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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Startup PR 102: Astroturfing

Edits and update, 10th Feb 2019: Upon further investigation and discussions, it looks like the website in question was not an official uBeam attempt at astroturfing, but a genuine effort by individuals to promote women in technology that ended prematurely in large part due to my blog post. While it highlights the rule of "never use company resources for non-company activities", those involved should be commended for promoting role models in an under-represented group (though clearly I'd not personally choose Perry as a role model for anyone). I think this post does make some important points on how companies can and do use PR (and clearly on how company history affects current reception) so while I won't delete the post I have made some updates to reflect this new information, I'd ask that everyone view the original website, and its creators, in the positive spirit that was intended.

Astroturfing is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization (e.g., political, advertising, religious or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants.

When I named my blog, it was to try to convey the idea that the PR you see from startups is not what it seems, in a different way than what you typically get from established companies. When you have no product and no revenue, all you can sell is the hope or the illusion - one being a genuine belief in your goal, the other simply saying whatever it takes to keep the next round of funding viable. One way of establishing this illusion is to get other outlets to make statements on your behalf, and make it seem like there are established and independent third parties backing your stance - for example getting one media outlet to quote you without checking the source of your claim, then later using that media outlet as a reference to other media. Very quickly, you end up with the myth you created seemingly quoted as fact, and your fingerprints are not on it, unless someone cares to dig a little deeper. Here's an example I quoted in a previous post:

The founder of Red Hat (now a ~$25 billion company) needed to gain credibility for his product, so he essentially gamed a 'study' of high Linux user growth, and got a small Linux journal to quote him. Then he managed to get BusinessWeek to quote the Linux journal, and suddenly this made-up statistic had all the authority of being stated in a prestigious national publication. He abused the lack of fact checking and diligence to plant an idea in the media as if it had substance, and used that to help promote his own company.

What can happen if you get this myth going enough? Let's see what Marc Cuban, uBeam investor, said about seeing a prototype of the uBeam system prior to investing:

Have you seen a prototype?

No. I trust her (Perry) enough that I haven’t gone out and said, ‘Show it to me.’ She’s shown it to enough people that I trust what’s going on.

So he'd not seen a prototype, or from this sentence spoken to anyone else that had, but invested on the premise that someone else must have. I'd be interested in hearing from any of those people she'd shown it to. This quote is from July 2015, and in a recent interview Perry admitted that no charge had ever been transmitted to a phone until 6th Dec 2016, nearly 18 months later. Hmmm.

One thing a startup often relies upon is the "Myth of the Founder", and in many cases this serves the company well, at least for a time. With Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes was lauded almost right up until the SEC and DOJ pressed charges against her (and in the case of investor Tim Draper, long after), while Tesla sees great publicity, headlines, and stock performance due to the media presence of Elon Musk, though that has not been as effective recently. When the company has little in the way of product, puff pieces on the founders can still generate great publicity for the company. uBeam co-founder Meredith Perry was a great example of this, for example with this article from Fortune magazine in July 2015 entitled "Is this woman the next Elon Musk?".

Now the value of that headline for any tech company, regardless if the answer is "OMG no are you smoking crack?" or not, is incredible. Fortune magazine said it, so it must have some truth to it. Interestingly, despite the positive headline, the story itself contained a skeptical paragraph.

In late 2014, uBeam—flush after raising $10 million from investors—announced that it had finalized a working prototype. “There may be people on the Internet who don’t believe it’s true,” Perry says. But those who see it “are converted instantly.” (She declined to show the prototype to Fortune.)

So again, a working prototype claimed in late 2014, but how does that mesh with the "first charging in Dec 2016" statement? At least the journalist had the sense to ask for a demonstration, and indicate it wasn't shown despite its ability for a Damascene like conversion. Regardless, how many will remember this, and how many will simply look and think "Next Elon Musk!"? Priceless PR, and something any company should aim for. Overall, at least in the moment, PR done well.

PR done not so well
Now you may remember that Perry 'stepped down' as CEO of uBeam last year, and so it was interesting see recent coverage of Perry as a leader in technology. The website, Women in Technical Leadership, features Perry as their first, and currently only, woman who has made an impact in STEM. (Update, taken down as of 31/1/19, you can find the archived versions here and here) Now this is a laudable goal, as women are dramatically underrepresented in technology, and anything that encourages more women into STEM fields, at all stages, is to be encouraged. So what are some of the things it says about Perry?

In the early stages of her career, Meredith Perry has given a TEDx talk on how to be a technology innovator which IEEE boasts as "amazing" and certainly proved you do not have to be an engineer to create something. While Forbes has compared her to the likes of other entrepreneurs, she is in a league of her own that is near impossible to match. We celebrate Meredith Perry for being an exceptional role model to young women everywhere!

To find out more about Meredith Perry's company, visit www.ubeam.com

High praise indeed, and it's apparently going to be downhill from here in the quality of the awardees since she's so "impossible to match". And that's great publicity for the company she co-founded, even though there's no mention of her departure as CEO. (Quick question - does anyone have a reference for that IEEE "amazing" quote? Update: Someone found this brief Facebook post from the IEEE and let me know - hardly an in depth technical analysis, and slightly annoying from the IEEE given how she discusses engineers in a negative light in that link)

So who put this website and award together? According to the main page the copyright is "©2018 by Women in Technical Leadership" and reading the blurb:

Women in Technical Leadership is a culmination of engineers wanting to highlight the selected woman's accomplishments and make their achievements better known. Sponsored by a start-up in Marina Del Rey, the staff have decided to examine the women from the region of Southern California. 

Marina Del Rey? Why is that familiar? Perhaps it's because uBeam is based at 4086 Del Rey Avenue, in Marina Del Rey. Oh.

Let's delve a little deeper and take a look at the "Get in Touch" button which sends to an email at... ubeam.com. And a look at the WHOIS registry for the domain name, it was registered on the 15th January 2019 to uBeam, Inc.

So has uBeam has started a website for women in technical leadership which is fantastic, praising their own co-founder, but for some reason not prominently mentioning it's a uBeam owned site, which is a reasonable disclosure to make? If so, some might call this astroturfing, where an organization tries to make it appear the message they want out has come from an independent person or group.

Further, why would the new CEO, who had barely been on the job for two weeks, start a website to praise his predecessor, when he needs to be making product, licensing IP, or selling the company? Hardly something worthy of their efforts. And if not his doing, or official uBeam PR, then why does it use uBeam email and uBeam Inc as part of the operation? It's not like you need a company to get an email, register a domain, and start a website.

While there may be more, I see three main possibilities here:
  1. The new CEO is, for some reason, spending time, effort, and money promoting his predecessor, in a way that gains publicity for his company, but not overtly declaring that relationship.
  2. There's at least one uBeam employee that did this and while a very valuable site for the promotion of under-represented groups, it's tainted by the uBeam/Perry names. (Update: from LinkedIn and Twitter, it's looking more like this is what's happened, as well as it rapidly being taken down)
  3. It's an official uBeam PR attempt from a few months ago, only just becoming public.
None of them is a good look. The first seems, at least to me, as somewhat devious and effectively astroturfing, the second is really unfortunate as a worthwhile endeavour is tainted by association with uBeam and Perry, the third very similar to the first. Looking at the CEO's background, I'd say his competency should be assumed and that it's one of the other two, not something he probably even knew about. There's little he can do now, given the public nature of this, that's not going to look like damage control. I feel for him. (There could of course be a more innocent explanation I haven't thought of, feel free to add in the comments.)

So next time you read such positive publicity about a founder, or anyone else, take a look at who is behind it, it might be quite illuminating.

What would I do?
One of the things that people have said is that it's really easy to take shots from the sidelines, rather than be "the man in the arena". Fair enough call, so if I were CEO, here's what I'd do:

Own it, get out in front of it. Revamp the page to make it clear and unambiguous it's uBeam owned and sponsored, and do some blurb on how awesome the co-founder was and the company now wants to give back to the community and help women in tech based on her example (losing the SoCal restriction). I'd task the employees who were responsible that they need to be working on this and get a new person featured each month, in addition to their normal jobs, and have them supervised by someone with actual PR experience. And I'd have each of the featured women be able to allocate $5,000 from uBeam to a relevant charity of choice, get quotes from them, and then use that to get features in other publications and low cost PR. If asked why the original looked the way it did, I'd just say it went live early by accident. If it doesn't work out, drop it after a few months, as no-one noticed anyway.

Or just delete it and pretend it never happened. Flip a coin. :)

Update 30th Jan 2019: I'd originally titled this "Hagiography: a pejorative reference to biographies and histories whose authors are perceived to be uncritical of or reverential to their subject", but I felt "Astrofurfing" was a better term.

Update 31st Jan 2019: WOT Website has been taken down.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Ultrasound in Air: Safety and Regulations

This is a post for references, there's minimal commentary, just links for ultrasound in air background reading, regulatory and safety and a few notes on each. I've previously commented on ultrasound in air and safety considerations across multiple posts, but I wanted to put together a post that will contain relevant information in a single place. I intend this to be a 'living post' and will be updated as more documents/regulations are included, or regulations are updated - so it's a work in progress. If you're knowledgeable in the field and have a reference I should include, please let me know by email or in the comments.

General Reading
Are some people suffering as a result of increasing mass exposure of the public to ultrasound in air? by T.G. Leighton. A great starting point as it covers the history of ultrasound limits in air, details of possible adverse effects, and with recommendations for further study and safety considerations. An extensive list of this author's work, including further research on ultrasound in air, can be found here.

Wireless Power Transfer to Millimeter-Sized Nodes Using Airborne Ultrasound by Angad S. Rekhi, Butrus T. Khuri-Yakub, and Amin Arbabian. Detailed, peer reviewed paper published in Transaction on UFFC in 2017, best paper to date on the topic. Indicates microWatt level power transfer viable.

Damage to human hearing by airborne sound of very high frequency or ultrasonic frequency by B.W. Lawton for the Health and Safety Executive in the UK, a literature and standards survey in 2001.

A Review of Current Ultrasound Exposure Limits, Carl Q. Howard, Colin H. Hansen and Anthony C. Zander. A 2004 study which concludes "Until more definitive data become available, it is recommended that the more conservative standard proposed by the Health Canada [13] and listed in Table 1 be adhered. This means that sound pressure levels should be less than 110dB above 25kHz, regardless of the exposure duration, to prevent the undesirable subjective effects of ultrasound."

Effects of Ultrasonic Noise on the Human Body—A Bibliographic Review Bożena Smagowska. A review of other ultrasound safety papers, with the following quote "According to Allen, Rudnik and Frings, a mouse dies from overheating after 10 s to 3 min of exposure to a signal of 20 kHz and level of 160 dB [10]. According to Danner, a lethal level for signals of 18–20 kHz for an unshaven mouse were 144 dB and for a shaven mouse 155 dB [21]. Acton obtained similar results and extended studies to larger animals such as guinea pigs and rabbits [22]."

Guidelines for the Safe Use of Ultrasound: Part II – Industrial and Commercial Applications by Environmental Health Directorate Health Protection Branch, Canada  Canadian guide to potential harmful effect of ultrasound, with the quotes "In addition, Acton (Ac 74) has reported on unpublished work by Parrack indicating that mild heating in skin clefts has been observed in the SPL range of 140-150 dB...  It is plausible that chronic lengthy exposures to levels between 145 and 155 dB might also be harmful, as they could raise body temperatures to mild fever levels during the exposure periods. However, as indicated in Section 3 of this guideline, such high sound-pressure levels have never been encountered in either commercial or industrial applications... However, in the ultrasonic frequency range, if potential problems due to heating are to be avoided, total linear measured SPL exposure to other parts of the body must never exceed 137 dB. This value is based on the lowest value (140 dB) (see Figure 2) which allegedly has led to mild heating of skin clefts. A safety factor of 3 dB (a factor of 2 in energy) should ensure that no significant heating of a human could occur."

Environmental Health Criteria: Ultrasound. 1982 WHO summary of ultrasound limits and safety studies. 


Regulatory
OSHA and Global dB limits. Covers Occupational Safety and Health considerations, and shows a limit of 115 dB above 40 kHz in the USA for the workplace (not home, consumer etc exposure). No mention of a 145 dB limit. Notes limits around the world are between 110 and 115 dB.



Underwriters Labs (UL) Testing. From UL's website "UL helps companies demonstrate safety, confirm compliance, enhance sustainability, manage transparency, deliver quality and performance, strengthen security, protect brand reputation, build workplace excellence, and advance societal wellbeing". This is a standards document you need to purchase to read in its entirety, the relevant section is 12.5.2, a pic of that section is below. Limits SPL to 110 dB in useable area of most devices.


FDA Requirements for Radiative Devices. Even for non-medical use, any radiation emitting device, including ultrasound, can fall under the jurisdiction of the FDA. An abbreviated report, needs filled out, and cannot be done until there is a product as it requests brand, model number, output levels, frequency, operating conditions etc. Anyone claiming that the FDA does not regulate ultrasound in air devices should be asked to demonstrate why this does not apply. There are also details  under the Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 particularly in section 1002 that states the main exceptions are if the product is only for export or:

"Manufacturers of electronic products listed in table 1 of this section if such product is sold exclusively to other manufacturers for use as components of electronic products to be sold to purchasers"

essentially, if you sell parts to other companies, you don't need to go through the FDA, but whoever sells the final product will.

International Non-Ionizing Radiation Committee of the International Radiation Protection Association. (INIRC-IRPA). 1984. Interim guidelines on the limits of human exposure to airborne ultrasound, and concludes the general public should not be exposed to ultrasound at levels above 100 dB regardless of frequency.

Groups/Societies/Investigative Bodies
Health Effects of Ultrasound in Air (HEFUA). "HEFUA is the UK consortium (encompassing researchers, clinicians, policymakers, and the public) that addresses the fact that humans are being increasingly exposed to ultrasound in air through commercial devices. There is insufficient understanding of how these devices affect health, even when exposures are known." This page also has links to multiple documents on ultrasound in air.

Biological Effects
More specific papers on ultrasound effect on biology
Subharmonic Distortion in Ear Canal Pressure and Intracochlear Pressure and Motion by Stanley Huang, Wei Dong, and Elizabeth S. Olson  which looks at the generation of subharmonics, that is frequencies lower than the transmitted sound, in the eardrum from high intensity ultrasound.

Weaponizing Sound
Acoustic Weapons - A Prospective Assessment by Jürgen Altmanna. A good summary of ultrasound used as a weapon.

WIP

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

More uBeam at CES 2019 - MacVoicesTV Interview

There was a brief video published today interviewing the uBeam Director of Product Marketing and Management at the floor show in CES (not the private suite), by MacVoicesTV. What you see is quite limited, a receiver only, no transmitter (except off camera, and on the screen behind), but interesting nonetheless.



The Interviewer
There are a few things that stand out in this video, and I'll start with the interviewer. Now I know this is not meant to be an in-depth technical expose, I'm eternally frustrated at the terrible coverage tech gets, but this was little more than allowing uBeam to read out their marketing material unchallenged. What is the point of the interviewer if they don't add anything to the mix? He does say "I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't ask about safety" and then lets them go wild with, IMO, very suspect safety statements (more on that later). After that, nothing that his job actually entails such as asking about power transmitted, delivered, cost, efficiency, product release date, regulatory approval - anything of practical interest. He was basically pointless, and should have just handed the mike to the PR guy and cut the pretense he was doing anything at all.

The Demo
Now the demo itself did yield some interesting info. In the background the poster claims "Useable Power, Meters (away?)", so definitively claiming >1 meter here. The receiver shown lit up - an LED - so a whole few mW of power has been received. Distance from the transmitter is not shown, but likely a meter or so. So much for phone charging if that's all they can do, and you have to think that if they could do more, they absolutely would be showing that.

For tracking, the target seems to need to be within a box of reflective tape, that is 1cm or so wide. That places quite a requirement on the border of the target, on top of the multiple centimeter sized cylinders for reception. How will this targeting work if some of the square is obscured? Might be a problem for a handheld device if the user isn't allowed to hold it. Seems a pretty 'ghetto' marking method for consumer electronics, that is not IMO going to fly in any real product. The transmitter following the receiver was shown to have a short lag each time it moved - is the beam still on and insonifying something else during that time, or switched off? 

Last question on tracking - is there any feedback so the transmitter knows how much power to send, or is it just full on, all the time? If there is, what's the communication method?

While the transmitter isn't shown in the video, in the background a video seems to indicate they are using transmitters like the ones shown last year. Shown in the upper picture next to an iPad, and the lower one marked as "March 2018".



That looks to be about 16 by 16 Murata style devices, each around 1cm in diameter, so 256 elements total and at 145dB (290W/m^2, intensity claimed by uBeam in the past), that would mean around 7.5 Watts acoustic out absolute maximum. If all of that were lighting a, generously say, 100 mW LED then that would mean around 1.4% acoustic to electrical conversion, though when you account for efficiency in the transmitter would drop below 1%. 

They go on to say that they are so awesome for Industrial Internet of Things, low power sensors etc, that's where they are focusing and save everyone the frustration of changing batteries - for the addition of white tape and large receivers around all the sensors, a power bill going up 100x, and only one lunchbox sized transmitter per few sensors. Given that Powercast already sell a wireless power system that will work at up to 80ft, with regulatory approval, can charge at up to the mW level, and does not need large receivers or reflective tape, I'm not quite sure what the value proposition here is.

A 'more robust' version of the demo was being given in their suite at the Venetian, so apparently this demo was not robust. They'd power cameras and sensors, but no mention of phones, which indicates to me that they can't reliably get 500mW to 1W at a phone sized receiver, as generally that's the minimum needed to even start charging a phone.

Safety
This bit was the part that really got me wound up. People are free to do what they want with their own money but safety is where you don't get to screw around. Allow me to rebutt the argument made here that this system is perfectly safe:

All acoustic energy bounces off the skin This is true, you get around 99.9% reflection from bare skin into the air - however - once there is hair on that skin, then acoustic losses go up, and that acoustic energy is converted to heat. Put enough energy there, and it can heat up a lot. Some papers report that mice and rabbits can die from exposure to sound at 145dB and up. From "Effects of Ultrasonic Noise on the Human Body—A Bibliographic Review" 

"According to Allen, Rudnik and Frings, a mouse dies from overheating after 10 s to 3 min of exposure to a signal of 20 kHz and level of 160 dB [10]. According to Danner, a lethal level for signals of 18–20 kHz for an unshaven mouse were 144 dB and for a shaven mouse 155 dB [21]. Acton obtained similar results and extended studies to larger animals such as guinea pigs and rabbits [22]."

Now at 145dB temp rises can be small, but cumulative, and consumer devices have to cover edge cases like babies, drunks, ill people who can't move, pets locked in cages etc. When you sell millions of devices to consumers, who do things they shouldn't, your system has to be foolproof.

I'm wondering, if it is pointed at the ear canal, does it work differently in there, where there is a very sound sensitive part? Any sub-harmonic generation possibilities, where a lower frequency that what is transmitted is heard? (For example, a subharmonics of 40 kHz are 20 and 10 kHz, both in hearing range of some to pretty much everyone). I'm sure that was studied too.

We've had 3rd parties evaluate our system over 18 months and it's completely safe including for pets There is a lack of evidence in the literature that ultrasound in the environment at these amplitudes is safe, and if they have it, this would be a landmark paper that would be massively valuable around the world. I'm sure there was a scientifically controlled experiment, repeated multiple times for statistical significance, followed over years, and if people were involved (which to study human hearing or skin response there would have to be) there will be an ethics review somewhere too? 

Please write a paper, for peer review, and all critics will be silenced. So come on uBeam, release the study - it doesn't have to reveal anything about your system, or technology, just the effect of sound. There's no commercial reason to keep it hidden, no competitors that will steal a march on you with it. All it can do is benefit you - so release it. Or is it not quite that good?

Tim Leighton from University of Southampton did the most comprehensive study to date on the effects of ultrasound in the air I know of. You can read it here, and it is not at all as confident regarding safety effects, especially long term.

The beam is controlled and directed If the wavelength of sound is smaller than the pitch between the transmitting elements, there will be what are known as 'grating lobes' where energy is sent in directions in addition to the desired beam. Given the spacing seems to be around 1cm, and at uBeam stated frequencies the wavelength is smaller than this, there will almost certainly be grating lobes. If so, how many people walking past that demo were getting insonified? That is pretty appalling to me - that members of the public, without their knowledge, could be subjected to unknown sound levels that may or may not have regulatory approval. Which brings me to the next part of safety.

Regulatory. OSHA used to have a limit of 145 dB for sound above 40kHz in air (US only), however a look at the rules today appears to show that it's a flat 115 dB, 1000x less power. Other countries are all in the 110 to 115 dB range. The FDA requires approval for all radiation emitting products, while UL 61010-1, Section 12.5.2 "Protection against... ultrasonic pressure" says "the ultrasonic pressure shall not exceed 110 dB above the reference pressure value of 20 microPa for frequencies between 20 kHz and 100 kHz"

So it seems that OSHA, the FDA, and UL all require much more stringent safety than simply blasting 145 dB around. This will be answered in that 3rd party set of tests, right? Again, no problem releasing this as there was a claim in the Oct 2017 fundraising deck that uBeam was "legally approved by FCC/FDA".

When it comes to regulatory and safety the burden is not on the regulator to prove it is dangerous, it is up to the proposer to prove that it is safe.

Engineering Ethical Considerations
Being an engineer isn't just about doing calculations and building things. There's a responsibility to the public and the world at large on what, and how, we work. The IEEE is the world's largest engineering professional body, and have a set of ethical rules, they can be found here, and the first one among them is:

"to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public, to strive to comply with ethical design and sustainable development practices, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment"

So sell anything you like, fools and their money are soon to be parted, but prove that it is safe and don't ever put the health and welfare of people at risk. If you do, don't call yourself an engineer.

Update Jan 19th: Confirmed that it is the white box transmitter.


Update Jan 24th: following some conversations with those who got to see the private suite demo:

The transmitter was on a motorized rotational stage, turning an estimated +/- 45 degrees to steer the beam. If that's the case, I do not understand why they bother with individual elements and a phased array - just get a focused bowl arrangement and steer mechanically, it would be simpler and much cheaper. The CES floor show demo seemed to show phased array operation, so perhaps there's a very limited steering angle and gross motions need mechanical steering?

There were items taped to the wall, on the door etc to show charging of items like "smart locks", however the device itself never charged, it was always an LED that lit up to indicate power was being delivered. That means it could be as low as around 20 mW received.

Those who held the next generation transducers seemed to think them roughly the same lateral dimensions as the Muratas, perhaps a bit thinner, but nowhere close to the "4x smaller area, 100x thinner" listed in the Oct 17 fundraising. They did say that the demo was being done with COTS devices.

Generally the view was that the presentation materials were not particularly professional. Given what they showed, it seems they booked a slot at CES prematurely, I have to think this hurt more than helped - but maybe I'm just a dumb engineer.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

uBeam's CES 2019

uBeam started 2019 by giving some private demonstrations of their wireless power transfer system at CES, which according to their PR material "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" which manages to set no expectations or give any real indication of what it can do, like any good PR should (unless it truly can do something useful!).

The New CEO
I had expected it to be fairly bland and that there be nothing to report on, however there were a couple of things worth reporting on. First up, they announced that there is a new CEO, replacing the CFO/HR Director that had been a stand-in since Perry's departure in September (or maybe July). From the announcement:

uBeam Inc., the pioneer of ultrasonic power-at-a-distance wireless charging, announced today the appointment of Simon McElrea as Chief Executive Officer. “I am delighted to lead uBeam and its many talented employees at this pivotal time in the wireless charging industry,” stated McElrea. “The proliferation of IoT networks that require safe, reliable, Always-On connectivity and power, from the Smart Home to the much larger commercial, industrial, agricultural and renewable energy markets, is right in our sweet-spot.”

“Over the past 18 months, our team of 30 engineers has been singularly focused on the miniaturization of the technology, to enable us in 2019 to provide reference design kits to our manufacturing partners and customers so that they can integrate it into their diverse range of products,” said McElrea. “By developing the complete turn-key solution, from industry-leading transducers, to custom ASICs, control electronics, hardware and software, we have created an end-to-end solution, as well as the associated IP, which currently totals over 100 patents and applications. We are excited to be able to showcase this work at CES during the coming week.”

So first of all, they've finally got someone in the CEO role who can put together a sane, sensible, competent sounding statement. Now the accuracy of some of these points is questionable - the company has been going since 2011, but seriously funded now for over 4 years, not 18 months. In fact, 18 months ago in the USA Today article, member of their Technical Advisory board, Matt O'Donnell, was saying:

“When Meredith called me in 2015, I was curious and skeptical as hell, because you just hadn’t seen efficient airborne transducers, but holy moly, the leaps they’ve made in the past 18 months have been impressive.”

It's that magical 18 months again - nicely chosen in the past to be just out of firm memory, and for the future far enough away everyone has forgotten by the time you get there.

Company pictures and LinkedIn do not seem to support 30 engineers, more like the low 20's and not all of them will be engineers. 100 patents and applications seems high too, unless a very large number have been submitted in the last year and are still not visible to the public, or they're double counting international applications. Press - next time you speak to the CEO, maybe ask for the patent list and an actual headcount?

And reference design kits in the next 12 months? Those will be interesting to see.

So what's the new CEO's background? He's actually a well qualified person for the role and IMO finally sees someone competent in the big chair at uBeam.

McElrea joins uBeam having served as CEO of Semblant Ltd. since 2015, a UK and Silicon Valley based B2B nanotechnology company which was acquired in Q4 2018 by HZO, a global leader in electronic material technologies. Prior to Semblant, McElrea was Vice President of IP, Licensing and Marketing at Energous Corporation, a San Jose based wireless-charging company that completed its IPO in 2014 and was awarded “Best of CES” in 2015. McElrea was responsible for the marketing, patenting and licensing strategy, as well as initiating FCC engagement and the formation of the “Uncoupled” wireless power standards committee within the AirFuel Alliance.

I just about fell off my chair laughing when I read that - long time readers of my blog will know I've been covering Energous extensively, as another at-distance wireless power company that many describe as a straight up scam. I started covering them back in 2016 in-part because I could go into details about the RF power delivery method Energous use, pointing out the basics of physics that limit them, many or all of which also applied to uBeam, without risking breaking my NDA with uBeam. I've said before I think the genius of Energous has been in repeatedly raising money from markets despite IMO having little to nothing, not in any of their technical work, and much of that came from IP, licensing, and marketing.

If uBeam are in the position that they have as little technical capability as Energous to charge a phone safely, then expect them to follow the Energous path for PR, product announcements for 18 months out that never happen, mysterious deals with Tier One vendors that can't be divulged, and similar. They've already stepped back from the multi-meter, multi-watt, multi-device claims and are covering "IoT" only now - what next? While uBeam can't tap the IPO market the way Energous smartly did early on, there are still fools out there who might think this is a worthwhile purchase. Will we see uBeam sold "for an undisclosed amount" in the next year? I expect that will be a high priority for the new CEO - put a pretty bow on uBeam and get it sold. Or should I say lipstick on a pig?

The Demo
That was going to be the full extent of this post, until earlier today the EEVBlog posted a very interesting picture of uBeam's CES 2019 demo kit.


Now I know as much as you do about this, but if this is the whole demo, it's failing to meet even the low bar I had set for them. If this is it, what you see in that photograph is the result of nearly $40m of investment to date, and around 5 years of work. The three boards in the box with the circular components in grids are the transmitter or receiver transducer boards, and it looks very much like they are still using standard Murata transducers - basically the devices that work as car parking sensors in most vehicles. Why are some white and some black, I'm not sure, they may be the send and receive versions that Murata have, or simply someone has removed the thin grill from the front face on some. The two rectangular boards seem to be about 14 by 8 cm in size, so roughly the same size as an iPhone X. 

Dave Jones on EEV Blog points out in the bottom left is a rather unsafe looking power supply, maybe around 100W or so, with the energy harvesting boards in the bottom right that might get mW out. (Update: The bottom right board is a "Burst Circuit PCB" and you can order it from here (link now inactive). Thanks EEVBlog.) If that's the case, it would point to efficiency being in the 1% or less range.  The white frame in the top right may be part of a vision tracking system now shown to be a receiver to light an LED, he notes the white squares are reflective material used to locate and track the board for power delivery, and the top left board looks to be an Intel MAX10 FPGA which can do beamforming calculations (when each element has to be driven to steer in a particular direction). As far as I can see, there are no custom parts in that box, most of it is Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS). Maybe there's a large transmitter somewhere, like we've seen before, at 45 by 45cm or 60 by 60cm, but even with that, I'm really not wowed by it.

Interestingly, in the bottom right, there are Murata-like transducers that are not Muratas. I wonder if those are actually in-house built devices. Zooming in, they look to be an active cantilever or prestressed beam (a uni/bimorph) with a circular cone on the front, which if you stripped the can off a Murata, is roughly what you'd see inside (but a disk instead of a large cantilever). I was even tempted to say that's what they were, but a few differences, and that they're in a sealed container marked "Made in China", make me think these are the actual uBeam devices. If this is the case, then uBeam's proprietary transducers are essentially a variation on what Murata have been selling for over a decade, and in my opinion unlikely to have significantly different performance characteristics, but at a higher price point. The active area is shockingly low on this array, I'd be surprised if 50% of the surface was active. More worryingly, both the Muratas and this 'custom' array have a large center-to-center pitch, more than a wavelength at the frequencies uBeam have publicly claimed, which would lead to what are called 'grating lobes' in any transmitted power - those are beams in addition to the ones you actually want, sending power out in additional directions. Great for safety...

Interestingly, during the last fundraising for uBeam over a year ago, their pitch deck became public, and some of it was shown on the EEV Blog.


This slide makes it clear that uBeam, at the time of their pitch in late 2017, were claiming to have transducers that were smaller, thinner, more powerful, and much cheaper than the "market transducer". Except a year later they're doing a demo with a "market transducer". That's pretty embarrassing for what they themselves describe as "uBeam's most critical component".

And how does this match with charging "Internet of Things" electronics? Does each need a board that's 14 by 8cm? Or do they each get a Murata sized can transducer that essentially takes up a 1 cm cube, and receives 1/100th of power of those boards?

What of the potential partners and customers from that pitch?


Were any of those multi-billion dollar companies there to say that yes, indeed they would be partnering with uBeam? Or a year later are each and every one of them unconvinced?


And what of their claims, back in Oct 2017, that they could charge a phone at 1 meter at up to a Watt, already approved by the FCC and FDA, with no safety or interference risks, and a small receiver?

So in summary, uBeam showed (at least from this picture) nothing new, and in fact looks to be steps back from what was claimed already complete in 2017 during fundraising, but now have a competent CEO that's been at the heart of a similar company who raised hundreds of millions on not much more than uBeam appear to have, and likely has a big financial incentive to get it sold. 2019 might be more interesting than I thought.

More on uBeam's CES 2019 in a further post here.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

uBeam's 2018

So, I told someone I would do a summary of uBeam's 2018, and I've been regretting it all Christmas vacation, as I think there's about 3 people in the world that care anymore. Since I promised, I'm doing it, though it's going to be short. So, in 2018 uBeam:


So, yes, going awesome for them. As far as I can tell from LinkedIn, despite that raise they hired a grand total of 3 technicians in 2018, who must be a bit overworked since they lost, and haven't replaced, the CTO, COO, and CEO. The company hires do not suggest a growing company on the verge of releasing a product...

Looking forward to seeing what they do at CES, should be fun. I have a feeling it will be a little bit different than what they were claiming in their fundraising in late 2017. :)

(Post-CES posts here)