perry invests in technologies that drive the future. It is her tech-savvy skills that earned her the respect of many young millennials."

So at least 50% of the credentials for having such a hot brand include being on other similar lists. Famous for being famous, the Kim Kardashian of the LA Tech Startup Scene, but hey that's branding. This article was so well researched that they don't know that it's uBeam not Ubeam, that Perry didn't invest in anything, that "millenials" by definition restricts the age group to younger adults, but most importantly that a few months prior she'd "stepped down" from her role as CEO of the company she founded, which has produced no products or open demos despite near $40m in investment, and thought by some such as myself to have been "asked to leave" her role as CEO following poor performance. Well done Influence Digest, you've shown exactly how much value such an award has.

Now, if you've looked through some of the other awardees, you'll notice there is the likes of Mark Suster, a reasonable awardee given his prominence in the LA startup scene. As the article notes "The influencer manages an amazing Medium-hosted blog. His articles help founders and entrepreneurs understand venture capital and proper financial valuation." Indeed they do, but more than that, his Medium posts support founders of his investment portfolio companies when they come under fire in the press with promises to immediately fund their next company, which remarkably seem to just disappear at about the time the founder might cash in on such support. The one that caught my eye here, though, Brock Pierce:


Brock Pierce, cryptocurrency guru. Wow. Except that name rang a bell. It reminded me of John Oliver and his "Last Week Tonight" show. Take a peak at this segment:

As you can hear, Oliver says "Just Google 'Brock Pierce scandal'" and so I did, and a few hits came up, such as this one:

"Just prior to DEN’s IPO, a young man identified only as Jake W. filed a lawsuit accusing Collins-Rector of sexually molesting him for three years, beginning in 1993, when W. was only 13. The IPO was cancelled; Collins-Rector, Pierce and Collins-Rector’s partner Chad Shackley resigned; and the company filed for bankruptcy.

When the company collapsed, Collins-Rector, Pierce and Shackley fled the United States after the three men had been accused of sexually abusing, drugging and making violent threats against underage DEN employees. The three were extradited to the United States for charges of transporting a minor across state lines for the purpose of engaging in sexual acts, however only Collins-Rector was charged."

So as an Executive Vice President this guy co-leads a company into bankruptcy, flees the country when accused of sexually abusing underage employees, and is extradited back to the country on charges of transporting minors for sex (he was ultimately not charged). Putting aside the nonsense he spouts on that clip, that is some pretty major personal brand development right there. Perhaps that's what they meant by "endured many entrepreneurial adventures"?

So there you go, a glimpse into the quality of research and the people who receive these awards. And yet it works, it actually opens doors and gets access to people with money. The tech press, and media in general, actually do influence who and what gets funded just through nonsense like this. I could point you to a number of founders of companies who are so busy actually doing good work and technology that they don't pursue this kind of thing, and consequently have a harder time raising money. If we want better startups funded and more actual science and business, and less bullshit and exaggeration, these lists just need to die. Until then, even founders who know what they really are have to play along, it's just part of the game.

So, anyway. Congratulations to Meredith Perry for receiving this award, alongside a man previously extradited to the USA for charges of transporting a minor across state lines for the purposes of engaging in sexual acts.

Thanks to "StillTrying" on EEVBlog for spotting the original tweet.

Edit: Coincidentally, I just read an article on a "cryptocurrency cruise" that is entertaining in itself as a glimpse into the insanity that is that world, but also because there's a reasonable amount of the article covering Brock Pierce, and shows a different side to him. I'd encourage you to read "Four Days Trapped at Sea With Crypto’s Nouveau Riche", it's well written and interesting.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Energous at CES 2019

So it appears that it's not just uBeam that will be showing at CES 2019, but that Energous (the company that claims to do at-distance wireless charging via RF) will be there as well. While they are not in the official exhibitors list, one of the EEVBlog readers pointed out to me that they've applied for an experimental demo license from the FCC (Special Temporary Authority) to show equipment there that does not have FCC approval. They did this earlier this year for CES 2018, as well as back in June 2016 when trying to demonstrate their earlier system to the FCC.

The application for CES 2019 is very similar to the 2018 version, though only for 2 systems not 13, but a key difference in the amount of power transmitted - 10 Watts ERP (Peak) not 30 Watts ERP (Peak) from a year before. Whatever the system they are showing at the upcoming CES, its peak output is 1/3 of the system from last year. It would be interesting to know why they did this - but without further information it is hard to tell. (One other thing that is different is that they do not include the low power wifi/bluetooth communication component. Forgotten, or done via a separate commercially available part?)

Note this power is way down from what they tried to demonstrate to the FCC in June 2016 - not only was it at 5.8 GHz rather than the current 913 MHz, they were at 56 Watts (Mean), so what they finally got approved in December 2017 was significantly lower in power than what they showed the FCC only 6 months prior, and what they are showing now is lower than that. I go into a lot of detail about those 2016/17 changes here.

Looking forward to CES 2019 and the tech press completely failing to question Energous effectively, yet again...

Update Dec 7th: I clarified the wording that at this time it is an application for the license, not awarded. Also there is an informal objection filed against this.

Friday, November 23, 2018

The uBeam Handshake

It's Thanksgiving here in the US, and you'll see us Americans talking about what we are thankful for. For me I could say I'm thankful that things seem to be going well for my family and friends, that we've not all been incinerated in nuclear fire following a Twitter feud, and that I don't have to deal with the ridiculousness of working at uBeam any more.

Since I got such a good response to my earlier anecdote about working about uBeam, I thought I'd share my recollection of another that highlighted one of those ridiculous things - this time it's The uBeam Handshake:


Here's a picture of Meredith Perry in January 2018, founder and then CEO of uBeam, making a strange shape with her hand. At first you might think it's a Spock Hand (technically a Vulcan Salute), however you'd be very wrong. That, to the initiated and chosen few, is the beginning of The uBeam Handshake.

While I can't remember the exact date it started, it was sometime in the first few months following our Series A funding in October 2014, while we were in our office in Santa Monica. We were working hard to get the company going, equipment setup, and start the process of building devices, when during one impromptu group meeting Perry comes out and says how cool it would be to have our own secret company handshake. Trying to get the meeting back on track proved fruitless, Perry was on a roll and wasn't going to be dissuaded from this. Being a bit of a self described 'space nut', she starts making the Spock Hand and then has one of the other team members do the same, then reach out so they could touch fingertip to fingertip, at which point Perry said "Bzzzzt" - and lo the uBeam Handshake was born.

Perry was very pleased with it, and proceeded to educate the team about it for the rest of the afternoon, with mostly everyone there having to do it ('Bzzzt' included). Eventually the fun died down and we got back to work, and forgot about it all. Over the next few days and weeks, however, Perry started cajoling everyone to do the uBeam Handshake, and for me and others it quickly moved past being a slightly stupid and amusing distraction to being a really dumb and annoying distraction. From what I remember, many if not most were uncomfortable, Perry was the only one to ever initiate it, with most trying to get out of it but eventually being badgered into doing so - few wanted to tell the CEO "No".

I discussed with my team members how to find ways to get out of doing it, and spoke with Perry to let her know it was not popular and that for a CEO to press her employees to do something like that was inappropriate. Perry was clear that I took it too seriously, that everyone thought it was great as no-one else had complained, and she'd run her company as she pleased. A few days later at a company lunch in the office, Perry tried to get me to do the handshake with her, making a fuss about it to try to get the whole team to watch. I declined, making some joke about not shaking hands while eating, but Perry was having none of it and kept pressing. And I kept declining. After a few attempts, she gave up, and we went back to eating. That incident was never mentioned again, and it was the last time she ever tried The Handshake with me I can recall, but I felt she was annoyed that I had not done it, and I was annoyed she'd attempted to make me in front of the whole team - whether I had done it or not, the company lost with either choice.

The Handshake disappeared for a while, or so it seemed, and I wasn't really hearing about it from the staff. I remember Perry tried to create variations of it, such as The uBeam Wave, which she demonstrated to me in the hallway by standing straight upright with feet together, military style, with arm outstretched forward at an upward 45 degree tilt, very straight and hand in the 'V' shape. When I reacted with some alarm and said what it reminded me of, Perry stopped doing it (she hadn't realized the resemblance at first), and I think is one of the few times she listened to me tell her not to do something. Eventually the uBeam Wave seemed to morph into what you see in the picture above from Jan 18 - hand in the 'V' shape, elbow bent and close to the body hand about shoulder height, with a little side to side motion.

As 2015 rolled on, it started appearing again, especially around the convertible note round in early summer, sometimes with Perry telling guests, potential customers, or investors about it, then doing it with whichever staff member was nearby. Given the presence of a third party, it was a lot of pressure to not say 'no' to the CEO, and so people seemed to do it. Things at the company were very unpleasant at that time, and I was arguing with Perry about a lot more critical matters, throwing in stopping her doing it to the team just would have been an exercise in frustration - and one of the many, many, reasons I left later that year.

Pretty much every time I saw it done after the first handful, I had the feeling it was an odd power-play, a way to locate the few who would find it equally 'fun', or who were in a position where they wouldn't or couldn't decline. Or, perhaps, to identify the 'heretics'? It wasn't the only ritual that happened at uBeam that gave me that feeling, but I'll get to those others in future posts. In the meantime, if you see a former uBeam team member from that era, try to give them the uBeam Handshake, I promise you'll get a reaction...

Update 25th Nov 18: One of the former uBeam employees tells me that one of the handshake variations tried was that rather than touching fingertips, the hands were at 90 degrees to each other and interlocked at the 'V'. I also want to make it clear my opinion is these choices of variations were made without realizing possible alternative interpretations and not not done to be deliberately offensive to any group.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

uBeam at CES 2019

For those of you going to CES in Las Vegas this coming January, you might be interested to know that uBeam will be exhibiting at the Venetian. It looks like it may be one of those "invitation only" rooms, so you'd likely have to contact the company to see what they have to offer. From the CES notes:

uBeam is a technology leader in the wireless power industry by utilizing airborne ultrasound to transmit power to create a true contact free charging ecosystem. By using proprietary transmitters and receivers, uBeam is able to deliver the necessary power to charge a range of devices from portable electronics to IoT sensors at various distances. uBeam’s wireless power solution removes power constraints for system designers and decreases battery-related issues to enable performance enhancements and system robustness, thereby creating a new dimension in power delivery and design paradigm.

I'm not sure someone told the marketing team that they've pivoted away from consumer and portable electronics, to solely B2B and IoT (apparently only working with TLAs now). That they claim "proprietary transducers" is interesting because every demo I saw had them using Murata off-the-shelf car parking sensors, and any proprietary transducers highlighted were never shown working or in a device. It's a sleight of hand to show your own tech and claim it's brilliant, but the actual demo you don't admit there's something else in there.

I love the last sentence, it's "marketing buzzword bingo"-tastic. Seeing "new dimension" and "design paradigm" reminded me of the ridiculous terms that then CEO Perry and the PR team would add to documents, even technically oriented ones, over the objections of the engineering team. But, hey, if you can't dazzle them with brilliance, then baffle them with bullshit.

I don't think this shows that uBeam are still active as a company in producing a product, but rather that marketing booked this months ago and really want the free Vegas trip before the whole thing goes belly up.

Monday, November 5, 2018

uBeam Glassdoor Review: "Not sure if uBeam even qualifies as a company."

Some of you may not be familiar with Glassdoor - an online site where you can anonymously post a review of your job, your company, or your interview experience. The collated information is made available if you sign up with an email, and for sizable companies there can be a good amount of information as to company culture and even salaries. Somehow they must make money from all this, I guess at some point you hit a paywall or large companies pay for anonymized/collated data, because in June of this year they were purchased for $1.2 billion

I've checked in to the uBeam section of Glassdoor every few months over the last couple of years, and there's only been a couple of reviews posted. They were mildly positive with statements such as such as "5 star. It feels like working in a lab in grad school..." tempered with "Sometimes there is uncertainty with any project and there may be a sunk cost mentality." to the slightly more negative "3 star. No technical leadership at high level". For whatever reason I checked in today, and saw a review had been posted yesterday with the title:

 "Not sure if uBeam even qualifies as a company."

So this got my attention, enough that I finally signed up for a Glassdoor account so I could read it in its entirety, and oh boy, was someone unhappy with their time at uBeam. Before you read this, I'll be clear - this was not me, nor is it anyone I know (that I'm aware of).


Just to repeat:
"Not sure if uBeam even qualifies as a company."
Former Employee - Anonymous Employee
Doesn't Recommend
Negative Outlook
Disapproves of CEO
I worked at uBeam full-time

Pros

Dog friendly office
Benefits paid for 100%

Cons

Like being paid to sit and witness the ramblings of the mentally ill. The female head of the company was beyond delusional, and while I felt sorry for her at times, her delusions gave a complete false sense of reality. This company is more about a small group of engineers getting paid to run experiments than anything else. There is no chance this company will survive or succeed. Not a good career move in any way. I regret ever starting this job.

Advice to Management

She should have never been allowed to run this company - not even for one day.

So that would have been an interesting exit interview...

But, on a serious note, when someone asks me why I started my blog, what you read above is one of the many reasons. When people take jobs, they move their families, change their direction in life, and make choices that have huge impacts which ripple down for years or a lifetime. New entrants to the workforce have no experience of what is normal, good, or bad, and they don't have that metric to tell them "something is wrong". They can learn bad habits or miss out on opportunities for mentoring by talented seniors, or building a career in a worthwhile company. More senior staff can spot the warning signs, but they can be subtle until you're on the inside, by which point you've swapped your kids schools and put your old house on the market, and the practicalities of life force you to stick with a frustrating job for a couple of years. 

uBeam were getting so much glowing and uncritical press coverage (though, hats off to the few journalists who did a solid job) that the public perception was not what I saw as the reality, having experienced it from garage prototype through Series A and the next round. At the very least potential staff had to have some possibility of seeing an alternative view before making a major commitment. In some ways it was the excerpt from Adam Grant's "Originals" about Perry, which in no way resembled the reality I had lived, that was the straw that broke the camel's back and made me write the first blog post. So well done Adam Grant, I can now say your books are not completely pointless.

Update Nov 6th: I just realized that the two 'Pros' in this review were things I had a strong hand in setting up. For the year I worked in the Santa Monica office from its opening, I would bring in my dog Jackie on a regular basis, and so set the precedent. On the 100% benefit coverage, this is something Marc Berte and I had implemented, and fought for when incoming CFOs tried to kill it. We believed that happy, stress free, healthy employees were worth more to the company than ones worried to go to the doctor or stressing about paying bills. The automatic reaction of the MBA class to that setup was horror and an immediate "We have to end that" and "That's far too expensive" even though as a % of well qualified engineer salary it was pretty low and waaaaay down the list of company expenses. Feeling quite pleased with myself this morning. :)

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Energous Earnings Call Q3 2018

Energous had their earnings call yesterday, and sadly it was a much calmer call than last time - no irate investor actually demanding real answers to pointed questions, demanding accountability for prior statements made. It was completely as expected, same old delays and obfuscation, you can read a transcript here for yourself. Last quarter's earnings call promised hearing aids on the market in the next 90 days, which was essentially today, so what do we get?

Indications are that the hearing aids from SK Telesys and Delight will be the first WattUp enabled products to hit the consumer market hopefully, before the end of this year.

"Indications" that "hopefully" in the next 90 days. Again. Will they just disappear and be forgotten, just like Myant? Why does anyone believe a single thing out of this CEO's mouth? Other 'highlights':

  • Key products such as the spine tracker and some location tags are listed, so essentially tiny markets from non-Tier 1 customers. Not enough to sustain a $200m+ market cap company.
  • Continuing with ~$12.5m per quarter expenses with ~$29m in the bank. Capital raise needed by the end of Q1 2019.
  • They claim progress on their GaAs and GaN chips for transmitter, receiver, and power amp chips, and that they can handle up to 15 Watts. This may actually be true, but the surrounding transmitters and receivers will still be in the <100 mW range. There is legitimate work that can be done in this area, if Energous ever have worthwhile IP, this is where IMO it will be.
  • They still mix consulting and licensing revenues so we can't split them, and they are still a paltry ~$200,000.

One of the more egregious statements came in the Q&A, regarding contact charging vs at-distance:

The strategy has always been that we go in first with near-field, engage the regulators and then migrate the discussions to distance.

The entire basis of the company for the first three years was at-distance, with FCC approval of at-distance always the 'Holy Grail' which finally came in Dec 2017 and then... nothing. They marketed themselves as charging multiple devices, at up to 15 feet, at up to 5 Watts. If they position themselves as a contact only Qi competitor, just without the existing infrastructure, support, standards, efficiency, or max power delivery, they'd never have the funding they have enjoyed. From the earnings call in Feb this year:

We expect the first contact-based transmitters will be in the hands of the consumers in early 2018, followed by the first at-distance transmitters coming in late 2018, culminating in far-field transmitters coming to the market in 2019.

We're heads down focused on commercialization, and we believe that the $40 million is sufficient capital to get us to that point (profitability).

So the first thing never happened, they've just admitted the second won't happen, the third really isn't a priority and never was, and that they will still be in the red by ~$12m/quarter by the time that $40m runs out so they miss the fourth by just a tiny amount.

Why does no-one call them on this? Well, in a way, the markets are doing that. Here's the stock price at around 8am Pacific this morning.


That's nearly a 9% drop first thing in the morning, hardly a ringing endorsement. We'll see if that continues. Unfortunately, you should remember that there are some large institutional investors still owning WATT, so that's part of someone's pension taking a hit there.

Now we wait another 90 days for the same again...