22 Oct 2013

Pulling the Plug

Wireless electricity isn't magic. It's real science that will change the way we live, says WiTricity CEO Eric Giler (MBA 1982).
by Francis Storrs

Topics: Innovation-Technological InnovationTechnology-Wireless TechnologyScience-Science-Based BusinessBusiness Ventures-Business StartupsEntrepreneurship
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by Francis Storrs

Standing on the stage of TEDGlobal in Oxford, England, WiTricity CEO Eric Giler (MBA 1982) is nervous. It's July 2009, and he's about to show how his company's technology can beam electricity through the air to wirelessly power a television. The process works by magnetic resonance, but Giler knows it looks like magic to the general public. And, like any good performer, he's feeling the pressure to give his audience an unforgettable show—hence the nerves. "If the demo gods are willing," the screen will light up in about 10 seconds, Giler tells the crowd. Then he buries his hands in his pockets.

The screen lights up, of course. It always does. This isn't magic, after all: it's science developed by WiTricity's founder, MIT physics professor Marin Soljačić, and his team, who wirelessly lit a 60-watt bulb in 2007 from a distance of two meters. As Giler's TED audience bursts into applause, he delivers his key pitch: Just think about all the wires coming off things like TVs, he says. "Imagine if you can get rid of 'em."

Finally untethering consumers from their wall sockets and their batteries—that's WiTricity's futuristic-sounding promise. It may seem like science fiction, but think about how no one could have imagined wireless Internet networks a decade ago, Giler says. "Now you get mad if you don't have WiFi." In 10 years, he says, wireless electricity will seem completely quaint.

Giler knows something about the pace of technology. For the first two decades of his career, he cofounded and ran Brooktrout, growing it to a $150-million-a-year company that designed voicemail systems when everyone else was still using cassettes. After retiring, he became CEO of Groove Mobile, the first company to put music on cellphones, until it was sold in 2008. Even now, Giler keeps his hand in cellular communications—"an industry ripe for substantial disruption"—by cofounding and chairing Scratch Wireless, which this year is slated to release the nation's first free cellphone service (it will run on open WiFi networks).

Giler's position at WiTricity—not to mention his entrepreneurial spirit—can be traced back to his time at HBS. As a student, he loved former HBS lecturer Irving Grousbeck's popular course on starting new ventures and conducted a field study of Analog Devices, run by Ray Stata, another legendary businessman. Giler stayed in touch, and then one day in 2008, Stata contacted Giler to encourage him to check out this wireless-electricity startup he had invested in. "It's a good case for networking," Giler says. He returned to the campus a couple of years ago to discuss a case study of WiTricity in Entrepreneurial Finance, a subject at which he's proven adept: The company has raised more than $45 million during his tenure as CEO.

As fond as Giler is of his previous ventures, something about WiTricity is different. "This time I get a chance to change the world,'' he says. There's the exciting consumer stuff, such as an in-development wireless TV from Haier; Toyota's plans to make it easier to charge Prius models; and an iPhone charger due out later in 2013. Then there are the wirelessly recharging AA batteries that will hopefully reduce the 40 billion batteries that end up in landfills each year.

But perhaps the most exciting initiatives for Giler include the talks in Gabon, where he just traveled, to roll out wireless lights that let eager students study longer, and the work at California-based Thoratec to develop a heart pump that, because it won't need to be recharged via wires, will significantly reduce the chance of life-threatening infection.

"Talk about changing people's lives," Giler says. "It's one thing if you're charging a cellphone, another if you're helping to make the difference between life and death."

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