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Putting $10M into UBeam illustrates what is wrong with tech investing (lookatmeimdanny.tumblr.com)
303 points by tacon on Nov 1, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 123 comments

This reminds me of my favourite VC story from the height of the dot-com bubble. A few months prior, I had announced my distributed computation of the quadrillionth bit of Pi, and the concept of doing computations using unused CPU capacity from around the Internet was getting a lot of attention. A VC asked me to look at a company they were thinking of investing in and give my opinion as someone with experience in the field.

Stripped down to its core, the company was pitching technology which would allow it to do "useful" internet-wide computations once global communication latency dropped below a certain threshold. Going along with this was a graph showing how internet round trip times had been steadily dropping for the past two decades, and projecting into the future that some time around 2006 the latencies would become short enough to make their solution work.

Unfortunately, their projection had communication becoming faster than the speed of light in 2004.

I pointed this out to the VC in question. They decided to invest anyway. My understanding is that the company raised $10M before going bankrupt.

I had a wonderful discussion about reducing latency in about 2003 where I pointed out that there was a bound on everything imposed by the speed of light; I remember the investor attempting to use his MBA... "Ok, let's challenge that - how can we go about changing that assumption".

You can do anything if you try is a good moto for 4 year olds, but seriously, business schools should set traps for folk that still believe it in their 30's and empty those traps into [[horrid but funny slasher movie imagery removed to protect the innocent]] ^B^B somewhere where they can't do any more damage.

While I can't speak to the intelligence of that particular VC, there are plenty of ways of "challenging that assumption" without necessarily breaking physical laws.

For example, you could figure out a way to move things closer together, you could build a prediction algorithm and speculatively execute on a result before an input came in, you could modify the UI so the perceived latency is lower, etc.

This is where we get issues where software engineers are expected to do things that are difficult to impossible (DRM, safe crypto backdoors, accurate copyright infringement detection, accurate censorship) and are told to just "do their magic" and make it work perfectly.

Even harder to debate about when it's something on the verge of stupid, but has been decided otherwise by the top brass.

This video seems relevant here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg

Hey, if someone wants to waste their money who am I to disagree if it lands in my pockets? :)

Your professional ethics should be guiding you to manage expectations.

"I'm happy to try this, but here are the limitations I'm aware of and some of these are unavoidable."

> Your professional ethics should be guiding you to manage expectations.

Of course. But if someone hires me and then they decide that we need to transfer information faster than at the speed of light there's only so much my professional ethics can do.

If someone asked me to do that, my first response would be to ask for a huge lab and a lot of PhDs for several decades.

When you made that comment what was your point? Because it reeks of that dismissive attitude that most people have that stops them from ever trying anything. "There is a bound on everything imposed by the speed of light." "OK. I will get my servers installed in the exchange itself." (http://www.nasdaqtrader.com/Trader.aspx?id=colo) In reality there is a lot that can be done to reduce latency before you are faced with the laws of physics.

Maybe he was thinking you could bend space time.

Other researchers are trying to bend the rules rather than break them. In fact, bending space-time is one theory of how superluminal – faster-than-light -- speeds in space travel might be reached.


Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miguel_Alcubierre

The difference here is that the 100 dB limit isn't some fundamental law of physics. It's one of the currently accepted standards for safe use of ultrasound. Taking a look through the literature, though, you can find various numbers that say ultrasound several orders of magnitude stronger have had no observable long-term adverse effects. Basically, there's an intensity level that we're pretty sure is harmful, and an intensity level that we're pretty sure is safe, and, as it happens, the intensity level necessary to make uBeam useful is somewhere in between.

Investing in uBeam requires a calculated wager that the threshold for ultrasound safety is a fair bit higher than 100 dB. It's a risky position to take, and I'm not sure how to calculate it, but it's not pure lunacy.

No, 100 dB SPL is not a fundamental law of physics, but it's certainly a fundamental limit of human tolerance (it's about the same sound pressure as standing next to an operating jackhammer), and even if you can't hear it at ~20 kHz, any small animal in the vicinity will likely be tortured (seriously, PETA should take an interest in this technology). And since we're talking about investing in a consumer technology, any fundamental limit in human tolerance or even FDA guidance should be a deal breaker from a business perspective. My objection is that no one did such a sanity check before investing a large sum into this concept.

>> Unfortunately, their projection had communication becoming faster than the speed of light in 2004.

And by 2008, information was received before it was sent!

To be fair, how could they have known? They worked with the data they had at the time, and hindsight is 20/20. Hard things always seem impossible until someone does it, and then everyone else talk about how it was "inevitable".


there is a difference between "impossible" and "hard". Someone comes in and pitches a 60% efficiency solar cell. I know that is an extremely hard problem, but not impossible. I'm going to grill the shit out of them over it.

Someone comes in and pitches a 110% efficiency solar cell; they aren't getting a dime of my money. Normally, they aren't coming pitching a 110% efficiency solar cell, they just haven't done the math to realize that is what they are pitching.

The assumption that needs to be challenged is that you need faster than light latencies to accomplish your objectives, not the notion that faster than light is impossible. Once physical limitations become apparent, you need to focus on the aspects of your design that are not limited by physics.

Hindsight? Grandparent told the VC that it was impossible before they decided to invest tons of money in it.

How could they have known? Acknowledging the special theory of relativity would have been a good start. It's not like they were a bunch of alchemists in the middle ages only having various mystical interpretations of the world to work from.

But, but, but, here's what you are missing, where you are going wrong: The VCs have "deep domain expertise". And we do know this because nearly all their Web sites say that they do! We're talking deep, deep, way down deep domain expertise!

They got this expertise by long and hard study and work in the STEM fields? Oh no! Instead their path was much better, from being an English literature, history, or foreign policy major, maybe an MBA (I used to be an MBA prof), reading 1000 executive summaries, 200 foil decks, with the rules of no more than 10 foils per deck with just a few simple words per foil with 30 point fonts, listening to 5 elevator pitches a day on their phone messaging, and from an earlier career in business development!

Now don't you see why they have such deep domain expertise? Deep, deep here!

Aaron Sorkin could think of a better way of saying it, maybe -- Deep. I've been watching Silicon Valley since before the Bubble, and I've never seen anything so deep. Brutal. Brutally deep. Excruciatingly brutal. As at, say


So, what's going on? Hmm, .... Maybe we should, say, "follow the money"? What money? Well, they get their 2 and 20%. To do that they have to have some investments that do obey the laws of physics and become successful companies, have some good exits from those companies, and, thus, make money for their limited partners (LPs)?

Not necessarily! Maybe they don't know much about physics or the STEM fields, but maybe they do have some domain expertise, that is, in making money.

How, then, while trying to violate the laws of physics?

Well, in short, please some other people. Or find some even bigger fools and separate them from their money!

The bigger fools? Would you assume that the portfolio managers at the major institutional investors were better qualified in the STEM fields and building actual successful companies than the VCs? I wouldn't!

Instead these limited partners (LPs), following their herd, the Wildebeest are not all completely wrong, you understand, put a small fraction of their funds into the alternate investment asset class, i.e., VC.

This asset class is making money? Not much on average! Or see


Still, the LPs invest! Why? They don't want to miss out on the next Google. Besides, who can be sure what technology will do in the future? Besides, that's what all the other portfolio managers of the state pension funds and university endowments are doing, so just fit into that herd, match the returns they get, and tell any critics that the fund is doing what all the other funds are doing. Besides, the money invested with the VCs is just a small fraction of what the LPs have in their portfolios.

So, if the LPs are happy, then for 10 years or so the VCs get their 2%. Then for the exits, there might be an IPO with, from the 2000 bubble "Never be between a VC and the door when the lock up period is over". Or there might be an M&A when the CEO of a big, old, but now slowly shrinking company UGE buys a start-up, in an all stock deal, to make the stockholders of the big company UGE feel better for a while, long enough for the UGE CEO to get a nice bonus and golden parachute from his BoD. Or, do an M&A for about $2 million per software developer of the start-up, that is, do an acqui hire. Or do an M&A with another company in their portfolio following the rule that combining two, money losing, sick companies can use the law of synergy that the sum is greater than the parts to make one healthy company. In such cases, the VC gets 20%.

VC starts to sound like a good gig, all without any role for the STEM fields or the laws of physics. Or, the deep domain expertise is the bigger fool theory and "follow the money"?

Let me guess the VC was a MBA (and probably not even a decent one at that) and not a graduate from a hard science.

I wonder if there is an opening for a common sense consultant in silicon roundabout I could probably double up as a HR consultant

I've been looking closely at the UBeam demo video at

There's a lot of information one can get from that video if you turn the resolution up to 720p and look at still frames.

The meter is reading voltage, on what appears to be the 10 VAC scale. (Someone wrote it was on ohms, but it's not.) About 4V is coming out. We don't know what, if anything is the load, and there's no current measurement, so we can't compute power. It's interesting that they're measuring AC voltage while supposedly charging a DC device, a phone.

The ultrasonic transducers seem to be common hobbyist-level range sensors as used on small robots. Like these:


At 00:31 into the video, there's a good view of the back of the board holding the ultrasonic receivers. If you take a screenshot of this and enhance it, you can see the wiring. There are just two wires coming out of the receiver, and it looks like all the sensors are just wired in series. That maximizes voltage at the expense of current, of course.

The transmit array has 10 transducers in a hexagonal pattern, which helps focus the beam. (That transducer is a rather broad-beamed device.) The transmit end is powered by a hefty looking power supply, so those transducers are probably being driven hard.

With that setup, they should be able to get a few volts out of the receiver end, using the same kind of off the shelf transducer at both ends. This is something you could put together in a day or so after ordering the parts. There doesn't seem to be anything new here at all in the demo version.

The efficiency is probably a few percent. That's for this ideal case - transmitter pointed directly at receiver. The Wireless Power Consortium inductive wireless charging people report 60% efficiency, and they're trying to get to 80%.

The patent application talks about steering and focusing the beam, but you're still going to need line of sight, and a big emitter array.

You might be able to beam form a bit more efficiency, however one thing you can't escape is the angle at which the receiver is pointing.

All microphones have polar patterns. There are areas that are more sensistive, areas that are less.

So not only does it need line of sight, it'll need to be pointing at transmitter.

It's also interesting to note that we've had wireless charging for at least 5 years, but none of them yet are long distance. they are all mats that you put the device on.

> but none of them yet are long distance.

Possibly because of the pesky inverse square law. A mat is "good enough" and trying to achieve remote wireless charging would probably induce exponential engineering head aches for not much gain.

Physics. Its a bastard.

> It's interesting that they're measuring AC voltage while supposedly charging a DC device, a phone.

No, it's not weird. DC would come later.

interesting != weird

Yeah, I examined the video, too, with the same conclusion. It's comical that no one thought to measure the current, too, before dropping $10M on them.

I'm also a physicist, though not in the world of ultrasound, and had similar concerns when I saw uBeam turn up on HN today. I thought about writing up my concerns (power loss, inadvertent heating of the wrong thing, cranky animals, etc.), but decided to hold my tongue.

If you have $10M to invest in a startup, then you certainly have $10-20k to contract someone knowledgeable in the field for a week to vet an idea for sanity. As a skilled but low-paid academic, I'd jump at that gig, as I'm sure many others would.

If the investor's done their homework, then perhaps there's a clever trick of which uBeam makes use. If not, then perhaps the investor will lose money. Either way, it'll sort itself out.

To listen to Mark Suster's post, it sounds like they did a very comprehensive vet, so I would presume someone ran the basic math like you were thinking and like the link above runs through. And with just a lay-person's knowledge of physics, my first thought was "Isn't there a lot of energy loss using sound-through-air as a medium of energy transfer?".

On the other hand, all they say is "we talked to these people and those people and those other people over there", so who knows what the actual tests were.

A lot of the discussion here is about Arrington/Crunchfund, and while I find him interesting to read and good at getting information out of people in a blogging context, I don't really have an opinion on his competency as a VC. But A16Z's investment record is pretty solid, and Mark Suster has always struck me as a reasonable guy.

As TechCrunch's post pointed out, Silicon Valley is littered with the corpses of better-device-charging startups, but now I just have no clue what to think. :P But if they get it working, it'll be pretty awesome.

10-20k might not sound like much compared to $10million, but remember that was the total amount raised, so any one investment is likely around 500k. Sorry for taking your post a bit too literally, but 10-20k then represents an added cost of 2-4% (or more if your investment isn't that much).

I guess my point is that if you have 100 investments, you would maximize returns by balancing return on investment with cost of investment.

From the skeptical posts here, it sounds like that 10-20k (or whatever sum) may have been worth it in this case, but in general it probably is not.

That's not how Series A rounds work. The lead very likely took at least $5m of the $10m round.

I have a bag of gaussian spheres I could rent out for just such a project.

If I may critique his critique, changing one single assumption completely changes the story. He starts with the assumption of 100dB as the max power but OSHA's ultrasonic recommendation[1] is actually 145dB which is 31,000x more power.. Even if you use 130dB, it's still 1,000x more power than he assumes.

Another big assumption is that the performance should match a 5W iPhone charger. Why? The whole point is at you won't need to worry about charging. If you have 8 hours at your desk to charge rather than 20 minutes plugged in, you can get by charging at 1/20th the speed.

So try putting a requirement of 0.25W and 130dB in his formulas and see if you'd 'gamble' $10M on this idea... I'm on mobile so excuse the lack of units, but I followed his calcs for a 25cm x 25cm transmitter at 130dB:


So it should deliver ~4W. Obviously there will be losses, etc but even at 25%, 1W should be sufficient to passively charge your phone.

Note that all of the same assumptions but with 140dB would instead give you 10W, which is only slightly less than the rapid charger for the new iPads.

[1] - https://www.osha.gov/dts/osta/otm/noise/health_effects/ultra...

At 130 and 140dB air is starting to behave rather nonlinearly. That means you will actually start hearing it.

Remember that the OSHA ultrasonic recommendation is more about "Will it permanently harm you" than comfort. At 140dB you'd hear probably rather substantial audible whine due to first and second order harmonics.

On the other hand a brutal whine at 15kHz is perfect for keeping those kids off my lawn when I charge my phone!


I tried to find some information about the receiving end transducer losses. I bet they're going to be insane as it basically any impedance mismatch with air is going to cause the power to just reflect away, the bigger the mismatch the bigger the wasted power.

actually, for 20 kHZ, the frequency in his article, the OSHA recommendation is 105dB. And if you dig into the OSHA regs, the 115+30 standard for higher frequencies only applies for 15 minutes of exposure per day or less. So, if you only want your charger running for 15 minutes, have at it!

Again, why 20 kHz? The patent application only lists examples of greater than 40kHz -- most are in the range of 50+ kHz. My point isn't that this tech is going to work and change the world just that it's incredibly easy to be pessimistic and to justify it with small incorrect assumptions.

Also, sound levels below OSHA limits can still be uncomfortably loud. They just won't do any permanent damage.

I am not a physicist and have no clue about the viability of the startup. What I do know is that an awful lot of the comments here are begging the question.

They tend to be of the form: "Since they were invested in, they must be good/viable/work!" What the fuck, folks? Have you lost your collective minds? You should know better than this.

It's more along the lines of: "Smart groups gave them money, so they must at least have a response to the first objections that pop into everyone's head."

Whether those responses represent approaches that will work or not is unknown, but I feel quite safe in assuming they have some sort of plan for them. It's insanely arrogant to assume otherwise.

Exactly. The claim isn't that ubeam is viable, it's that investors like a16z with competent technical staff are more than capable of doing back of the napkin physics before investing, so there is surely more to the story here-- either the company tech can be argued to be viable with more non-public info, or the investors are aware of the impossibility of their current claims but decided to invest anyway.

Smart people are often irrational when reasoning about something outside their domain expertise. If it sounds like uBeam is physically impossible or unwise, then I'd rather bet against them than simply assume that other investors have done the scientific vetting.

What I'm saying is that it's crazy to assume the investors didn't ask the questions that popped into the heads of every Tom, Dick, and Harry on HN in 10 seconds.

Therefore, it's safe to assume the company team must have had some kind of response to that.

Was it valid? Did it snow the investors and their vetting teams? Who knows?

But certainly that first level of conversation must have taken place.

Putting the physics and this product aside, let's go to another core "law": make something people want. What do people want? Better battery life. What are you doing? Finding a worse way to charge a battery.

Quick recap

Problem: Battery life is much shorter than consumers would like.

>Solution: Make better batteries that last longer, are more durable, and can be recycled into new batteries (to keep costs down in the future)

People want better battery life just like they wanted faster horses.

What they really want is to never have to charge their devices again or worry about a battery. This company is aiming at the core problem, not just a symptom created by current tech.

Radically improving battery life may prove to be a more difficult physics problem than wireless charging. Lithium-ion batteries were introduced in the early 1990s, and for 20 years nobody's been able to come up with a better technology.

Since the early 90s, CPUs have gotten about 1,000 times better. Batteries have gotten about twice as good.

2W smartphone-sized betavoltaics battery is practical, with a possible lifetime of several decades. The problem is it would be a regulation nightmare.

Yea. Batteries are a tough problem.

A battery with the energy density of TNT would be great. Not sure I'd want it sitting on my lap...

You already do. Lithium-ion batteries have 25-50% the energy density of TNT.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_density (to fill in the missing volumetric density entry, you need to know that TNT has density 1.7 g/cc)

Think you're referencing Lithium (non-rechargeable) batteries. Lithium Ion is much lower.

Even then, they still occasionally overheat and very occasionally catch on fire.

I think my original point still stands.

At 4.6MJ/kg TNT is fairly low energy density compared to e.g. Jet Fuel at 43MJ/kg.

This still makes me think the future may be in fuel cells more than it is in batteries, but by now we were supposed to have fuel cell powered cellphones and laptops and it didn't came to be.

If you include the weight of the oxidizer, it's a wash. Oxygen, with mass 16, is pretty heavy compared with carbon's 12 and Hydrogen's 1 when you have to combine two oxygens with each carbon and one with each pair of hydrogens.

The big win in "energy density" from normal hydrocarbons is that the oxygen is freely available from the atmosphere.

Alternate solution: broadcast invisible energy through the air that your phone can pick up so that it always maintains its charge.

I understand that according to the posted article it's physically impossible for UBeam to operate in an effective fashion without vaporizing everyone in its vicinity, but let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. We shouldn't discourage creative solutions.

Building better batteries has proven difficult. It's probably useful to continue to explore solutions from conventional and unconventional angles (at least as long as they are theoretically possible).

Or - make lower power devices?

The economics are interesting, how much would it cost to make a lower power device with the same capabilities? Say a 100% improvement in battery life? Or how much would a better battery cost? Say twice the capacity?

If it cost $200 to do this for an iPhone (I have no idea) then why is it that companies don't spend this; the answer has to be that consumers are just not that willing to pay.

Or - it's impossible or would cost $2,000,000 or something!

But, thinking about it, if it costs $2,000,000 now wouldn't it be smart to invest in a company with a plan to reduce that to $20?

Oh wait! Intel!

I'm a skeptic myself here, but you do point out something interesting. Could such a technology be commercially viable if we make assumptions of where device efficiency is going?

All comments I've seen talk about charging today's iPhone. What about iPhones in 5 years time? Is it reasonable to assume that their power consumption will drop enough to make this make more sense? Anyone with lots of knowledge about power efficiency of mobile devices want to chime in?

> how much would it cost to make a lower power device with the same capabilities?

Probably not much as we could do this mostly in software. Just throw away the bloated layers of abstraction we have to deal with and you get improved power efficiency. (Example: When I visit certain websites my device uses far more power than when I'm watching a movie.)

Maybe the key use case initially is to keep charged things like remote controls, sensors, other Internet of Things.

Just make the damn battery twice as thick. It's not rocket science, this thickness madness has to stop.

Who wouldn't 2 or 3 cm of thickness for an twofold increase in battery life?

Me. I rarely run out of battery.

To get as basic as possible, an iPhone 5S has a ~6 Wh battery that Apple claims will operate the phone for up to 250 hours on standby. So, if your phone is sitting on your desk doing nothing in an area with good signal, it will require a mere 6/250 = 0.024 Watts just to keep the battery from running down further than it already has.

Delivering even this tiny amount of energy to a phone-sized traducer that may be tens of meters from the emitter and oriented randomly is going to be very difficult. An omnidirectional emitter would likely require more power than a Megadeth concert and heaven help anything with a millimeter scale resonant frequency that's in the room! Tracking the phone's position and delivering a tightly focused beam is probably the only realistic way to go about this. That means you will need some very cutting edge focused ultrasound beam transducers (not cheap) that can mechanically track phones (not cheap) which must be pointed by something like a kinnect (not cheap) and a clear line of sight to the phone (completely unlike WiFi). It's probably going to have to let the user know when there isn't a clear LOS too, because it would suck if your phone died because you set it down behind a plant.

I can't say all this is outright impossible to do at a competitive price. Danny didn't convince me that it's impossible. It is probably pretty close though.

So, why is this company being funded to do something that's probably impossible? Well, Danny is right about one thing: Investors often invest in impossible things. Just google "over unity" generators (better than perpetual motion devices basically) if you don't believe me. Earlier this decade Steorn suckered millions of euros out of investors with a lot of talk and a few cheap parlor tricks. UBeam might not break the laws of thermodynamics, but Steorn literally scoffed at them. People still lined up to invest. Whether Steorn and his co-workers were/are truly insane or con-artists has not been determined to this day. Their website is still live so, against all reasonable expectations, Steorn is still viable!

Personally, if I wanted to scam investors I'd choose something that has a direct impact on the layman's life and theoretically has the potential to be big. Simultaneously, it would not obviously break the laws of physics but would be difficult enough for a company to spend years working on it only to fail. UBeam would be a pretty great setup for a scam actually.

> That means you will need some very cutting edge focused ultrasound beam transducers (not cheap) that can mechanically track phones (not cheap) which must be pointed by something like a kinnect (not cheap) and a clear line of sight to the phone (completely unlike WiFi)

Note: I'm not in any way in the following saying uBeam will work. I'm just speculating on ways that one might work around some of the objections that have been raised. Here's an idea that combines the tracking and the pointing and I don't think uses anything expensive.

One way to do focused ultrasound beams is by using a phased array of transducers. That reminded me of a phased array demo I saw a film of at Caltech in the early '80s. I was taking the introductory optics class, which was taught by William Bridges [1]. Before he came to Caltech, he worked at Hughes Research, where he did such interesting things as invent ion lasers. After he came to Caltech, he split his time between Caltech and Hughes, and when I took his class he showed us a film of something his Hughes group was working on. (Note: I saw this film once over 30 years ago. The description below of what I saw is correct. I may not have the technology exactly right)

It had an array of optical radiators whose phase could be varied. If you got the phase right, you could get constructive interference at a target, and destructive interference off the target, and so deliver your energy to the target. Get the phase wrong, and you just deliver a bunch of light to a large area in the general direction of the target.

In the film, you saw a black background, and you saw a bunch of of vague overlapping blobs of light moving around. Someone then dangled a shiny model of the starship Enterprise in front of the background. Then they started modulating the phases of the radiators, with each being modulated at a different frequency. They had a light sensor pointed toward the target area, so that it picked up light reflected from the Enterprise.

The signal from the light sensor was sent through a set of parallel filters, one for each of the frequencies being used to modulate the radiators, and the output of those filters was used to control the phase of the radiator associated with that frequency. It was designed to try to set the phase to minimize that frequency in the reflected flight.

The idea is that if a given radiator is contributing to a maximum at the target, then slight changes in the phase of that radiator won't make much difference, and so the modulation frequency of that radiator should be weak in the reflected light. If, on the other hand, a given radiator is contributing toward a minimum, slight changes in phase will make big changes, and so the modulation of that radiator should be strong in the reflected light.

When they turned on this feedback circuit that filtered the reflected signal and adjusted the phase, those drifting blobs all pretty much instantly disappeared, replaced with a beam that was focused on the Enterprise, and tracked it as they waved the Enterprise around.

Could something like this work for an ultrasonic charger? Suppose the transmitter uses a phased array of transducers in order to get a focused ultrasonic beam. Suppose we include in the receiver some kind of wireless communication mechanism, such as ZigBee (IEEE 802.15.4). Now perhaps we can modulate the phases of the transducers, and have the receiver report back on how strong the modulation is at its end, and then we can adjust the phases back at the transmitter side to focus the beam on the receiver and follow it, doing with ultrasound what Bridges' group at Hughes was doing with light.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_B._Bridges

Their patents[1] do talk about phased array transducers.

[1]: http://www.faqs.org/patents/app/20120300592

Actually, what's happening is pretty obvious: they are investing in the founder, not the idea.

Think about it this way: $10 million is pocket change for VCs. Even if they lose all of it, it would barely make a dent in their yearly metrics. However, the potential gain is huge: they see in Ms. Perry someone who can identify a big demand in the market, take the initiative to try to do something about it and find a clever and catchy way to market it ("WiFi for energy"). So spending $10 million to let her gain more experience in business and build a deeper relationship with the VCs is a pretty good investment.

What experience is she going to get by working on a product that never even makes it to market? Don't try and tell me they spent $10M knowing full well that the idea was physically impossible. That's BS and you know it.

Many entrepreneurs today seem to think they've made it because they secured large investments from VCs. Very few know what it takes to actually become profitable, reach liquidity, and create real value.

When I read the investment announcement I thought "Hmm, there must be something big/new I'm missing." If this author is correct, then there is nothing new here. Just the insanity of thinking you can transfer power efficiently with sound. How could you make a $10M mistake on such a fundamental issue though?

Michael Arrington, who funded uBeam's seed round through CrunchFund [0], wrote about a sneak peek of the product [1] two years ago:

"She then performs the closest thing to magic I’ve seen in a long time."

Investors fund things because they don't understand it. (Although, two years to a Series A is pretty slow in today's climate.)

[0]: http://techcrunch.com/2012/07/11/disruptive-defined-ubeam-la...

[1]: http://uncrunched.com/2012/05/23/serendipity/

From Arrington's blog:

> In a year or so when this thing is productized you’ll be hearing a lot more about Mary.

As you note, that was written on May 23, 2012, more than 2 years ago. According to this article[1], the company is now aiming to be selling "by 2016." This suggests there was either a misunderstanding about the time required to develop a commercial product, or developing a commercial product has taken a lot longer than anticipated.

What's interesting to me is that the recent photo from the New York Times[2], which Mark Suster also included in his blog post[3], doesn't on the surface seem to show substantial progress from what was being demoed back in 2011[4][5]. Charging a single phone from a couple of feet away is not what's being promised.

[1] http://www.businessinsider.com/ubeam-raises-10-million-2014-...

[2] http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/08/06/ubeam-technology-wi...

[3] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8541674

[4] http://allthingsd.com/20110618/how-to-charge-your-iphone-ove...

[5] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoHxyweJcZI

Does the lawsuit between Dweck and Perry account for the time?


Don't investors do some sort of due diligence before dumping money on things though? Surely Michael Arrington or Marc Andreesen has a guy who can tell them when some crazy idea violates the laws of physics, even if they don't understand it themselves.

The analogy I like to make here is The Beatles and "Magic Alex." A cautionary investment tale: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_Alex

Wow, you think you know pretty much all there is to know about The Beatles and then someone posts this. Very interesting read, thanks!

Arrington may have been making an oblique literary referance.


& Investors tend to invest to things they can sell.


So they are interested in ideas that have good "pitch".

The technology is only a means to an end here.

Be Mark Cuban and have something to say about everything that you know nothing about. Start there.

Any IEEE members here who could take a look at the following paper, which may shed some light on what is and is not possible here, and then summarize it for us?


Roes, M.G.L.; Hendrix, M.A.M.; Duarte, J.L., "Contactless energy transfer through air by means of ultrasound," IECON 2011 - 37th Annual Conference on IEEE Industrial Electronics Society , vol., no., pp.1238,1243, 7-10 Nov. 2011

doi: 10.1109/IECON.2011.6119486

Abstract: An alternative approach to the wireless transfer of energy is proposed, employing acoustic waves in air. Unlike conventional methods, acoustic energy transfer is able to achieve energy transfer at high efficiencies over distances that are large in comparison to the dimensions of the transmitter and the receiver. This paper gives an overview of the principle and explains the different loss mechanisms that come into play. A theoretically limit on the achievable efficiency is calculated. It exceeds that of a comparable inductively coupled system by an order of magnitude. First preliminary measurements indicate that AET is feasible, although the measured efficiency is lower than the predicted theoretical limit.

URL: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=6119...

Update: I was able to get a 5 minute preview of the paper from DeepDyve.com [1]. They got 53% efficiency at 1 meter, but that was at very low power (something like 37 uW). They weren't using particularly high powered transducers, though, so could have gotten more power if that had been what they were aiming for, but probably still a long way from charging a phone. They say that the challenge for acoustic energy transfer will be in developing the high power transducers that will be needed.

[1] For those who have not heard of DeepDyve, they provide access to a very large number of journal articles for prices that are much lower than what the journals charge for individual articles. Yes, I know that ideally all of this stuff should be available to the public for free, but until that happens DeepDyve is worth considering. They have a "Freelancer" plan that costs nothing up front, and gives you 5 minute full previews of articles. You can purchase "tokens" in packs of 5 for $20. You can rent an article for 30 days for one token. They also have a $40/month subscription plan that lets you read unlimited articles, and gives a discount if you want to buy a PDF. You can cancel the monthly plan at any time, and your account converts to Freelancer, and you can switch back to the subscription plan at any time.

It's my humble role in life to stand in front of a manager and tell them that their tech idea is garbage. For $10M a year, you could buy a hundred of me.

I think the real problem is that they're not investing their own money, and are just looking at buying some great PR to write off as a tax deduction.

I am not a physicist, and this is not an excuse for due diligence, but investing in this problem is certainly better than investing in the next app that sends messages or brings you beer.

I feel there is a lack of initiative, money and publicity towards inventors solving real physics problems.

> solving real physics problems.

Except the author says:

    crazy ideas that are physically impossible
    [with] dishonest PR [are raising lots of
    capital] while great ideas that have huge
    potential are sitting by the wayside trying
    to rise above the noise.
A couple more well-capitalized total flame-outs will sour investors on this entire space, meaning that the companies that obey the laws of thermodynamics will be even more screwed than they are today.

I'd rather this entire space be ignored than see top-tier VCs sour everyone on the industry.

>I'd rather this entire space be ignored than see top-tier VCs sour everyone on the industry.

Agreed. However, if they don't know how to do DD a better one option would be just to fund more companies at a lower level. With a more realistic valuation that reflects the risk involved. However I don't think they like spreading their cash out like that.

Overall, it seems like there's probably not enough seed level funding for science/basic tech startups.

I'm with you on that, but I don't know if it's a question of enough/not enough seed-level funding.

I worry that there's an ever-increasing attempt being made to substitute in credentials for careful evaluation of actual ideas. I understand why relying heavily on pedigree is so attractive, but I wonder if startup failure rates would decrease and startups' overall quality would increase if that metric shifted.

I'm skeptical when people say that. Long term, this is more likely to harm science-based startup funding. If these investments don't pan out, they're more likely to just stop funding science/basic tech startups than they are to fix their DD issues.

> Long term, this is more likely to harm science-based startup funding.

Internet companies are still being funded a decade and a half after the dot com bubble wiped out orders of magnitude more wealth than this.

People will not quit investing in science.

>Internet companies are still being funded a decade and a half after the dot com bubble wiped out orders of magnitude more wealth than this.

Because there have been some notably successful Internet companies I would guess. But if few of the science/basic tech companies pan out (return > 10x?), it will long term harm funding in this area.

That probably has to do with the fact that most of the real physics problems are being solved by theoretical physicists.

If only I could short the stock on these guys...

Short-range electrical wireless charging is a perfectly good technology. The problem is that there are three proposed systems, all incompatible, each with shipping products but little volume. Somebody needs to kick some butt, get everybody to agree on one system, and get those charging pads in every business hotel room, and every Starbucks in the developed world. This isn't a technical problem. It's Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD, which held up high-definition discs for about two years.

VCs almost always bring in outside experts to diligence ideas that they are qualified can't diligence themselves. That happened extensively here.

So, your experts concluded the tech works or at least could work ? Are we calling bullshit on the naysayers then ?

Was wondering if this is instead transformed into a wireless "near-fieldish" charging solution. Where you keep your phone on top of a speaker, then realized that the article assumed only 50% loss because of air, and in fact you can't even physically focus a 1m^2 speaker at near field.

That seems like an awfully Rube Goldberglike way to charge you phone though. If you're putting it on top of a speaker, why not ditch the speaker assembly and just keep the coils and there you have an inductive charging mat.

Meredith Perry is no fraud. She was in a Penn graduate program before this venture, and has worked at NASA.

It's directional transmission technology. The power loss is minimized as the ultrasound is directed and focused at a particular location. There's no inverse square law here, and it's easily within the bound of known physics.

As far as I know, (indirect relationship with the a good friend of the founder, that I won't say anything more about to protect his privacy) Meredith is actually genius-level and a relentless work horse. I'd bet big on this one.

If I could work for any one company it would be uBeam. And I just started a great position, and I'd do it despite the press.

This is a "First they dismiss you. Then they laugh at you. Then you win" scenario.

Here's the thing. It's not a matter of whether Meredith Perry is smart or not by conventional standards and metrics, because ANY idea that hasn't been proven wrong is worth trying.

It's an interesting project for a student to try. Perry would learn loads getting her hands into a subject like ultrasound and learning about how to make the regulations in place to protect living organisms work with the engineering. This is an issue of scale. UBeam is doing a proof-of-concept experiment that should take about $10k (and that is very generous) to test and explore, not $10M, ffs.

That's where the beef is. Let's not look to personally assassinate Perry or her investors. What Danny wrote about was an issue that's endemic in today's investment world, where you can invest in whatever you want, and if convenience/consumer apps, devices, and their ilk are where you decide profit is, then have at it, but you're still limited by the laws of physics and how the technology you're working with interacts with living organisms.

(Because that's what we are. We are not disembodied heads.)

She was an astrobiologist. But so what? There are plenty of real engineers who are tinkering with over-unity nonsense. While this ultra-sonic charging isn't as dumb as perpetual motion it does appear to be dumb.

She's also worked for NASA, in additional to being a wet work astrobiologist. Meaning she has a high level of intelligence, experience working with technology, and the ability to improvise tools. Those all sound like great credentials.

Honestly Computer Science used to be so open to outsiders, now it's "If you don't have a degree we don't believe you."

That's really bad. Especially considering the alternative theory involves her pulling the wool over the eyes of both AH and Marissa Mayer for ten million dollars.

So what if she worked for NASA? I can probaly find NASA ex-employees who believe in homeopathy.

What's she's doing has nothing to do with computer science.

You're right that people shouldn't be dismissing her work because of her qualifications and previous work experience but that works both ways - she doesn't magically gain credibillity just because she used to work at someplace or other.

She's worked on hard problems before. No matter the type of problem, I impute an advantage to that person in other hard activities, even if they're unrelated. E.g. I believe that someone who earned a Harvard mathematics PhD to be more likely than the average person to be able to earn a Yale Microbiology degree.

As for working at NASA, she was doing hard science research on a type of spectrography, for which she was given multiple awards by NASA Ames Rearch Center. So yes, I do consider the multitude of indications of her intelligence to be directly relevant.

This negativity reeks of "she's not part of our West Coast club" and people with no knowledge of the technology are making blanket assertions that its impossible. That's wrong.

If this company had a valley pedigree and a male founder, I'm sure I'd be reading all about the amazing self-charging forthcoming revolution.

If anything people are holding back because she's female.

This thread would be far more insulting if she were male.

The problem has nothing to do with her being UPenn (I have no fucking clue about US geography or state rivalries) or not being in some club (which she clearly is part of - look at where she's raised $10 million from).

It's to do with people being sceptical of the physics. This device is implausible at best.

The Marissa Mayer who turned around Yahoo by... waiting for Alibaba stock holdings to grow in value to cover the negative value of Yahoo's own projects?

The Marissa Mayer who... turned Yahoo around financially, increased employee job seekers by over five hundred percent, cleaned up the companies' brand, and competently managed an enterprise neither you nor I would have the first clue how to run? That Marissa Mayer? Yeah, her.

What does an astrobiologist do for a living?

Her resume's online, along with a lot of other astrobiologists'. Mostly study primitive earth microorganisms, the conditions that may have led them to form, and how those conditions might come about in extraterrestrial cases. Of course they also design tests and methods, many of which are computerized.

That was a great analysis of their technology, but I don't think this is everything wrong with tech investing.

I think there are larger implications about how VC driven start-ups could be changing society for the worse. Whether the infringements upon the rights of lets-not-call-them-employees in 2-sided markets, or $1B valuations given to free apps whose users are [perhaps unknowingly] paying with their personal information, there is quite a lot to unpack to say the least.

A great tech writeup but I think he misses the mark on "everything wrong."


You make a perfectly valid point, but I don't think it addresses the issue at hand. I think what concerns people about uBeam is that they might be the next Clinkle i.e. a case of VCs getting overly excited by a highly charismatic young founder who talks a great game and has an extremely bold-sounding idea that could make them a lot of money.

Clinkle was able to raise the biggest Silicon Valley seed round in history ($25 million) in June 2013 with a non-working demo for a mobile payments app that had an admittedly beautiful UI and could be used to pay retailers with high-frequency sound technology, the type of technological concept that probably looks/sounds like magic to a lot of non-experts. Lucas Duplan the founder was a Stanford CS student and probably had a lot of VCs thinking "next Mark Zuckerberg!!". Smash cut to September 2014, and the product they launch is a debit card for college students that allows users to amass rewards and share those rewards with friends via a mobile app. Pretty big letdown.

In the case of uBeam, they have a confident young female founder trying to tackle a very technical problem. She talks a great game and is able to wow the press and investors with a demo that is very impressive to a layman.

It's worth noting that despite Andreesen Horowitz's great reputation, it just so happens that they were one of Clinkle's investors as well and so that can't be used as evidence that all necessary due diligence has been done and the tech/physics all check out.

We could say: This article illustrates what is wrong with tech blogging.

Taking a media story of a funded startup and running with this sort of conclusions is short sighted at best. There might be much more than this, the probability for funds like a16z to invest $10M without a bit of research sounds rather low to me.

> the probability for funds like a16z to invest $10M without a bit of research sounds rather low to me

Well, it's a probability, and it's greater than zero. It could happen.

An honest question: Are we heading towards a new dot-com bubble? I feel like a lot of companies have been bought/sold for ridiculous amounts, e.g. Mojang, as well as these crazy investments devoid of critique. I'm far from a biz man but it makes me a bit worried. Should I be worried?

According to Mark Cuban(who I'm pretty damn sure knows what he is talking about), it isn't remotely a bubble, because in the dot com bubble everyone was investing - regular working people quit their jobs to become day traders, you would hear people at the coffee shop talking about the prices of stocks they bought, etc. Then when the bubble burst those who hadn't got out while they could lost everything and more. Now its VCs that are throwing money at everything, and they've got more than they know what to do with, and will be just fine if companies they invest in fail.

One of the biggest signs of the bubble were the lack of sanity on exits and IPOs for unproven businesses and technologies.

In this case there is certainly (some) irrational exuberance for funding, but unless you start seeing lots of minimal revenue IPOs it's not the same animal.

In short - lots of startups may die, but it's probably more things that wouldn't have otherwise been funded. It's unlikely to crash the stock market again at current rates.

But they plugged it into a multimeter and "the dial went up" http://allthingsd.com/20110602/demo-at-d9-ubeam/

I've never seen a Radio Shack meter before - I have no idea what that meter is measuring or what it's set to. It could be set to read micro volts, but it would be odd for them to take a close-up photo if it was reading a tiny number. But then maybe that's why they went with an analogue meter - big needle swing is psychologically persuasive.

And Dweck is no longer involved - http://www.businessinsider.com/college-roommates-founded-hot...

The criticisms seem valid, but I'm surprised by the extreme negative reactions. VCs have a lot of money to play with, which they usually pump into the latest photo sharing/email organizer/whatever app. I'd prefer mistakes like this to getting more yo like apps funded.

Plus, who knows. we will probably never have ultrasonic iPhone chargers but maybe ubeam will pivot or stumble upon other unrelated ideas or uses for their technology, as often seems to happen with startups.

Plus, pg says do things that don't scale initially.

do things that don't scale =/= do things that don't work

What they lack in effectiveness, they'll surely make up for in volume!

Actually, I wouldn't even do the math. For any tech, the question is: does it work (right now)? I beleive people made that mistakes with occulus rift too for example. Does it work? no. It's maybe promising, but it don't work. Period.

some of the comments here and the article remind me of clinkle - see http://www.businessinsider.com/inside-story-of-clinkle-2014-...

I would much rather see 10 million put towards an idea that most people think is impossible but could dramatically change the way we experience the world than another photo sharing network.

I am quite unsure about the entire concept, but I went to Facebook and a lot of people who are/were not getting investor funding was sharing this :).

as we require more and more power every year does it make sense to charge your phone with a few percent efficiency instead of walking 3 steps to a damn wall socket? is it that difficult for people? I hope there will be a regulation preventing stupidly wasteful technologies that will impact everyone globally. thank god we can charge our phones from 3 meters - we need another war to support this energy though.. .

Investors decided to invest in a dumb project.

Here's the thing: so what?

Because with a can-do attitude, who needs your fancy equations and negative attitude?

You just need to look at it from the right angle. With your eyes closed.

"Move Fast and Break Shit."

The tech industry seems to earn a lot of money, employ a lot of people and have us on an unparalleled rate of change.

Their current theory is, 1 in 100 things pan out and when they do they make up for all the fails.

This article doesn't really provide evidence this high risk approach is not worth it. Who knows, perhaps other applications might pop out of the technology. Perhaps it's a more obvious 99% in the fail basket. But being overly cautious can also cripple you.

But a good write up on why the tech sucks.

I have even better solution. For a couple of million dollars less. Standardize batteries. Make them replaceable. When your battery dies - pop new one. Loan one. You can charge them in bulk. We have been using that with AA for couple of decades with awesome results.

Now can I get my funding please?

Um doesn't this use piezo electric crystals that vibrate with sound?

UM doesn't this use piezoelectric crystals that are vibrated by ultrasound?

Investors invest in people not ideas. She is a great entrepreneur and will make a successful company with that money. Doesn't matter if their initial prototype isn't working. Instagram was a check-in service while Twitter was a sound sharing website when they started. There is no thermodynamics law for social apps so nobody could blame investors for their investment back then.

That seems wildly optimistic. Color got 41M in funding and was a complete waste. Nothing says a good team and lots of money will yield a successful company.

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