By Eric Peterson / CompanyWeek | May 22, 2023
Wireless electric charging technology
While studying law at Northwestern University, a class delved into the design of medical devices. "My team was focused on neurology, and it led us down the path focusing on a type of device called neurostimulators that are really good at treating things like chronic pain or Parkinson's or epilepsy without using drugs," says Babcock. "They're really cool products, but they fail about 50 percent of the time due to lead wire breakage or migration, so we were trying to get rid of those wires."
The project led to the founding of NuCurrent in 2009. Babcock practiced law until the company raised Series A financing in 2014, then he started focusing on wireless charging full-time.
The impetus? "We had a very big semiconductor company evaluate technology we had developed for medical, and they were looking at it through the lens of computers and cell phones," he says." We had developed a wireless power antenna structure that was 10 times more powerful than anything they had developed themselves or with other partners."
Not only that, but NuCurrent's breakthrough was "much smaller, easier to build using standard manufacturing techniques, and created less heat," says Babcock.
That semiconductor manufacturer offered to buy NuCurrent, which alerted Babcock to the value wireless charging could have in the broader market. "We said, 'No thank you, because you opened us up to how powerful our technology is and how big the market is outside of medical.'"
After starting with antennas, NuCurrent broadened its focus to the design of wireless charging systems that encompass transmitter and receiver systems as well as the development of the firmware that controls them.
From 2014 to 2019, NuCurrent focused on consulting. "Around 2019, we started really leaning into our licensing business," says Babcock. "We today have over 150 patents granted, over 330 patents pending, and we license our technology to other companies to provide them freedom to build with whoever they want, freedom to design, freedom to innovate around that wireless power IP that we're providing."
For example, Honeywell makes handheld scanners for a wide range of customers in shipping and warehousing. UPS wanted an upgrade and wireless charging was a prerequisite because the charging connectors were the leading cause of field failures on the status quo.
NuCurrent developed a "holistic system" for Honeywell with handheld scanners and charging devices, says Babcock. "We developed accessories for vehicles -- like automotive cradles that are in UPS trucks now -- but also charging racks or charging bays where you can charge 30 devices at a time at a UPS facility."
While it's just coming into vogue in the 2000s, Nikola Tesla first developed wireless electrical transmission technology in the late 1800s. "The first demonstration of this technology was in 1893 at the Chicago World's Fair," says Babcock.
As the story goes, Tesla lit a lightbulb that was six feet away from the power transmitter. "He showed that you could transmit magnetic fields from one copper coil to another that could harness those magnetic fields and convert that AC current into DC, which is used to light the lightbulb," says Babcock. "We're a Chicago-based company so I take pride in carrying the flag that Nikola Tesla started here in Chicago, and we're carrying that forward for the world."
NuCurrent takes Tesla's principles and applies them with smaller, more advanced components, he adds, but distance and power levels are limiting factors. "You can charge something with 10 milliwatts, 100 milliwatts at a distance of a few feet, but if you want to charge something at meaningful power levels -- like a mobile phone at 15 watts, an industrial computer at 20 watts, or even AR glasses at three watts -- you do need pretty close proximity, on the order of centimeters."
Where it is a good fit, wireless charging often brings other benefits over the wired status quo. Take earbuds, typically charged via stems that clip into the case that again are the leading cause of failure.
"Earbuds charging wirelessly makes them much more comfortable to wear, much more waterproof, and much easier to manufacture," says Babcock. "There are about 17 process steps that it takes to put pogo pins into an earbud. . . . With wireless charging . . . you move it down to four process steps. So, it's a major manufacturing leap forward."
While earbuds are more complicated because of their small size, the same dynamic applies to many other devices, especially considering the high failure rates associated with wired charging. "When you wrap it all in hard plastic, it makes it a lot easier to manufacture, and it makes it a lot more reliable, durable, and cleanable," says Babcock.
NuCurrent's revenues tripled in both 2021 and 2022, and Babcock forecasts a doubling in 2023 and 2024. "We're a fast-growing company, and we're licensed already into over 500 million devices, and that's going to keep picking up as adoption picks up. Really, what we're trying to do right now is democratizing wireless power. We want to make it so much easier for more companies to adopt."
Challenges: Managing the inflow of inquiries from potential customers dealing in smaller volumes. Babcock sees a solution with NuCurrent "developing electronic design automation tools that allow us to automate some of the more complex elements of the design so that we can democratize wireless power and make it easier for other people to do it, even if we're not going to hold their hand through the entire program like we do with Fortune 100 customers."
Opportunities: Babcock notes that the number of connected devices per household in the U.S. has roughly doubled to 25 since 2019, according to Deloitte. "Wireless power eliminates one of the fundamental burdens of powering all of these devices by not having it to be physically touched," he says. "I do believe we're at the tip of the iceberg of multiple product segments that will add up to tens of billions of devices annually that will use wireless power."
Smartphones are a huge piece of the market and could drive the entire wireless charging ecosystem because of the massive volumes. "Mobile phones are adopting hundreds of millions of units a year, but there are opportunities in hearables, industrial handhelds, gaming, power tools, PC peripherals, AR glasses, networking equipment, smart computing. Now you're getting five or 10 years away, but brain-computer interface: How are they going to do that with wires? They can't."
Another category stands out in the near term. "I'm really bullish on the gaming category," says Babcock. "Everyone games now. Every kid, it's cross-gender now. It wasn't when I was growing up."
Needs: "We need to select the right customers that are good bellwethers for their industries," says Babcock. "Given our limited bandwidth, we want to work with customers that are not a one-off product but are going to be a bellwether for what the rest of their product segment needs."
"Talent," he adds. "We're always looking for the right type of people, the right fit. They have to be innovative, they have to really take ownership of what they do, really driver personalities, and then: Do they have the right technical skills for their role?"
Noting that NuCurrent has one vote at the Wireless Power Consortium, just like Apple and Samsung, Babcock says, "Then we need continued collaboration and partnership throughout the industry. I think that the development of Qi 2.0 is a good example of the industry coming together and deciding on a path that helps customers."