Saturday, April 29, 2017

Energous Challenge uBeam in the Ultrasound Wireless Power Space

Finally, I get to write an post containing two of my favorite wireless power transfer companies, uBeam (which I've written about here, here, and here), and Energous (which I've covered here, here, here, and here). Now I could make a joke about "Red Shirts vs Stormtroopers" here, but that analogy isn't correct, as despite what I believe about Energous' ability to deliver on the at-distance wireless power transfer they claim, as a company Energous has been run well and it seems they know how to 'play the game'. (I don't have to like what someone is doing to see how well they do it, for those about to criticize.)

As I occasionally look through the IP portfolio for various companies, discussing them with like-minded people, this weekend we noticed something interesting in Energous' applications for patents - while they are extremely prolific in their patents applications, it seems they are now generating IP in wireless transmission of power via sound, which is uBeam's stated goal. Energous are known for claiming an RF based power transmission method, but now it seems they are making sure they have a wider technology portfolio.

As the EEV Blog's uBeam FAQ clearly points out, the basis for ultrasound wireless power transfer is covered in Charych's 2003 patent for BC Systems - System and method for wireless electrical power transmission (US6798716) - but if uBeam has been stating publicly or to investors that uBeam owns the wireless power via sound IP portfolio entirely, thus locking out any potential competitors or rivals, that's no longer the case as Energous is applying for, and being granted, multiple patents covering wireless charging with sound. This puts them in direct competition with uBeam.



This is likely not an exhaustive list and I'll update over time. The primary author, founder and CTO Michael Leabman has been a very prolific inventor here, and you can see a list of many of his patent applications and awards here. It seems most of these sound related ones were filed in 2013, over a year prior to uBeam's major Series A funding in 2014. These are now only beginning to be issued as patents, as it typically takes 3 to 4 years from filing to being granted, which implies that many of those currently listed as 'Application' may be on the verge of becoming 'Granted'. If so, it won't be long before Energous' IP portfolio in ultrasound rivals uBeam, with a further extensive range in the RF space.

Also interesting are some of Energous' patents that don't specifically state 'sound', but simply talk about focusing waves and energy - making it equally applicable to both RF and acoustic waves (the equations governing both are between similar and identical, the same basic physics applies to both). It seems they've been doing this since at least 2015, with patent applications such as:

"Embodiments disclosed herein may generate and transmit power waves that, as result of their physical waveform characteristics (e.g., frequency, amplitude, phase, gain, direction), converge at a predetermined location in a transmission field to generate a pocket of energy. Receivers associated with an electronic device being powered by the wireless charging system, may extract energy from these pockets of energy and then convert that energy into usable electric power for the electronic device associated with a receiver. The pockets of energy may manifest as a three-dimensional field (e.g., transmission field) where energy may be harvested by a receiver positioned within or nearby the pocket of energy."

As you can see from this, Energous have been careful to ensure their patent applies to all forms of energy, not specifically RF - this wording could equally apply to acoustic energy as well. They have multiple other such applications such as:

Systems and methods of object detection in wireless power charging systems US20170077764 A1 which states video images will be captured and processed to ensure correct targeting of wireless power, Methodology for multiple pocket-forming  US20160241044 A1 covering charging multiple receivers from a single transmitter for any energy type, Systems and Methods for Real Time or Near Real Time Communications Between Electronic Devices which covers feedback between transmitter and receiver via any means, Systems and methods for nullifying energy levels for wireless power transmission waves that covers minimizing energy in the non-targeted areas for safety,  Systems and Methods for Identifying Sensitive Objects in a Wireless Charging Transmission Field for realising someone or something is in a wireless power field and dealing with that safely, and Systems and Methods for Generating and Transmitting Wireless Power Transmission Waves which basically covers everything in wireless power transfer.

I could go on about all the specific applications they are patenting, such as using TVs or other electronics to transmit, identify receivers, communications, charge healthcare products, identify valid receivers (hardware DRM) - basically covering absolutely everything in wireless power transfer including, it seems, ultrasound wireless power transfer. You can search in the link above and find a comprehensive list - it's quite impressive.

Does this mean Energous are going to be sending power via ultrasound? In my opinion, absolutely not - in fact I don't think they will be producing consumer devices in the multi-meter range, faster than a wire, multiple device, efficient, and cheap methods people might imagine - but they are cleverly expanding their portfolio to literally own the entire wireless power transfer space. This could be used both defensively, and offensively, and in the hands of a $300 million market cap company with resources, can be a terrifying thing for a smaller company looking to break in, and makes them a more attractive purchase or licensing deal recipient for a larger company. 

In the end, I wouldn't be surprised to see Energous make most of their money from licensing deals on individual patents, and never actually release a product like originally claimed. Smart strategy on their part, licensing money is pure profit, hardware is, well, hard.

What does this mean for uBeam? The first thing is to look at their public patent portfolio (both application and granted) - which you can see here. It's a much less extensive list, and something I was surprised/shocked to see is that the latest filings such as Performance adjustment for wireless power transfer devices are from my time at the company, and I left in 2015 - in fact I'm one of the inventors on many of the recent filings, and in some cases, such as the one listed above, every single one of the inventors has left the company. Now it could be that many are filed and simply not published for the public to see, or that the company is pursuing a trade secrets rather than patent approach (would be 'unusual' for a  hardware company in my opinion, but possible), but it's not nearly the in-depth and broad range of patents that you see with Energous. Further, the uBeam patents don't seem to cover Energous' applications and fields, while Energous cover uBeam's.

It would be interesting to know how a company plans to defend its patents, both in prosecution to the patent office and in court during litigation when they don't have the inventors on staff anymore, and in some cases there is clearly a poor relationship between the company and the former employee/inventor (looking at no-one in particular ;) ).

I would expect this to be quite troubling to uBeam, as a startup - especially one with no product, licensing deals, or third party evaluation/demo - is heavily reliant upon its IP portfolio for valuation purposes, and to have to defend patents, or work to nullify others, is an expensive legal proposition. 

What should also be considered is the effect on potential investors, as uBeam discloses to them during any fundraising that they do have competition in the IP space, from a company with apparently a similar or larger portfolio, that is larger and more significantly funded such as Energous. Since the last publicly stated fundraising round for uBeam was in July 2015, it's entirely possible that fundraising is going on right now.

Overall, it's a tremendously interesting development, and one I'm looking forward to seeing how uBeam respond to this aggressive encroachment by Energous.


  1. Regarding Trade Secrets - my opinion is that in a consumer hardware startup they are not the right approach, as once you release a product your competition will purchase, dissect, and reverse engineer everything, leaving you with no protection at all. Hardware isn't a soft-drinks play where marketing matters more than product, it's real tangible goods and many ways to do the same thing, and many smart people to work it out when they have your product in hand. Best to go with patents and have something. Others disagree, it's just my philosophy.

  2. Paul,
    I really enjoy your blog. I'm far from an engineer, but have learned to skip the more technical/nerdy parts and really appreciate the wisdom you can share from your years of experience. Would you be willing to give your opinion on whether or not Energous will get FCC approval on their mid range soon? The CEO believes they have a clear path to approval and expects it to happen well before the end of this year. Any thoughts would be appreciated.

    1. Thanks for your question, answered in a full post, here:

    2. Thank you for taking the time to go over all that, Paul. Very thorough.

  3. For those interested in some of the documentation and effort you need to go to just to appeal an already granted patent, here's an example from when Ossia appealed one of Energous' earlier awards. This is just part of the appeal, as you can see it's pretty substantial.