As I’ve written about recently, at Upfront Ventures we started talking a couple of years ago about wanting to fund stuff with more meaning. I think this is a combination of being realists as venture capitalists that outsized returns in our funds must come from taking on bigger, more impactful projects that can move markets. It is also a function of the stage of much of our careers where we aren’t interested in playing small ball with incrementalism on how to squeeze out an extra 5% of margin by optimizing the Internet slightly better.
The reality is that as VCs we have limited allocations of where we can spend our time so we want to attach ourselves to projects in which we, too, can be passionate. It’s true the some VCs have started writing so many checks that they resemble stock pickers but the majority of us still have less than 10 board seats at any time and tend to go pretty deep so the result is that we care deeply about where we commit our time.
Meredith came to see me along with the CTO Marc Berte. They had been introduced by my friend Brian Garrett, a partner at Crosscut Ventures and the ambition outlined in their deck seemed almost unbelievable, “to make wireless charging of phones (and other devices) as easy as WiFi” that I had to see it for myself. They demoed the electricity transfer with a physical device that looked like something that would never be allowed on an airplane. But it seemed to work.
I spent one hour with them. I had back-to-backs all week and that’s what it’s like when you squeeze in a last-minute meeting. But I walked out and asked our entire team to go in after I left. I said simply, “That’s the most ambitious project I’ve seen since I became a VC.”
The approach was clever and novel. Take electricity as an input and through a process called ultrasonic transduction to convert it to a soundwave that can be beamed from a transmitter to a sleeve on your mobile phone that would use and ultrasound receiver to convert it back to electricity and charge your phone. Many of their innovations that allowed this to work when nobody else had solved wireless transfer at a distance (several meters) included:
- A transmitter compact enough to be practical to hang in restaurants, coffee shops, your car, your home, etc.
- A receiver thin enough to be a sleeve on a phone and small enough in surface area requiring the right materials (they can transmit & receive with devices thinner than 5 millimeters),
- Precision tracking software so they can focus the sound beam to concentrate the sound wave exactly to your receiver and avoid inefficiencies of diffusion
- Methods for identifying the size, shape & motion of devices while they are moving
The goal is straightforward. uBeam intends to charge your mobile phones at amazing speeds while you are simply using your phone or setting it down anywhere. Over time, working with manufacturers, uBeam has a method that will allow the battery life to last 10x longer than today’s batteries before they degrade. They can allow manufacturers to use thinner batteries and thus further miniaturize phones.
And the truth is that Team uBeam doesn’t want to stop at phones. With the explosion of “wearables’ wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to charge your watch, fitness tracker or noise-canceling headphones? What about if elderly people never had to ask a relative or healthcare worker to change the batteries on their hearing aids? The practical uses for uBeam technology is limitless.
This kicked off a frantic process of discovery for me personally
- Did the physics actually work? Check
- Was it safe? Well … for starters it is just an inaudible soundwave being transferred – as in the kind also used for women during pregnancy. It also happens to be how your car likely tells the distance to objects when you park or if you have a side assist whether you can change lanes safely. Check
- Was there consumer demand? No brainer. If electricity could be transferred like WiFi but as safe as a soundwave we use on pregnant women’s bellies and at a price-point that was attractive this is a multi-billion market. Check.
- Could we produce this at cost? At scale? Here is where having Marc Berte and a team out of MIT who have designed systems like this for years gave one confidence we could do something others couldn’t copy and at price points that could make us market leaders over night.
- Did anybody hold patents that would prevent us from using this technology? I seldom hire patent attorneys during due diligence but this was too important. We hired OSHA regulatory lawyers. We hired IP specialists to review prior art. We grilled their IP attorneys. The more we dug the more confident we became (and so did every advisor we used).
And then the most important factor for me – who were these people? Were they ambitious? Did they have the right skills? Would they build a world class team.
Meredith Perry came up with the idea for uBeam while still in college at University of Pennsylvania and like many great inventors won her school’s business plan competition. It turns out that while she had the right idea the materials needed some reworking to come in at the cost structure required to build a business at scale. Marc Berte started helping her to perfect the materials and approach and the two together had a huge break-through that led Marc to decide to join Meredith in her journey. He became so passionate about the idea that he decided to go full time and began recruiting some of MIT friends to the project.
With Meredith I did every on-reference-sheet call I could make and many off-reference-list calls. I followed my playbook on reference calls making sure to ask both positively worded as well as skeptical questions. “Ambitious,” “Driven,” “Crazy Smart” and “Secretive” were the adjectives most used.
She had raised seed funds from a who’s who list of investors including Andreessen Horowitz, Founders Fund, Marissa Mayer, Marc Cuban, Troy Carter and so on. Many people had small, very early bets on the company but the question was whether I was going to take the first big bet. One of her seed investors is Jonathan Triest of Ludlow Ventures who I really enjoy speaking to and trust his input. He was doubling down on his investment and also gave me a great lay of the land on handicapping how all of the other seed investors saw the company.
I also got the insights of her biggest champion from within Andreessen Horowitz, Margit Wennmachers, who talked me through when she first met Meredith, how she’s grown, the maturity of Meredith to interact with Silicon Valley’s good & great and be nonplussed about it. She connected me with Andreessen’s due diligence team who were surprisingly open with all the technical analysis they had done. It was impressive. And then I spoke with Marc directly who also gave me refreshing views on the company and his word that he would personally stay involved from A16Z and a desire to invest more than their prorata in any round.
But the most important character building itself was just seeing the talent of the people who were lining up to work with Meredith. Accomplished executives well her senior were very comfortable joining Meredith on this journey and trusting her leadership to raise capital, do business development deals, build a team and ultimately a great company.
And finally it comes down to the good old instinct test. Through many meetings discussing strategy, approach, recruiting, financing, etc. I became impressed with Meredith’s maturity, willingness to learn and lack of fear in taking on the enormous challenge of leading a company as ambitious as uBeam. I am inspired by her ambitions and plans.
I can’t wait to see what Team uBeam produces.
Note: Company headquarters is in Los Angeles with major R&D also happening in Northern Virginia.
(Cross-posted @ Both Sides of the Table)