MIT Stealth Spinout, Pi, Charges Up Wireless Power Competition

Xconomy Boston — 

When you think of wireless power—the ability to charge a device without a power cord—most people in Boston think of WiTricity, the MIT spinout that has raised north of $45 million and has partnerships with Toyota and Intel.

But there’s a new kid on the block. Xconomy has learned of a new MIT startup called Pi, which is also pursuing wireless charging. The technology comes out of the lab of professor Dina Katabi (pictured above) at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The company’s co-founders include MIT Sloan School of Management grad John MacDonald, who is currently a research assistant in MIT’s Wireless Center, and CSAIL PhD student Lixin Shi. Word on the street is Pi is about to close a funding round.

I’ve reached out to the company and some outside sources and will have an update when I hear back.

The field of wireless charging has picked up steam in the past 10 years. The concept is old, but WiTricity, founded in 2007, broke through based on technology from the lab of MIT physics professor Marin Soljačić. WiTricity uses resonant magnetic coupling—an approach using high-frequency magnetic fields—to transfer energy between two coils over a greater distance than what had been demonstrated before. (This is different from existing charging pads that use inductive coupling and require you to put your phone on the pad’s surface.) The company operates in a number of industries, including automotive and consumer electronics.

Katabi’s lab at MIT works on new protocols and architectures for wireless networks and routing. One of her projects is a prototype called MagMIMO that can charge mobile devices at a distance of about a foot. The technology is based on magnetic fields, and it seems to use resonance, but may work differently from WiTricity. The system uses an array of coils that produces a magnetic field and senses when a phone or other device is within range, sort of like a Wi-Fi router, according to reports in New Scientist and other media outlets. If the phone has a coil connected to its charging port, it can receive power via the magnetic field, which induces a current in the coil and charges the battery.

The big issues in wireless charging are range, efficiency, and safety. There’s also the time it takes to charge a device, plus the cost of the system. Presumably, Pi is working on improving all of these factors; the company is still in very early days.

Another notable competitor is Energous, a San Jose, CA-based company that is developing wireless charging technology via radio-frequency waves and a special receiver or protective case for mobile devices. Interestingly, Energous (NASDAQ: WATT) had a $24 million initial public offering in March 2014 without any semblance of a commercial product. The company has touted its system as “game-changing,” but it may have significant technology and business hurdles to clear.

Meanwhile, Apple, Samsung, Qualcomm, and other giants have been making progress on their own wireless charging systems. Apple, for one, has filed several relevant patents in recent years. As in a lot of emerging fields, companies face some uncertainty over which technical standards and specifications will eventually become dominant for wireless power.

Until all of these companies work out their kinks, be prepared to continue plugging in your phone nightly. Perhaps the real benefit of wireless charging will only become apparent down the road, when we have even more devices to worry about—think wearables, smart-home sensors, personal assistants, and the like.