Energy harvesting’s popularity does seem to have waned in the past few years, but that hasn’t stopped Israeli startup Wiliot securing a $30mn Series B round to fund its RF-harvesting Bluetooth system, which can provide a battery-free way of powering a small senor device – kitted out with temperature and weight sensing, as well as authentication.
As far as we can tell, it’s more an improvement on older designs than a radical reinvention of the wheel. At the heart of the design is a tiny ARM MCU, which can be connected to sensors where needed. The most important part is the antenna circuitry that lets the system generate electricity from the ambient radio waves that surround it – chiefly WiFi, cellular, and of course, Bluetooth.
The design means it can be manufactured on the cheap, and Wiliot seems keen on the idea of using it in clothing labels, and tracking consumer goods through the supply chain, as well finding lost personal items without having to worry about battery levels. Loss-prevention or theft-recovery are also on the cards, but cutting the label out of an article of clothing is not much of a burden for most thieves. Wiliot says it is talks with device makers that are interested in prototyping with it.
The commercial launch is scheduled for 2020, and by this time, Wiliot is hoping to have added new encryption capabilities, for authentication applications and ownership validation, as well as biodegradability, which would let the tags or stickers be used in disposable applications where they are not expected to be recovered.
The printable design should mean that costs can be kept low. Thinfilm is a company that has a lot of experience here, but there are a handful of businesses out there that are trying to do more with the RFID-tag concept in the IoT age. Being able to provide connectivity to any particular thing with nothing more than a sticky label is a very valuable proposition, but we still seem a few years away from this being a trivial endeavor.
Avery Dennison and Amazon have clear interests in the retail side of things, but Qualcomm and Samung’s involvement shows that the semiconductor world is also interested in this kind of proposition. Like Thinfilm is doing with NFC, the Bluetooth connection lets a brand create post-sale engagements with the consumer, or even in-store pre-purchase ones – such as showing additional product information on a smartphone that might influence a purchasing decision or increase the likelihood of creating a return customers.
The full list of Series B investors includes 83North, Amazon, Avery Dennison, M Ventures, Northwest Venture Partners, Qualcomm Ventures, Samsung Electronics, and Union Grove Venture Partners. Its Series A round consisted only of Qualcomm and M Ventures. Wiliot’s leadership stems from Wilocity, another fabless semiconductor firm, which specialized in 60GHz designs, and was eventually acquired by Qualcomm.
“We believe that disposable electronics based on battery-free, low-cost systems are the foundation for future IoT systems,” said Tal Tamir, Wiliot’s CEO and co-founder. “We are on the edge of dramatically changing the way products are made, how they are distributed, where and when they are sold, and how they are used and recycled. Re-cycling the radiation around us to power sticker-size sensors can enable new ways for consumers to interact with products that were previously not feasible. Products can share when they are picked up, their temperature or when they need to be replenished. Without batteries or other high-cost components, tags have unlimited power and lifespan, so can be embedded inside of products that were previously unconnected to the internet of things.”