New jaw-dropping energy technology announced! Oh wait, it doesn’t work…

Last year, everyone was talking about a start-up called uBeam, which claimed to be using ultrasound to charge devices through the air. I shared an article in a Facebook post in August of 2015 (after a number of friends asked me for my opinion of the technology) that described uBeam’s solution as “an impossible idea.” According to some recent articles, it looks like my scepticism may be justified.

A few reminders for when you read stories about amazing new technologies:

1) If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

2) New products that come out of nowhere, with non-technical founders/CEOs, and supported by no new breakthroughs in the scientific literature are much more likely to fail.

3) Just because smart VCs (like Andreessen Horowitz) have put money in is NOT a reliable sign of probably success. I love a16z, but everyone in VC makes mistakes.

4) If something sounds too good to be true, AND IT IS ABOUT ENERGY? Put on your extra-skeptical hat. Energy tech, whether batteries, charging, power harvesting, and so on is just riddled with disappointing results.

In 25 years, the failure rate for “new energy breakthrough technologies” that I have seen is well over 99%. Energy is important, complicated and incredibly well funded and researched by existing players. The ability of an outsider to come up with something new and significant at reasonable cost and good reliability is roughly zero.

Speaking as an environmentalist, that is hard to say: I WANT new breakthroughs to come out of start-ups. Many of the world’s problems would be solved or improved materially by better energy technology. But I also have to be a realist, and admit that this stuff is really hard, and tends to be badly covered by the tech press.

To be clear, the uBeam technology may still end up working at some level…but the burden of proof is now on them.




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