Wireless charging was likely expecting a pretty strong 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic has definitely muted expectations across the board. This week, we interviewed Florian Bohn, CEO and co-founder of GuRu, a firm founded in 2017, as the culmination of research that Bohn had been involved in at the California Institute of Technology since around 2011.
After receiving almost $10mn from organizations and funds, including the SSPI project, in 2017, Bohn decided to scale the technology to a business. GuRu raised $15mn in 2017 to grow this research to a commercially viable business model, and the company currently employs 15 staff.
GuRu is far from the first firm to offer wireless charging, but Bohn told us that it is undoubtedly “the first company to offer room-scale, multi-watt, multi-device, safe wireless power-at-a-distance using millimeter-wave technology.”
Perhaps most striking from our conversation was Bohn’s conviction that the technology would mushroom to become a mainstay of everyday life. “This will absolutely be a global thing”, he said. “We will not be having to plug in our devices 10 years from now.”
Bohn paralleled GuRu’s charging technology with WiFi, “which was practically non-existent in the late nineties, but was practically everywhere” by the end of the noughties. GuRu’s wireless charging operates in the 24 GHz ISM band. This elevates its signals above most other commonly used unlicensed radio waves for IoT purposes, namely WiFi, Bluetooth and Zigbee.
To give an idea of charging speeds, one of GuRu’s Generator Units can fully charge an iPhone 11’s 13Wh battery from empty in between two to three hours. Not quite fast charging, but not bad at all. The size of the Generator Unit will vary depending on the use case, but Bohn said that “for a living room, it would be roughly the size of a standard ceiling tile, while for a desk unit, it could be between four and six square inches.”
It is still early days for GuRu – none of its products have gone to market and it seems this milestone is still a couple of years away. Bohn said “we are not ready to discuss specific dates, but a timeline of 18 months for first products to be in mass production seems reasonable.”
Speaking of sales projections, Bohn said that starting from 2022, “I would expect sales to ramp up within a two-year time-frame. Sales would be in millions of units, with units being sold in low dollar amounts, say $10 per unit, for the first year.” He continued, predicting that sales would double each year across years two and three, with this growth flattening afterwards.
In terms of interest from businesses, Bohn declined to give any names. He said that “a few verticals were taking heavy interest”, most notably the smart home sector, businesses that deploy IoT sensors, and consumer electronics OEMs. He did say that the first round of GuRu products to hit the shelves will likely serve the smart home and industrial IoT sectors.
Bohn pointed out that all manner of IoT sensors would benefit heavily from wireless charging. “If you have a lot of sensors, you don’t want to wire them up or change battery.” Outside of the home, the main use cases would be in manufacturing, warehouses, and retail, he noted.
Wireless charging would tie in well with the prospect of convenience that is flaunted with most smart home devices. “In the smart home sector people want convenience”, explained Bohn. He gave the example of wiring up a security camera to a power source as incredibly time and labor consuming, with the alternative of replacing batteries also off-putting to consumers.
Outside of the smart home, wireless charging has a myriad of highly valuable applications. It can power critical devices in smart buildings such as smoke and security alarms. Retailers are interested in providing power to their sensors for both warehouses and in-store monitoring, without burdening staff with battery-changing tasks.
Equally, the hospitality sector is interested in improving guest experiences as much as possible, be that ensuring your TV remote always works, or that you don’t face the panic of running out of charging sockets in a hotel room. Bohn also noted that the health sector has shown interest. Mission critical sensors in hospitals could be powered through GuRu’s technology.
Perhaps one obstacle to rapid consumer uptake could be the fact that for devices to charge from GuRu’s technology, they must have a receiver placed on them.
Bohn told us that OEMs are incredibly supportive of the receivers as it allows them to “reduce the battery size” on their products. Initially we were surprised – does GuRu’s receiver have some storage capabilities?
No. Rather Bohn was looking far ahead to a future where an extensive wireless charging ecosystem would “enable the battery to be recharged and therefore you don’t need to carry around the energy.” Bohn accepted that this was his vision for the future, where wireless charging is as popular as WiFi, and device users will be able to charge their devices seamlessly as they go about their day.
Bohn admitted that GuRu had not done any focus groups on whether consumers would be put off by the receivers, but it seems the company does not see that as a potential obstacle to uptake. We put it to Bohn that the smart home sector is a tough market in which to go it alone. Big Tech is trying to incorporate whatever smart home devices they can into a closed ecosystem, with Google and Amazon racing ahead.
Although scant on detail, Bohn was still sure that “it is very possible that we would integrate with one of Google or Amazon’s ecosystems.” He pointed out that there were other potential partners too – naming Samsung, LG and Apple – although we certainly can’t see any sane business choosing them over Google or Amazon.
Bohn didn’t seem to see the smart home market to be as impenetrable as Riot often depicts, pointing out that “there are lots of OEM companies that deliver white label products that have a large footprint in smart homes.” To this end, it seems Big Tech’s increasing stranglehold on the smart home market is not necessarily of concern for GuRu. The company can easily integrate into whichever eco system puts forward a better offer, and then it is better served by the uniformity of devices.
Bohn commented that smart homes relative homogeneity is somewhat easier than other segments – “It’s not as fragmented as the industrialized heat sensor market.” Finally, Bohn was eager to stress that due to the current pandemic, any forecasts he had for the coming year or so had been made somewhat uncertain.