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End of an Era - Thoughts on uBeam Founder Stepping Down as CEO

Earlier today news was broken by Axios that uBeam founder Meredith Perry had "stepped down" as CEO to spend more time with her fa...

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Lions led by Donkeys

So here's another first for me, this story landed on Slashdot. There's not too much activity so far, possibly because it's the weekend, however one post in particular caught my eye. I have no idea who this person is, and I'm not inclined to go find out, but in my opinion it's mostly a very well written post. 

"The technology is real. Ish. It works, but was still in very early alpha stage. The power loss is high, the equipment is large, thermal issues, and there's a lot of other problems. The acoustic waves are highly directional. Otherwise, you'd need kilowatts to give microwatts of power to a device. So you need a number of steerable beams to transfer power. That's not easy. Big enough and it's not a problem. Getting it down to realistic consumer sizes takes serious engineering talent. Ironically she had it on hand. It's definitely possible, but admittedly with the level of funding it'd be hard. Possible, but very hard.

Problem is, Meredith either fired all the competent engineers or drove them out. Anyone that stayed did so because they were more agreeable than their technical merits. Meredith also had an issue with overstating capabilities of the technology. The theoretical maximums became the baseline. That's a niche engineering field. The engineers are not replaceable cogs, but Meredith gambled that they were. It's a very small field, and word spreads fast.

Essentially Meredith is a CEO without significant experience or engineering knowledge. The company will crater in two or three years, someone will buy the IP for pennies on the dollar, look up the actual names on the patents, cut them consulting checks, and you'll see functional equipment two or three years after that. The investors already know this. But they can't yank the funding or can the CEO over PR issues. Better to take a loss than be unsupportive of women in STEM. It's only $20 ish million, so probably the right call. Meredith won't change. She definitely won't retire, step aside for more experience leadership or somehow mend things with the original engineers she drove away."

There's something I want to take issue with though - and that's the comment on the quality of the engineers at uBeam. I can only speak to those who were there prior to my departure, however that engineering team (and I mean every engineer in it) was second to none, and the best team of size it has been my good fortune to work with. The weakest engineer could be described as "Excellent" and for a brief moment there were perhaps as many as 5 or 6 truly world-class engineers there. When we could concentrate on engineering, it was an incredible atmosphere, with challenges to ideas not taken as insult but instead used to become better, and a time when I found I learned an enormous amount from those engineers around me, even those with many years less experience.

I feel it's truly a tragedy the opportunity that was squandered, and what could have been.

I blogged early on about why I joined, and I want to repeat part of what I said there:

"In my opinion, don't take the presence of smart engineers as confirmation of a technology's viability (either way), and don't think the engineers at a company you find questionable aren't smart and are fully aware of the technical issues of what they're working on. They just want to play with fun toys."

To those who question why I stayed at uBeam so long, while it's a complex many-factored issue that I will cover in a future post, the simplest answer is that engineering team. Like others before me, leaving them behind, with the feeling of having abandoned them, was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I knew it was the necessary choice, but it did not make it any less difficult.

I hope I will find myself working with each of the engineers again at some point in the future, and would gladly give all of those I know a reference. To those of you commenting on their talents or their character - do not demean them, to me they are lions led by donkeys.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Heya, eye-opening blog you have here. Kudos to you for giving your full warts and all account of your startup experiences and dispensing with the usual platitudes - it's ballsy move and refreshing to read.

    We've met a couple of times previously - in one of your previous job roles you used to deliver a fair few ultrasound-related training courses! Glad to see you're doing well for yourself.

  3. After reading this short post, I can see why you would not want to be part of something like this. It sounds like the wrong person is in charge, and the rest are just waiting for the inevitable to happen. Then when it does, they will step in and correct it. Sounds like a mess.

    Rudy Swanson @ HAAKER