New tech could transform any surface into a phone charger
A CEO who engineered the sale of audio and haptics company Redux to Google is hoping to persuade smartphone manufacturers to embrace a new wireless charging technology.
Nedko Ivanov says Metaboards, developed by world-leading professors from Oxford University, could lead to the mass-adoption of wireless charging as existing Qi-based chargers are severely limited by comparison.
Qi standard chargers, seen in the likes of Apple and Samsung phones, require precise alignment between internal coils inside both the charger and the device. Metaboards’ tech, demonstrated recently at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, will charge devices placed casually upon a non-metal surface such as a table.
“We are addressing a challenge that the wireless charging industry is facing: to improve the user experience,” Ivanov told BusinessCloud. “One charger per device doesn’t solve anything. It's ridiculous.
“It is also limited because they need to be precisely aligned. If you get a message and your phone vibrates, it might stop charging – and you aren’t aware that has happened.
“Looking at my desk at the moment I have a laptop, a phone and a monitor. Other people may have smartwatches, earbuds or games consoles. I want all these things to be charged seamlessly – that is what is missing for it to be mass-adopted.”
Metaboards uses a dynamic new area of science called metamaterials – new types of materials made up of compounds such as plastics or metals that are arranged in ‘geometric structures’ that have properties not found in nature – to transmit the charge to devices through the AirFuel standard.
The boards can be any size and fitted underneath worktops, tables or desks. In future it could be incorporated into furniture, should the company gain traction in the marketplace.
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Ivanov has signed a contract with one of the biggest smartphone manufacturers to produce a proof-of-concept and hopes to get two more on board by the end of the year.
“It’s early days, but I remain cautiously optimistic,” he said. “If they like the implementation, they can take a licence to adopt it into their portfolio and that will hopefully result in some production orders for next year.
“All whoever makes the charged device needs to do is to put a dual-mode receiver inside which costs $2 extra. Is that $2 a price worth paying for the user experience? That is the question the mobile phone companies have to answer. And it is one consumers will understand.
“A Qi charger costs £25, but a metamaterials base could actually be a lot cheaper because the materials are printed on to PCBs as opposed to what we have in the Qi chargers, wire coils, which are very, very expensive.”
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Ivanov (pictured) joined the company in January 2018 having previously been the CEO of Redux, a start-up bought out by Alphabet’s Google.
“When I joined the team was coming out of academia and saying they had this thing working in the lab, but added up it cost £4,000, which is completely not viable,” he revealed. “And when you combine things that generate magnetic fields and put them close to electronics, quite a lot of unexpected things happen!
“Over the last 12 months we have come through that and built prototypes that look like a product which cost less than £200. That will come down – it is not the final cost-optimised version.
“In academia they develop something that is interesting and the next question they need to answer as a business is 'how do we make this thing into a product? How do we develop its unique selling point for consumers to buy it?'
“The challenge for us is to build a product that actually solves a significant problem which people are happy to pay money for. I believe we are doing that.”
Ivanov, also a former CEO of PC security firm BullGuard, says that he received several offers from companies following the sale of Redux – but Metaboards stood out.
“One of them was for a profitable business which required a bit of restructuring. I wanted to get involved with something where I didn't have to cut costs,” he said.
“The other company was growing but had market risk as opposed to product risk: they had a product and it was in the market, but I could not see how it would scale and remain a viable business.
“With Metaboards, on the other hand, the market was there, the problem was there to be solved – but it had a technology risk. That's what people do in tech start-ups, they solve this risk... it's a lot easier to solve a technology risk than a market risk.”
Working with university spin-outs is a new experience for him. “What gets me out of bed in a morning is getting involved with something where I can have an impact. That's what I've been doing for I don’t know how many years,” he said.
“I would not get involved in a company that is just there to maintain the status quo. I might as well retire!
“I had this vision that we could deliver something that ultimately can change people's lives. You go on a journey, try your best and if the technology does not get adopted, no harm done. But it’s important to have a vision and try and make an impact.”