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Wireless charging startup uBeam accused of being the next Theranos

TechCrunch TechCrunch 11/05/2016 Josh Constine

uBeam could be vaporware, according to a blogger claiming to be uBeam’s former VP of Engineering. They accuse the startup of being unable to fulfill promises made about its technology.

uBeam says it’s building a device that could wirelessly charge your phone or other electronics from several meters away. But in a series of blog posts about the startup, the author asserts that the product is a sham. The criticism will increase the pressure on uBeam to reveal a working prototype.

TechCrunch cannot confirm these accusations or the identity of the blogger, and we’re awaiting a response from uBeam, but the blogger contends that:

  • uBeam has refused to publicly show a demo because the technology doesn’t work
  • The original CTO and newly hired CFO have both left the company
  • uBeam CEO Meredith Perry tricked co-founder Nora Dweck into an 80/20 split of the company instead of a 50/50 split, according to court documents. Dweck sued Perry, who “settled out of court with Dweck rumored to get 20% of the company”
  • The laws of physics and scientific experts indicate uBeam’s tech, saying that  “While in theory it may be possible in limited cases, the safety, efficiency, and economics of it mean it is not even remotely practical.”

We’ve contacted uBeam, and it did not provide comment. uBeam has repeatedly defended itself against past claims that it’s technology is impossible, saying it has made scientific breakthroughs, and citing high-profile additions of ultrasound experts to its team, advisors, and investors as proof that it has potential.

The company has claimed that its critics aren’t privy to its proprietary technology and are making wrong assumptions about how it works. Perry, 25, has repeatedly told me the technology is in fact possible, and that it’s safe and efficient enough to be practical. Still, she’s repeatedly refused to provide a demo, though in November said uBeam would finally show off its tech in 2016.

The lofty opportunity to change the way electronic devices are powered has attracted over $23 million in funding from big-name investors including Upfront Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, Founders Fund, Marissa Mayer, and Mark Cuban.

TechCrunch has closely covered uBeam because of the potential market size for itstechnology and the fundingit’s received. However, we’ve reiterated our skepticism about the product until we see a live, production-ready demo of cell phone charging at a distance.

The new claims dispersed across 20 blog posts on “Lies, Damn Lies, and Startup PR” add fuel to this skepticism. Details saying the author left their role as VP of engineering in October after two and a half years led contributors to Hacker News to name who they believe to be the author. We’ve contacted that person for more information, and also commented on the blog seeking information from the author.

As these claims come from an alleged former employee and someone unwilling to directly reveal their identity, the motives behind why the author published these reports are unclear.  But the most obvious is that they appear to feel that uBeam is misleading its investors, the public or both. We’ve sought comment from lead investor Upfront Ventures as well.

The author writes that they originally joined uBeam in hopes of working on a challenging problem with an inspiring CTO, Marc Berte, who left in January 2015. They say “When I left it was an ugly departure, but was reported to the investors as ‘the VP Engineering left for personal reasons’ – personal reasons being ‘sick of putting up with this bullshit’.”

Energous, a competitor in the wireless space, is accused of also never releasing a working product despite going public and currently having a market cap of $174 million. The author claims Energous is purely designed to financially benefit the founders.

Finally, the author also details why the physics of saturation would severely limit the distance and level of power uBeam could transmit as to make its promise of charging across a room infeasible.  Sprinkled in are various insults and comparisons of Perry to Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, a toddler, and Smeagol of Lords Of The Rings.

While previously, derision of uBeam’s product has come from those outside the company without intimate knowledge of how it’s supposed to work, this report is different. If it is indeed from uBeam’s former VP of engineering, it could indicate uBeam will have severe difficulty shipping a wireless power product that meets its own promises, or even one that’s useful at all.

The accusations could increase scrutiny on uBeam to provide a convincing demo of its technology. Otherwise, it could find it difficult to raise additional funding, hire or retain talent, and avoid a negative press spiral.

Venture capitalists in some sectors are increasingly eager to fund serious scientific innovations, they can be much tougher to do due diligence on than simple software that can be assessed based on immediate market traction. The economics of startups are such that VCs seek risky bets that could provide huge returns, even if it means a high percentage of their investments fail.

Yet to avoid enormous wastes of capital that could fund more worthy and impactful businesses, VCs will have to dig deeper than what sounds like a big idea from a smart team.

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