Inventing a wireless-charging device from scratch isn't so easy. But uBeam's Meredith Perry has a working prototype and a vision for the future—and told Fortune all about it.
Meredith Perry is tired of wires.
The 25-year-old was still an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania when she built the first model of her wireless charging system and demonstrated it at the All Things Digital conference in 2011. (“It was basically like two toaster-sized boxes that were two feet apart, and we showed that you could beam a certain amount of power over that distance with ultrasound,” she says.) Its name? uBeam.
Now a company in its own right, uBeam says it has a working prototype and could have a product on store shelves within two years. There are other wireless charging systems already out there—Qi, for example, charges your phone as long as it sits on or inches away from a small base—but Perry believes uBeam’s technology is superior to all competitors. As part of the Shape the Future package in the January 2015 issue of Fortune, Perry, who lives in Los Angeles, sat down for a long conversation by phone about how she created uBeam and her vision of other future technologies. What follows is an edited transcript.
Fortune: Let’s go to a few years ago when you were first beginning to work on uBeam. What was the invention process like?
Meredith Perry: To create something really new is extremely difficult, because there’s no protocol. I can’t Google it online and find, “These are the steps that need to be taken,” or, “When somebody created something similar, these are the questions they asked, these are the people they talked to, and these are the materials they used.” Sometimes you have to create your own materials, your own design, your own manufacturing process. You have to create your own shipping materials that can cover the parts that you built. And we were building all of these tiny little devices by hand. We 3-D-printed tools that were useful in creating these devices. For example, we needed a holder that could hold a certain amount of micro beads. So that’s the level of minutiae you have to get involved with in order to actually execute on something that hasn’t been done before.
In the beginning I looked at every possible option. I just wanted to solve a problem. And that was: I don’t want to plug in my laptop anymore. I want to be able to move around a room and use all my devices without plugging them in. And I learned that ultrasound was the only type of technology that would work for the experience we are trying to give, which is the Wi-Fi for charging.
Then I basically stopped at what materials we needed to make that happen—they’re called transducers, which convert electrical energy into sound and sound back into electricity. I knew that for this project to work, I needed the right transducer, and a transmitter that needs to have this amount of power and be able to beam that power across the room and hit these targets, and so on.
And that existed already?
Yes, transducers are used in speakers. And that’s effectively what uBeam is: a speaker. To make sound, in general you plug in a speaker, which is a bunch of sonic transducers. And we’re using ultrasonic transducers, which is sound above what you can hear. So when you plug in a speaker, you’re taking electricity from a wall, and the electricity is converted into sound, and that sound travels through the air. You’re converting electrical energy into acoustic energy. So that already exists. But a speaker is radiating out sound in 360 degrees, and you’re not going to get that much power from sound unless you focus it. So you have to do the same thing you would do with a laser beam, or with a light bulb—you take the energy and funnel it into a cone. But we’re not physically focusing it, we’re digitally focusing it. So we had to create a transmitter that digitally focuses sound to get enough power out of our ultrasonic speaker across the room. So the whole concept of uBeam worked because I knew that transducers existed. It was just a matter of thinking about sound as a form of energy, which people don’t often think about.
Anyway. I’m kind of going into weird details about this.
No, it’s fascinating. Let’s talk more about the general process. What was your work method?
Well, back in 2012, we had raised a bunch of money, I had this whole plan planned out, but it was extremely difficult because I was working with only contractors. Up until a few months ago, even. Until we raised our Series A [funding round, totaling $10 million and led by Upfront Ventures] we didn’t have any full-time employees except me. So what I did was broke apart the technology into its pieces. I had people working on the transmitter, and there are the electronics behind the transmitter, so I contracted people to create the electronics behind the transmitter. Then I did tons and tons of research to figure out, “What is the most powerful, in-air, ultrasonic transducer I can get?” There are a zillion different types of ultrasonic transducers. Most are made for medical purposes, like sonograms. Then there are people that have designed transducers for cars, like when you back up and you hear the “beep beep.” Then there are transducers you use underwater for sonar, like on a submarine. I needed to figure out which is the best transducer I can use that will beam power through the air. And of course, nothing had been created before that was even close.
There was one type of transducer that came out of a university, and it was kind of close, all we had to do was change this, this, and this, and theoretically we should be able to output the power we need using this design… so I contracted the people that wrote those papers to design those transducers. Then I needed someone to design the transmitter transducer, but I also needed someone else to design the receiver transducer, which would capture the energy. So I had individual people working on individual parts of the system.
It sounds almost like an assembly line.
Right. But it was very difficult because everybody was remote. That was the challenge of the way I set it up. But I could not get anyone to come on full-time. And I didn’t necessarily need anyone to come on full-time, I just needed each person to finish their one part.
The part we couldn’t crack was the transducer. It took us a total of 14 months working on that one particular problem.
But that one part is the core engine, isn’t it?
Well, for a system to function each part needs to work, but ultimately this piece is the heartbeat, yes.
So then it makes sense that the transducer took the longest.
Yes, but I didn’t realize just how hard it would be.
Had no one ever tried wireless charging before?
Wireless charging as a category absolutely has been tried before and is being done by multiple parties using different technologies. But in terms of ultrasonic power, no. Anything that can be beamed through the air can be converted into a usable type of energy. So, people have tried laser for wireless power, but lasers can blind you. And then there’s [Duracell] Powermat, which uses induction and is magnetic, so you stick your phone on a mat and it charges. I don’t consider that true wireless power. Then with magnetic resonance coupling, which a company called WiTricity is using, it’s a totally viable technology but it’s only effective in charging really large objects over really short distances. If you want to charge something that way at a greater distance, you need receivers that are larger than the device you’re charging, so there’s a convenience issue.
So at the end of the day, ultrasound is the only technology that is safe, that can travel the distance, that can charge your device, while remaining small and compact. Ultrasonic is the only type of energy that can be commercialized for consumer devices.
Well, with one hurdle being that it doesn’t work through walls, like Wi-Fi does.
Well, it’s not necessarily a hurdle if you look at the positives. It’s what makes ultrasound the most secure data transmission system in existence.
But, pie-in-the-sky hope, you’d want it to work through walls, right?
Oh, of course. But it’s physically impossible. If it were possible, I would take that over the secure data transmission. But even working in one room, think about where that can be applied. Not only within homes and rooms, but think about airports, conference halls, concerts. And you can charge an arbitrary number of devices at any time.
You first raised big funding when uBeam was in really early stages. Did you feel a lot of pressure and urgency?
There was a sense of insane urgency throughout the entire process. And I pushed and pushed and pushed, but you can only push so hard. I had set myself an artificial deadline, and I was continuously disappointed that I wasn’t hitting that. But in speaking with people who had created new technologies before, they would say, “Holy crap, you did that in two years? That’s incredibly short.” In my mind, we were like dinosaurs already, but people who have actually experienced creating new technology before said this was actually pretty fast. But the process killed me. People would check in and ask our progress, but to explain what was actually taking so long would take hours.
Was that frustrating?
Of course. And the other thing is that throughout the process, I always thought, “Okay, it’s going to work in three months. We’ve got this great new idea to make this transducer function.” So instead of giving someone an update I’d say I’ll tell you in one month. But then we’d fail, and then we’d say we will make a certain change, and then it will work, and that happened about five times. It took about three months to make each change. It was extraordinarily expensive every single time we wanted to make a change to the device. And the lag time was mind-boggling. When you fail five times but you take tiny steps forward each time, it keeps you going. You can stay positive because there’s still light at the end of the tunnel. But at the same time, it really wears you down. You constantly have to think, “Okay, so if this next option doesn’t work, what will we do?” And you just can’t stop until you accomplish your goal. What really kept me going through the entire process was, “Even though this is so hard, it’s still possible.” And I knew that if it was still possible, I had to do it, because it would be so huge. I know that if I was working on something smaller, or something that I didn’t believe could make such an impact on the world then I wouldn’t have been able to keep going through those times.
So one of our contractors we brought on, who is is now our CTO, created an entirely new type of transducer during our 14-month marathon of death— it ended up working on the first try. We were running out of money. We had two designs running in parallel, and we knew one of them had to work or we’d be screwed. In the end, both designs worked, but his was so much cheaper and so much more powerful that we went with his.
Take me to the moment when the prototype worked successfully, if there was one big moment.
It was when our CTO’s transducer worked. To paint the picture of what life was like at that time: for six and a half months, from December 2013 through June 2014, I was basically living in the tiny garage of my CTO in northern Virginia. It was the worst winter of my entire life, and we spent 10 hours a day just like little Foxconn workers in this garage with no windows, breathing in toxic fumes and trying to get this thing to work over and over and over again.
It was either in April or May when we tested out the hybrid, it worked, and I literally screamed for joy. I had the biggest smile on my face because I knew that the future was bright. We knew it was real, it’s going to work, we proved the last piece that we needed to prove.
And now we all just wait for it to come out.
Yes. Most of the world still doesn’t know about this, which is awesome. So we’re going to release it when we release it, and it’ll be something completely new, and I think that the world will be delighted by the experience.
Looking toward the future, what are some of other existing or eventual technologies that excite and interest you?
There are a few. And I’ll try to be quick because I get a little too excited. They span between health and transportation and 3-D holograms. So, last year I got really into the idea of creating 3-D, touchable holograms in the air using fog. I wanted to create a system where you could be sitting next to somebody who is in China but could actually touch them, see them, feel them. I built a bunch of hologram machines, which was cool.
Is this different from the Tupac hologram at Coachella in 2012?
Yeah. This would actually be a three-dimensional display, not just a projection. That’s one thing, the other is I think that people should have some kind of embedded blood sensor that reads your levels continuously. To me, it’s kind of crazy that only once people feel really crappy, they go to a doctor and find out what’s wrong with them. Why don’t we have some sensor built into the body that lets you know before you feel ill, and ultimately, is connected to an embedded dispensary that can put sugar into your body if your glucose is low? You basically would have an external, but embedded, automatic system that regulates your body.
This sound like the first step in making us all half-robot, though…
Right! Yes. What I think is crazy is we have so much data and insight into our digital world, but we have no insight into what’s actually going on inside the most important system of all, our bodies. And then, finally, curing cancer is a big one. If it’s not curable, we need to make MRI machines that detect lumps and growths much smaller than what they can detect right now. Part of the reason we detect cancer at stages where it’s a little too late is that the machines that detect cancer can only see lumps of a certain size. If we were able to detect cancerous growths at a size smaller, we could stop it earlier on. So instead of curing it maybe what we need to do is use machines to catch it much earlier.
Many of these ideas you like—wouldn’t they scare most people? Its all very Isaac Asimov.
I’ve thought about how to implement this. Speaking for myself, I never want to go to the dentist, I never want to go to the various doctors. So if someone told me to implant something in my body, as a futurist, I’d be down, but as a citizen I would think it is annoying. And maybe scary. So I think it’s something that needs to be done when you’re super young with the guidance of a pediatrician. We could just get in the habit of, once you’re born, when you’re two years old or something, you get this thing implanted and you grow up with it and it becomes part of your life. People are just scared of things that they’re not used to.
For more stories from our Shape the Future package, click here.