Why Mark Cuban and Marc Andreessen have high expectations for uBeam

July 29, 2015, 2:00 PM UTC
uBeam, Meredith Perry
Photograph by Damon Casarez for Fortune

At just 25 years old, Meredith Perry is running a company that is working on technology some say is impossible: charging a battery without a single cord.

The startup, uBeam, has its doubters, but it also has $13.2 million in funding from some very big names in the venture capital world. And two of the biggest of those names insist Perry will deliver.

Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks owner and angel investor, and Marc Andreessen, of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, agreed to speak to Fortune (separately) about why they invested in uBeam, for a profile of Perry in our new issue. They are quoted in the piece briefly, but here, at length, are their full comments on the company that has received so much attention (not all of it positive) without even having a product to sell. [For a more granular explanation of how the technology works, see this post from last year.]

Mark Cuban

ABC's "Shark Tank" - Season SixPhotograph by Tony Rivetti — ABC via Getty Images

Fortune: What drew you to uBeam?

Cuban: I thought it was a unique flier. I didn’t know if it would work or not, but I thought if it did, it would be a zillion-dollar idea. So I took a chance. If you get a chance to invest in something like that, why wouldn’t you?

Have you seen a prototype?

No. I trust her 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.

Have you ever met Perry in person?

Not since I first invested. I’m available via email whenever she wants, but I let her do her own thing. I get ongoing reports from her in the emails, and everything seems to makes sense. And the other investors that reply back to all of us seem to be positive.

I haven’t tried to hold her feet to the fire or done increasing due diligence. She’s really smart, right, and she’s hired smart, if not smarter, people. So that’s a good sign.

This is pretty different from most of the ideas you’ve invested in on “Shark Tank.” Is this technology higher-impact than most of your investments?

Oh, the reason I do the show is that it sends the message to 20 million people that the American Dream is alive and well. But that’s not meant to show a specific investing philosophy.

But yeah, the optionality on uBeam is huge.

What investments of yours in the past would you compare it to?

When I started broadcast.com with Ty Wagner, that would be one example. [Author’s note: Yahoo bought it in 1999 for $5.7 billion.] Or passing on Uber and missing it because I over-negotiated.

I’ve got a lot of high-optionality type investments that are out there. Motionloft, Biomeme, Validic. The world is moving toward being sensor-driven. And so I think that they have a big upside. Biomeme, which does testing of blood so that diseases can be monitored. It’s all going to change personalized medicine. [Author’s note: Perry, too, has major interest in this and loves to talk about it at length.]

I have a five year old, maybe not him, but his kids are going to tell stories about how grandpa used to walk into a pharmacy to buy over-the-counter medicine that had a warning that said, ‘You might be the one schmuck who dies.’ It’s barbaric, when you think about it.


Marc Andreessen

Interview With Venture Capitalist Marc Andreessen, Ning CEO Jason RosenthalPhotograph by Getty Images

Fortune: What impressed you about uBeam?

Andreessen: The basic story is pretty straightforward: this is one of the big problems of all time. This is such a big problem that Nikola Tesla famously took a crack at it a hundred years ago.

We live in a world in which electricity permeates everything we do, but we still are tethered by wires. And we’ve taken networks wireless before we’ve taken power wireless. This is clearly one of those things where this will be the mother of all markets when it comes together. So it has tremendously big implications.

So there’s that, and then obviously there are a lot of people who have worked on this over the years, including a lot of big companies, but we’re a big believer in the power of the transformative founder. It’s like the alchemy of technical skill, entrepreneurial ambition, the ability to recruit, the ability to build a brand, all of these things. There are these special people who can pull it off. And it’s still early, but Perry has been impressive every step of the way.

There are some big doubts about the underlying technology, whether it can work to deliver wireless power using sound waves.

The thing is—and we don’t like to get into a lot of detail about this because it’s proprietary—but certain people have theories about why this can’t possibly work, and the one thing I can say about that is we do quite a bit of work on these before we invest. It’s not inconceivable that we could get fooled some day, but uniformly, the experts who looked into it for us thought it was very credible. So the early criticism of, ‘It can’t possibly work’ is most likely highly unfounded.

Have you felt impatient at all waiting to see uBeam finish a product?

I would say the wait time for everything we do is longer than people think. So this isn’t that unusual for us. The mean time for a VC investment to bear fruit over the long run has been seven years. And it’s actually gotten longer. It became shorter in the late ’90s, it shortened to four years. [Author’s note: Many will recall this as the precursor to the dot-com bust.] But in the most recent decade, it has elongated out to 11 years. So VC really is a business of patience. Now, it’s certainly fair to say a lot of what we do is straightforward application technology. But still, we’re very comfortable with things that take a very long time. The public market increasingly can’t tolerate these long time frames. So a big advantage of the private markets is that we can.

The other thing you should know about the waiting, too, is a lot of it has been all the more positive for her, which is that people want to put more money in. They want to get to her. There has been a rush of people who have been hanging around the hoop on this one trying to figure out the right time to invest.

Is this one of the most exciting companies you’re invested in?

Oh yeah, for sure. This is such a big opportunity, if you can fix this problem. The other thing is we do have a significant number of investments that deal in hard science or physics. I’m glad you’re doing this story because those don’t draw the same press attention. Every once in a while someone will write a column saying tech VCs only care about apps, then we’ll reach out and offer them a visit to talk about all our hard-science investments, and suddenly they’re busy or not that interested.

But even among other science investments, this seems especially exciting, like the kind of thing anyone anywhere would want.

I think that’s right, but I will say the other thing is there’s deeper, even bigger implications here for industrial use. The ability for electrical devices to get wired into everything. One of the things I really believe is that in the long run, every object wants to have a chip in it. And that chip should be connected to the Internet. So every device should become smart in the long run. In 2015, I’m still carrying around a piece of plastic in my wallet that has no connectivity. Eventually, I want everything to have a chip, even my toothbrush. But if it has a chip, it needs to be connected to power.

Has Perry personally impressed you?

She’s executing very well. Now, ninety percent of her bandwidth is on short-term stuff, but she has a very broad, expansive vision for what follows. There are visionaries in our industry who have never shipped anything, and you do have to ship the first product. But once you have, the way the world gets built is by these those who have a strong vision down the road. Look at Tesla. It started out with an electric sports car. But now it will do other kind of cars, it will do power walls and battery technology for the home, I mean, he’s got ideas for 20 years.

I’d put uBeam in what I call the Harry Potter world. The paintings are moving, the newspaper is alive, the book opens itself up, all these magical things are happening.

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