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What's up with WATT, Pt I (or "What's Wrong with Tech Journalism?")

It's been a while since I covered Energous (whose ticker symbol is WATT . Other posts are here , here , here , here , here , here , and...

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Must Have the Precious


How did Smeagol become Gollum?

For those of you who don't know, Gollum is a major character in Lord of the Rings. As a young adult named Smeagol, his relative finds the One Ring, an artifact of great power that can corrupt those who wield it. Smeagol demands the Ring from his relative, then kills him to take it. Initially he uses the power of the ring for personal benefit, thieving and antagonizing his family until eventually he is expelled from his community, spending most of the rest of his life in a dark cave, miserable but he had his "Precious". He becomes "Gollum", and Smeagol is forgotten. Eventually he loses "Precious", and starts the events leading to "The Lord of the Rings".

Part of the story of The Lord of the Rings is how the quest for this object cost Smeagol everything, and turned him into a vile creature, despised by all who know him. He uses any tactic to get what he wants, be it pretending to be someone's friend while plotting to kill them, lying, stealing, and justifies any action, no matter how vile, in that the Ring is rightfully his and it is his "destiny" to have it.

A briefer summary: Other people create/find something of great value, Smeagol takes it by force, proclaims it as his, treats even the closest to him so badly he is shunned, justifies horrible behaviour upon this lie, and ultimately is responsible for the destruction of that great value that others created.

This, of course, has nothing to do with uBeam, so here's where I segue. Far in the past, before I became involved in uBeam, there were two co-founders, Meredith Perry and Nora Dweck. Few have heard of Nora, but she's an important part of the creation of uBeam. My information is not first hand, it comes from court documents and speaking to key players outside my role in the company, so take what you will from what I say here.

Perry and Dweck ended up in an ugly fight - one ugly enough to reach court. The complaint can be found here and here. For those who don't enjoy reading court documents, let me summarize it for you:

Dweck sued Perry for "breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract, and fraud" following the initial founding of uBeam. They were both students at UPenn at the same time, and were roommates in 2010 and 2011. They both regularly swapped ideas for companies and inventions, and at one point Perry suggested 'wireless power using ultrasound' and the two brainstormed and collaborated to create 'uBeam'. Until May 2011, they publicly discussed the concept and presented themselves as equal partners in this endeavour.

In April 2011 they entered and won the "PennVention" competition with uBeam, which had required significant preparation not just on the technical side, but on the business side for marketing and sales as well. When they accepted this award, and several other prizes, they did so as partners and equals. Realising that they needed IP protection, Dweck engaged (and presumably paid for, since her family was quite wealthy) an IP attorney to prepare patent applications. Perry agreed with Dweck that the IP would be jointly owned, and that she would make sure the IP was transferred to a jointly owned company they would create. Dweck let Perry take care of that aspect while she spent her time getting a website, logo, and business cards done for them. Then came "All Things Digital".

"All Things D" is where it gets interesting. It's an invitation only conference on tech and business associated with the Wall Street Journal. You can get great access to potential funding and publicity there. Perry and Dweck presented a demo that wowed the non-technical audience, but proved nothing to anyone with any understanding of electrical engineering, and you can see a blow by blow account of that here. Still it was enough to garner more interest and apparently a uBeam product by the fall of 2011 (what year is it now?) and things took off from there. Reading them talking here, it's almost sad knowing what comes next.

The pair is trying to raise $3 million to get the product ready for release. “We’re in conversations with a few different companies,” Dweck said. “The future’s kind of bright.”

Now just days before this conference Perry had sent Dweck a company Operating Agreement, not a final one but "just to have something for D", and that "we'll do the real one later". Pressed for time, Dweck signed - and shockingly the document was an 80/20 split in Perry's favour. (Why did she sign you say? Well, she's 21 and doing cool stuff with a friend, why would she be concerned that her friend wouldn't do right by her?).

After All Things D, uBeam gets lots of publicity and people tell Perry that "it's a billion dollar company" and Dweck begins to be excluded from things. Suddenly, Dweck can't get company information, files, reports, and Perry is saying it's all hers. Not just the unfavorable 80/20 split, but 100/0. Perry threaten to dissolve uBeam if Dweck persisted in demanding information (the "shoot the hostage" tactic). It all descends from there, with Dweck as a company owner and officer demanding an investigation into Perry's wrongdoing, and the awesome response from Perry that she had investigated herself and found no wrongdoing.

And then the lawyers are involved, and a court case begins. Dweck sues Perry for 50% of the company. In the end it is settled out of court with Dweck rumoured to get 20% of the company, the title of co-founder, and a gag order to not talk publicly about the resolution. 

There was no court finding for the public to see, no judgement as to who was right. But I can tell you this - having worked with Perry for years, I believe Dweck, and in my opinion she describes the Perry I unfortunately came to know very well.

A briefer summary of the court docs: Multiple people create/find something of possible great value, Perry proclaims the company as hers, and alienates someone once a friend to the point of going to court. 

So back to the original question. How did Smeagol become Gollum? 

In my opinion Smeagol never existed, he was always Gollum, just with a thin veneer of civility. The Precious just showed him for who he really was.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Big Lie

All this was inspired by the principle—which is quite true within itself—that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.


And yes, I know, Godwin may be invoked. Doesn't make it less true.

For further clarification - "The Big Lie" is like "The 100th Idiot", a single short phrase to convey a particular meaning that I'll likely be using a lot. In the context of startups it means "Getting enough people to believe a "story" in order to keep the money flowing." The simple rules are:

  • If you're going to lie, lie big. Lie so big it's almost unbelievable.
  • Repeat that lie as often as you can. Work to get many others to repeat it.
  • Stick with that lie, no matter what, no matter how ridiculous, even when it's proven to be a lie.

Do We Have a Deal?


So it seems I was wrong about Energous, they announced a deal. I retract everything I said about them, because clearly based on what they say in their press release, there must be something to their technology.

"Energous ... today announced a partnership agreement with a market-leading specialty battery company in the hearing devices and wearables market. The company has signed a joint development and licensing agreement with Energous and anticipates shipping WattUp receiver technology as well as a Miniature WattUp transmitter.

In order to preserve competitive advantages, the partner has requested confidentiality. "

A Joint Development Agreement as well as a Licensing Agreement? That proves they are a legitimate company that will have products.

Well, no.

A JDA is basically an agreement between two parties that says "We'll try to develop something. What you develop is yours, what we develop is ours, and what we develop together we share." That's it. Doesn't guarantee a product, and it's all still at a research phase. More importantly, there's no requirement for funds committed from either party - other than the time to write it, a JDA is 'free'. I've worked with companies where they almost seemed to collect JDAs - drawers full of them and never a product, or a dollar of revenue, from a single one.

A licensing agreement is a little different - usually it says "One of us has some Intellectual Property. We agree not to sue you if you have a product with it in a specific field of use, a specific region of the world, for a specific period of time." In return the other side usually does something in return - license back some of their technology, pay some cash, pay a % of everything they sell with this IP, or sometimes nothing at all. You want this in place before you put a lot of work into a product, or even know if it's ultimately viable, as you need to know upfront the costs and business impacts.

In other words, licensing agreements are no guarantee of a product or revenue. What is valuable for revenue is when a legitimate company announces "We are releasing a product with Acme Corp technology and paying a license fee." Now this may happen with Energous and this unnamed battery company, but I doubt it. Notice this other company has not necessarily committed funds, or even sullied their name, with this technology. If they were certain it was going somewhere, they'd be announcing their exclusive benefits over their competitors in a press release themselves.

Even when you get an actual product, the licensor might just have gotten lucky and bamboozled a legitimate company into releasing a loser. Witness Theranos, with their tests being performed in Walgreens, and used to help justify the $9 billion valuation - yet now it's looking like those calling Theranos a con game are right, and Walgreens are now realising their mistake and ending the deal.

So in my opinion, Energous get what they want - the veneer of legitimacy to keep the money flowing.

Interestingly, their press release doesn't say what technology was licensed and who the licensor was. The way it's worded, it could be that the battery company is licensing their battery tech to Energous, even though you would think it's the other way around. If devious, Energous could pay the battery company, say $50,000, and include onerous confidentiality clauses in the contract, then announce the agreements, making it seem like it was an agreement in their favour - and never lie and get into trouble with the SEC.

Why do that? Well a 2% bump in stock value of a $170m market cap company is $3.4 million. Do that once a month for a year, and you've added around $45m to the cap, which some shareholders will take a nice cut of. And the $50k that was spent to make the deal, along with the lawyers fees? All from the company funds (paid for by other investors). (Looking at the ticker for WATT, Energous climbed about 2% after this announcement)

For some, it's about just doing what it takes to make it look like they're a legitimate company on the verge of releasing products. Just keep the party going as long as possible. Sometimes it's a real product and all above board. Some do it because they are simply trying to get as much money for themselves as they can, while they can, and they know it's a con. Some do it because they truly believe (rightly or wrongly) that the product is viable, but they just need more time and money to get it working, and when they prove everyone wrong it will all be justified.

But, hey, at least Energous have announced a JDA/licensing deal. Where are uBeam's announcements on that front?

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Those Other Guys, Pt II


So back to Energous. Where we left them was that we had, through the use of physics, mathematics, and reasoning, completely demolished their claims and proven that what they are saying is unachievable - that is they are either idiots, or liars (or maybe I'm the idiot!). That's where we'd be in a sane world, but it got complicated and so you just switched off, maybe you heard 'blah blah' or sounds like the Peanuts' teacher, but overall you just didn't care. 

So let's take a look at the business side of Energous instead. You can find lots of information out by looking at their S-1 or their 10-K/Q, because they're now a public company - more on that later.

Energous was formed in late 2012 by an MIT graduate with lots of experience in wireless communications. His parents even invested $10,000 to get him started. Normal startup so far, but then it gets weird. Just three months later, an investment bank, MDB Holdings, come in and start advising and investing. Barely a year after that, they then file for an IPO - that is, selling shares to the public. A company with no product, no revenue, nothing at all, is filing for an IPO. They do have great publicity and a great story, however, and are talking about world changing products coming later that year. Who wouldn't want to get in?!

In March 2014, 18 months after forming, it sells $24 million of shares. That $10,000 his parents put in is now worth $26 million. Nice return. The company is worth well over $100,000,000 - remember, no product, no revenue. But you know someone's making money in all these transactions.

And now the SEC is involved - there are major penalties for lying in any statements from a public company, so they must be being honest, right?

Since then, two years on, and there's still no product, in fact they are backtracking and pushing dates further out, and drastically cutting performance specs on their product. But they've added lots of big names as boardmembers and advisors! These smart advisors and big name board members wouldn't join unless there's something there!

And recently, they admit that they still haven't demonstrated a commercial level product, even in their lab. Uh-oh, they must be collapsing and in terrible trouble.

Well, no. The CEO now makes $2 million per year - for a company under 4 years old, with no product, and no sales. The VP Engineering and VP Sales/Marketing each make $1.5 million.

That's $5 million per year in salary for three people, once again for a company with no product and no revenue. So let me summarise:

  • Come up with a really good story for a product people just have to have
  • Just make it believable enough, and for people to want to believe, for the skeptics to be ignored
  • Create massive hype in the media to boost interest
  • Announce fantastic products somewhere out in the future
  • Never quite directly answer the critic's questions over the practicality, always dodge and claim 'proprietary'
  • When eventually it gets to that time you need to show product or demos, get in some 'big names' instead and make them public to make outsiders think it's all still great
  • Keep it going long enough someone eventually buys you and cash out

Remember I said earlier that in my opinion those behind the company are idiots or liars? Well, they made $5 million in one year from it. Which do you think they are?

Here's the genius of Energous. Normally a startup cycle works with the early investors trying to get it to the point where there is a product revenue, or more likely a buyout where they cash in. It usually takes several rounds of financing, with lots of dilution along the way, along with a big chance of failure. Energous bypassed that and went straight to IPO, and got their money out at the beginning. No risky and long slog to return - just jump straight there. It looks to me like they gamed the system, and did so brilliantly.

Now they had better hope they didn't lie in anything the SEC related, but otherwise, they're laughing. They don't even need to make a product to earn more money from this, each, than most people earn in a lifetime of 9 to 5.

But, hey, there has to be something there. People wouldn't just make stuff up to make money, that never happens. And if they did, it would be a one-off, an aberration. There couldn't possibly be other hyped technology companies following that bullet point list from above, could there?

The 100th Idiot


"100 idiots make idiotic plans, and carry them out. All but one justly fail. The hundredth idiot whose plans succeeded through pure luck, is immediately convinced he's a genius."

Iain M. Banks, Matter

I'll be using the term "100th Idiot" a lot, I expect, best you know where it comes from. And reading Iain Banks books is worthwhile in itself.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Scrappy Dog


A genius/founder/media-darling/CEO took to the stage at the Tribeca Film Festival yesterday to talk about how the massive negative publicity her company had garnered, the growing list of scientific luminaries questioning the viability and safety of her company's technology based on well understood and proven physics, and the lack of a single public demonstration or validation point despite years of promises, was proof she is right after all! And for once, this isn't Elizabeth Holmes, but Meredith Perry of uBeam.

"If an idea is polarizing, it might just mean that you're on the right track." Perry proclaims in a new article (signup needed). 

Or some may say it might just mean that you are utterly wrong and those who have spent their lives working on this type of thing really do know better. After all, isn't that what "polarizing" means?

Here's the definition of "polarizing":

 to cause (people, opinions, etc.) to separate into opposing groups

and also

 to cause (something) to have positive and negative charges

There aren't groups here. There is a single person, Meredith Perry, who stands up in public and proclaims this will happen and is viable. Yes she has raised money, and "used 30 of the world's leading ultrasonic engineers, physicists, and electrical engineers", but we never hear them answering the questions. It's a single voice. Sticking with the "polarity" theme, let's call that the negative side. 

On the positive side, you have multiple people with decades of experience in ultrasound devices, electronics, and safety independently presenting well founded data saying (effectively) "While in theory it may be possible in limited cases, the safety, efficiency, and economics of it mean it is not even remotely practical.".

So here's the 'polarization':

  • Negative - one person with no training in a highly complex technical field, making extraordinary claims, with nothing but their word that it works made to the public
  • Positive - a wide array of people from multiple industries, academia, and location, with hundreds of years' relevant experience between them, with no personal financial stake in the outcome, presenting well researched information that there are major concerns and questions

It's another example of lazy journalism. There is a person, and then a group. One has infinite perseverance, one has publicly presented, well researched data. This is not polarization - this is Homer Simpson vs Drederick Tatum,  They are not equal. Journalists - just because it goes beyond the complexity of 2+2=4, stop trying to present it as an even "He said, she said" fight when the preponderance of scientific evidence is on one side.

And now she speaks for the poor, downtrodden, unrecognized geniuses out there that experts get together in their smoke filled back rooms to oppress:

"How many brilliant, game-changing ideas out there thought up by laypeople, teenagers, store clerks have been squashed by experts that said, 'That can't work'?" 

The 'oppressed' thing may work when you're fresh out of college, it gets old 7 years and $25,000,000 later.

You know, we all love the idea of an underdog who's a scrappy little fighter and in the end proves the big dog wrong. It makes for a great film. But here in the real world, most of the time that scrappy little dog is just plain wrong.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Schrödinger's CEO


Schrödinger's CEO
[shroh:ding:erz siːiːˈəʊ]
noun

A CEO who is apparently both simultaneously a genius inventor of a technology and single handedly responsible for building a business based upon it, yet also completely unaware and has no knowledge of major technological, safety, and business flaws in her company despite it being common knowledge to lay members of the public for years. See Elizabeth Holmes ...

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Those Other Guys, Pt 1

Having made comment about others' concerns over tech startups like Theranos ability to fleece investors and the public, I thought I would make some comments regarding Energous, another wireless power company getting some press. I'll point out here that I have no inside knowledge of the workings of Energous, just that I've spent a lot of time in the last few years looking at the physics of transferring power via waves (acoustic and electromagnetic waves have a lot of similarities in the maths and fundamental behaviours, much of what I say below can be applied to ultrasound phased arrays), and how investors in tech companies think.

For the less technically minded among you, I'll summarise in the next part the key points from here, and you can just skip straight to part II.

Energous uses RF electromagnetic waves, similar to those used in the higher speed wifi signals, to transfer the energy. At the 5.8GHz they claim, wavelength is going to be around 5.2 cm (divide the speed of light at 3e8 m/s by the frequency of 5.8e9 Hz). Why is this important? Here's an image from their patent filings, with the power transmitter in the top left, labelled 706:


It's clear from the patent they intend to use a phased array, similar to what is done in radar, and what uBeam has claimed to do. Essentially, it's a large regular grid of transmitters, like a chessboard, and by sending the signals from each small piece at slightly different times, you can send a beam to a chosen location. An image below shows a beam from an array from a standard computer simulation package. This is a well known phenomena and has been for many years, there are few surprises.
Notice as well as the main lobe (big red bit where most of the energy is going), there are lots of little peaks going in other directions called side lobes. These are an inevitable consequence in any practical system, and involve energy wasted and going places you don't want. You can also get even worse lobes called 'grating lobes' if you don't put those transmitters close enough together, less than half a wavelength or around 2.5 cm. Let's assume, like any good engineer would if designing a phased array where you are sending power and don't want to cook anything off to the sides, that you go with 2.5 cm spacing.

Now Energous have been claiming 'hundreds of small elements' so in the great power analysis here let's assume around 500, or about a 22 by 22 grid, which at 2.5cm spacing is 55cm on each side. Wow, that's a big panel. Let's make it closer to the size of a speaker, which is what the press is describing here and make it to 100, that's a 25 by 25cm plate, still pretty sizeable. That's not out of scope - if you look at the scale of array that Ossia, also using RF to do charging, is showing in their patents. (Ossia work at half the frequency, so wavelength is 2x bigger).
Anyway, Energous claim to create 'pockets of 3D energy' which is marketing speak for 'beam'. No pocket of energy magically appears with none elsewhere, like a magnifying glass with sunlight, it concentrates more and more until your point focus is very intense. How small you can make that focus is related to the wavelength L (smaller wavelength for smaller focus) and transmitter size relative to wavelength D (bigger transmitter is smaller focus), and how far away you are trying to focus F (further away is larger focus). Generally, your focus (pocket of energy) is given by L*F/D. That's not exact, but is close enough for a blog, and the fact that the energy slowly dies off, like in the image below, would certainly be a safety concern. Not something I want to be near even away from that pocket.

So using the above numbers, at 5 meters range (just beyond the 15 feet they state), the focus is 0.05 * 5 / .25, or around 1 meter in size. That's a big 'pocket'. Even at 1 meter range that's still a 20 cm focus which is larger than any phone, and will catch your hand, head, and anything else nearby. In an IEEE Spectrum article they state the pocket is larger than the receiver, so not unbelievable. (Note to uBeam: Energous seem to know how to handle a skeptical technical press, despite similar incredulity from the experts)

The 'mini-transmitters' they talk about are ridiculous though - do the above calculation with a USB sized device. It's no wonder it would literally take years to charge a phone with it, even before you consider you need to reach a level of 0.5 to 1 Watt these days to trigger charging.

And then there's directivity where the amplitude falls off with angle as you move away from the beam pointing straight ahead - by the time you get to 60 degrees, you're at half-power, and down to 0 when pointing to the side. This simply doesn't mesh with Energous' claims of a '30 foot diameter bubble'. In summary - with a phased array it's easy to point straight ahead, and harder as you move to the side. This means it gets less efficient - a significant problem when imaging, a killer if you're transferring power.


I won't go into other numbers showing that their claims of power delivery capability are not just difficult but defying laws of physics - the only thing more ridiculous would be claiming that ultrasound could charge a device that's in your pocket. Anyway, you can find information demolishing Energous' claims here including mention of the regulatory issues they face with the FCC, though everyone seems to forget the FDA can choose to become involved in any radiation emitting device (and ultrasound is radiation, FYI).

Confused, bored, lost? No? Then you probably knew most of this anyway, are technically proficient, and were already skeptical of Energous. Yep? That's what 95% of people who read this will feel like, and switch off. And that's the point.

That's the tech side - next part, the business side and their novel approach to fundraising.

I'm confused...


I'm confused and don't know what to do. Re-incarnation of Steve Jobs and Theranos genius/founder/CEO Elizabeth Holmes tells me that backup plans are for losers, while the other re-incarnation of Steve Jobs and uBeam genius/founder/CEO Meredith Perry tells me the exact opposite.

"Always have 2 backup plans. Always try 2-3 approaches in parallel to increase your chance of success. "

So not just a backup, but a backup to the backup. And maybe a backup to that too.

So how do I follow the advice of these geniuses? Do I have to choose? I'm always hearing what role models they are, so they have to both be right!

And if it's not both of them that are right, one of them has to be. Because otherwise the only other option is that they are both just spouting utter nonsense they made up because it sounds CEO-ish, and it's been picked up by an unthinking and unquestioning press and simply repeated without thought.


How did we ever manage?

It seems I missed an update from uBeam earlier this week, as they strongly hint at the future of their technology beyond just mobile phones, just like they do on their website.

This tweet talks about how the first portable computer from 1984 needed to be plugged in to work. How primitive! If only there were a way to wirelessly power it! 

I'm guessing from this that we can expect uBeam to be powering our laptops real soon now. Well, I know there's nothing there that actually says that uBeam will power laptops, but that's the implication, right?

And I'm guessing there's been a major leap in the technology from the statements in Techcrunch last November about supplying 1.5W to a phone sized item, since most laptops are >45W. I'm not sure there's space for a receiver the size of 30 (45/1.5) phones on most laptops. Well, I'd left before then so I have no idea.

Now a cynic might say this is pure PR designed to give the impression of great capability without actually directly claiming it, but I'm sure this isn't just a mistake or incorrect, as a company like uBeam must carefully vet its social media presence for accuracy. If they didn't, the public might get the awful impression they were inaccurate in other statements, and a safety conscious consumer company couldn't ever let that happen.

And finally, I'm just a simple engineer, but wasn't 1984 more than 22 years ago? And I know there is some debate on the matter, but isn't it the Osborne 1 from 1981 that's regarded as the first portable computer? Meh, minor details. I guess I just don't have the vision to see the big picture.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Tilting at Windmills


The startup I left, uBeam, is tackling a complex technical challenge - to transmit power wirelessly and safely through the air using ultrasound, and convert it into a usable form at the destination. Difficult to do as even uBeam admit (If it were easy, everyone would be doing it), some would say impossible, and others say something like "In theory, it can be done in limited cases, but in practice cost and efficiency issues will likely render it impractical." 

The EEV Blog has some fascinating information and discussions on the matter, while the IEEE Spectrum Magazine ran a very well researched piece that covers many of those opinions mentioned above.

A question that's often asked on such blogs and forums is "It's never going to work. Why would any engineers work there?" while uBeam themselves point to the fantastic engineers that work there as evidence that they have a solid and viable technology.

So who is right? Well, I can't speak for other engineers, but I can talk about my motivations for doing so. And for me, neither is right, and neither matters - not even considered in my decisions.

As some background to this - I'm very experienced in ultrasound devices and acoustics. It's something I've spent over 20 years working on, am well known in the field, and have encountered pretty much every type of device out there and worked on in one way or another. I'm very good at what I do, and while not wealthy, I'm 'financially stable'. Finding work isn't an issue - but at times finding truly challenging and interesting work is.

So along comes a consulting gig - "Get paid to work on an interesting technical challenge." Of course I'll take it. At this point I start working with the other engineers involved in the project, primarily Marc Berte (the then CTO, who left uBeam in Jan 2015). When you work with a wide range of engineers over the years, you get a feeling for who you want to work with and who you don't. He's very, very sharp, and knows his stuff, and I'm finding I'm learning things from him - and that's pretty uncommon for me - to the point he might be the smartest engineer I've ever worked with.

We're making strides and building things, and sure it's a rollercoaster but this is the sort of thing that just gets to the heart of why you do engineering. Hard challenges, constant learning, being inventive on a tight budget, smart engineering colleagues.

Then the fundraising starts and you're sitting in the offices of big name VC's and rather than the usual 30 minutes of them reading their email as you go through your pitch before "So sorry, maybe in 6 months" it's extending the meeting to two hours and multiple callbacks. Fifteen years living in Silicon Valley and now I'm doing what everyone flocking there is desperate to be.

As an aside - I'd like to think the presence of this engineering team also somewhat swayed the VC's into funding. As the lead investor, Upfront Ventures, commented in a blog post:

"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."

And then you're funded, Series A. Offices by the beach in LA, top-of-the-line equipment you've always wanted, and hiring more great engineers to work with. And why do those great engineers come on? Well from what they all said after - "Hard challenges, smart colleagues to work with and learn from, cool equipment to play with."

Did I join because of the founder CEO and her amazing vision? Her technical savvy? Her management experience and amazing people skills? No, she figured into my decision with the single following factor: "Raises money way better than I can." (More on why engineers struggle to raise money in many future posts).

I joined because of the challenge and the CTO. The next engineer joined because of Marc and I. And so on for pretty much every engineer - and yeah, I ended up speaking for other engineers, so if any uBeam engineers want to pipe up and disagree, feel free. 

So if you're looking for someone to blame it all on, blame Marc. :)

And the point of this story? In my opinion, don't take the presence of smart engineers as confirmation of a technology's viability (either way), and don't think the engineers at a company you find questionable aren't smart and are fully aware of the technical issues of what they're working on. They just want to play with fun toys.

The Sausage Factory


Today is the 6 month anniversary of my resignation from uBeam, a startup I'd spent the previous two and a half years working on. I had gone from being one of the three engineers working in a garage to create the basic technology (literally), through fundraising nearly $23,000,000, and being VP Engineering in one of the hottest tech startups, to being willing to walk away from both a team I had built and was proud to work with, and any chance of recouping the income and opportunities I had sacrificed in getting there.

It marked the end of about four years of working on a several different startups, during which time I made a lot of mistakes, worked on some very interesting things, met some fantastic engineers and other co-workers, and got first hand insight into the workings of VC and startups in tech. It's the last part I find most fascinating - how the whole ecosystem of startups actually works.

I've watched all the recent publicity surrounding Theranos, about a young, media-darling, Steve Jobs idolizing female CEO, who defies the skeptics and without any training in the field apparently makes strides that promise to change the world. Who raises millions on promises of ground-breaking technology that's just around the corner, yet never makes public demonstrations or subjects their technology to third party audit. A CEO of a company that never answers substantial questions raised by veterans in that field, or criticism that they are doing nothing but playing a smoke and mirrors game to fleece the next round of investors, but is more than willing to speak to the press on their 'vision' (and nothing more).

I've followed that story and felt an odd sense of deja-vu about the coverage. How does a company, founded by someone with no realistic credentials or experience, raise so much money on what may never be delivered? Who decides it gets so much press coverage? Surely the VC's are performing their due-diligence and there are adults minding the store?

There's a saying: "You don't want to see how the sausage gets made."

Let's talk about how the sausage gets made...