Count the number of power cords you encounter in a typical day. It might start with a coffeemaker in the morning and end well after dark, when you plug a smartphone in to recharge on the dresser. No doubt the answer cracks the double digits.
Eleven years ago, an MIT physics professor named Marin Soljačić demonstrated a technology with the potential to render cords obsolete. He and his colleagues sent power wirelessly from a transmitter to a 60-watt light bulb about 7 feet away, using specially tuned magnetic fields. They dubbed the technology WiTricity — like WiFi for electricity — and soon started a company to bring it to market.
But after more than a decade of work, and $68 million of capital raised, the company they started, WiTricity, is still issuing press releases about the wireless power revolution that is just around the corner. You might have seen a wireless charging system at your local Starbucks, but the odds are you still live a life full of cords and power adapters. In 2017, Watertown-based WiTricity shrunk from 80 to 55 employees and shut down an office in Austin, Texas.
Still, the company’s chief executive, Alex Gruzen, asserts that 2018 will be a pivotal year for the company, as WiTricity focuses on working with carmakers to use its wireless transmission system to recharge electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, sans cords.
When the company started, it needed to create a commercial product from the laboratory prototypes. It also needed to sift through an avalanche of interest from prospective customers that had an idea about how to use wireless power in their products. “In the early days, they couldn’t field all of the calls that came in about different opportunities,” says Lee Barbieri of Stata Venture Partners, the company’s first investor. WiTricity considered industries like medical devices — imagine charging an implantable device through the skin — cars, and consumer electronics. It was hard not to see the appeal of a kitchen table with built-in WiTricity, so that you’d be able to charge all of the family’s phones at once, without needing a bevy of different power adapters.
And from the company’s perspective, consumer electronics looked alluring because smartphone companies and computer-makers are continually racing to introduce new models and one-up each other with flashy features. But the biggest electronics companies are very reticent to try anything new, unless it is established as an industry standard (like WiFi for wireless Internet, or USB ports for accessories.) And at the time, there were other approaches to wireless power like Powermat and Qi, which hit the market faster — even if they didn’t have many of the advantages, such as longer transmission distance, that WiTricity did.
At one point, the company fielded a substantial acquisition offer from an Asian buyer; the investors decided not to sell, though some company leaders wanted to. Was that the right decision? “Ask me at the end,” says Barbieri, the investor and WiTricity board member. “As I sit here today, I think it was the right choice.”
The company swapped chief executives in 2014, bringing in Gruzen, a former Dell exec. Eventually, he realized that in the consumer electronics arena, the battles between different versions of wireless power were “going to take a few more years to play out.” Even though the company had been granted more than 230 patents and had worked on countless demonstration projects with a range of big-name customers, it wasn’t making much of a dent in the universe. At the same time, Gruzen says, “the automakers and their [key] suppliers were pulling us in harder than I could support.” So he decided to focus all of the company’s resources on creating charging systems for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. The vision was that rather than requiring drivers to get out to plug in a car for a charge, they would simply park on top of a mat that would beam juice up to the vehicle. (Over the long term, the vision is that fleets of autonomous vehicles would charge this way, too.)
Despite all the buzz about Tesla’s Model 3 and the Chevy Bolt, these are still the early days for electric vehicles. “Today, they’re selling to fewer than 1 percent of all car buyers,” Gruzen says. About 159,000 new electric vehicles were sold in the United States last year, according to federal stats.
“People are uncomfortable buying them until they know there will be charging infrastructure where they need it,” says Stephen Girsky, a former General Motors executive who is advising WiTricity. “Most of the cars that had been out were expensive, like Teslas and BMWs for $100,000. Now you’re seeing $40,000 cars that are pretty good cars. They’re moving into a range where the functionality and affordability is where people want it.”
And WiTricity already has been collaborating with carmakers like Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Jaguar, Nissan, and Toyota. Gruzen says the first cars with WiTricity-made charging systems will be available next spring, though he can’t yet divulge the manufacturer.
Analysts who follow new technologies in the automotive industry say WiTricity is well positioned, especially given how many patents the company holds related to wireless power transfer.
But Dominique Bonte of the research firm ABI Research says a similar technology from Qualcomm, called Halo, is emerging as WiTricity’s biggest competitor. We also don’t know how much the WiTricity system will add to the price of a car — especially because for the foreseeable future, cars will still need to have a cord to plug in at traditional charging stations and a WiTricity receiver for wireless charging.
“Consumer awareness is probably still limited,” Bonte adds, which means that shoppers won’t be walking into dealerships anytime soon and demanding that their next car has wireless charging.
In January, Gruzen was at the Consumer Electronics Show to promote a Dell laptop that included wireless charging capabilities. By the time the laptop hit the market, in July, WiTricity was shifting its resources from wireless power for computers and other tech gadgets to the automotive sector.
So next month, Gruzen will skip the big technology trade show in Las Vegas and head instead for Detroit, where he’ll take part in the North American International Auto Show. It’ll be his first time there, hustling hard to make WiTricity a key component of the auto industry’s future. The first vehicle on the market will likely be BMW’s 530e plug-in hybrid sedan.Scott Kirsner can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.