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Transforming the Way We Live, Work, and Move with Wireless Power: Part 1

Benjamin Freas
May 08, 2017

This post originally appeared on the MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge website.

Nikola Tesla first experimented with transmitting power without wires at the turn of the 20 century. Until recently, the concept has remained impractical and expensive in everyday applications. Today, the proliferation of mobile phones, electrification of transportation, and impending Internet of Things (IoT) renaissance have translated into a rapid expansion of devices that need electricity. All the while, technological advances have improved the amount of power that can be transferred wirelessly, the distance it can travel, and how efficiently it can be moved, making wireless power a commercial reality.

The MIT Enterprise Forum of Cambridge CleanTech Committee brought together a panel of experts to recount this journey from lab technology to commercial product and to reflect upon future applications for wireless power. The panel, Transforming the Way We Live, Work & Move, was moderated by Benjamin Freas, principal research analyst at Navigant Research. It included Marin Soljačić, PhD, professor of Physics at MIT and founder of WiTricity; Alex Gruzen, CEO at WiTricity; Ajay Kwatra, vice president of Client Technology & Architecture for Dell; and Patrizia Milazzo, Energy & Power management specialist at STMicroelectronics.

The Birth of a Company

For WiTricity, this journey started in 2007, when Professor Soljačić published a paper demonstrating the transfer of 60W with 40% efficiency over distances in excess of 2 meters. The impetus for this research came from a sleepy revelation after Professor Soljačić was awakened by his mobile phone at 3 a.m. The phone beeped when the battery was low. If he neglected to plug it in, it would disrupt his sleep.

Though the use case for mobile phones was clear, the distances and power levels associated with the technology have many more applications. The task of charging is a burden for many devices. For EVs, the act of plugging into a charge creates another friction point that can potentially deter consumers. Similarly, wearables present a charging challenge—they often have unusual form factors that make plugs awkward, yet still need to be charged.

Industrial and medical applications of wireless charging are also emerging. Increased automation in manufacturing has translated to mobile robots on factory floors. These robots need power. Designing a robot to navigate to a wireless charging pad is far simpler than designing one to insert a power cord. Applying this to an operating theater creates the possibility of charging surgical tools after they have been sealed and sterilized, eliminating the need to do so during a medical procedure. This same freedom even enables medical devices that can be completely sealed and powered and charged in situ.

Which Application to Pick?

Wireless power has the ability to transform a diverse range of industries through multiple applications. The challenge for a startup is to narrow down options and focus on a strategy that can be executed. For WiTricity, the best way to change the world was to enable other companies that built products to make their products better by incorporating wireless power technology. This meant a strategy of licensing its technology to partners that create products rather than creating the products themselves.

The initial challenge, according to Professor Soljačić, was attracting talented people to navigate the development of the technology from a laboratory prototype to prolific components of numerous products. Ultimately, WiTricity aims to provide its technology in a simple development kit so that anyone can incorporate it into their design. However, developing this “resonance-in-a-box” solution requires more than technological expertise. It requires the deep understanding customer pain points and the market intricacies associated with specific industries. As Alex Gruzen stated in the panel, "When you are a startup, your customers are partners."

More to come on the road ahead in part 2 of this blog series.