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A future without recharger cords? NuCurrent gets a step closer

Chicago-based startup NuCurrent may have gotten a big boost in the race to develop a common standard for wirelessly charging mobile devices.

The company’s antenna technology is being incorporated into charging products being made by Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Gill Electronics Inc., which will be built into office furniture under OFS Brands, Kimball Office and National Office nameplates.

Gill is building the first commercial products using a standard by the Alliance for Wireless Products, a consortium of tech’s heaviest hitters, including Qualcomm Inc., Intel Corp. and Samsung Electronics. “They’re well-backed,” said Mr. Babcock, one of several Northwestern University students who founded NuCurrent in 2009 as part of a business-plan competition. “It doesn’t guarantee anything, but this is a deal with the huge companies who set standards for a living backing this one.”

Mr. Babcock is betting that his company’s technology will become part of the de facto standard for wireless charging, which he believes is poised to take off. As people become more dependent on smartphones and tablets, having multiple chargers plugged into outlets is inconvenient.

Research firm IHS Global Insight, based in Englewood, Colorado, predicts the number of electronic devices that can be charged wirelessly will soar to 700 million by 2017, and double again by 2021 — up from 25 million last year. Starbucks plans to roll out wireless charging at its stores by 2015, using a technology standard called Power Matters Alliance, or PMA, which has merged with Alliance for Wireless Products.

But it’s likely to be a long, uncertain slog. “This will take time,” says Ramon Llamas, an analyst for research firm International Data Corp. based in Framingham, Massachusets. “Just because you have the technology doesn’t mean everyone will adopt it. (NuCurrent is) not the only game in town.

EARLIER ATTEMPTS

Portable charging pads or mats, introduced a few years ago, initially were popular but didn’t live up to consumer expectations.

“They had a really high return rate,” Mr. Babcock said. “You have to have the phone almost perfectly aligned to have it charge. What’s different about the (Alliance for Wireless Power) solution is anywhere you put it on the surface of the transmitter, it’s going to charge, and you can put down more than one device. You can mount it under a counter. You don’t even need to drill a hole.”

NuCurrent technology also will be in equipment using a competing standard called Wireless Power Consortium, which uses the brand Qi and includes Motorola Mobility and Nokia.

“We’re agnostic,” Mr. Babcock said. “We’re not tied to any one standard. Whichever standard wins, we’re going to be happy.”

That’s only half the battle, said Mr. Llamas of IDC.

“Consortiums like the latest and greatest, but they can be unwieldy to manage. It’s going to be up to NuCurrent to approach all the OEMs. They’ve got some interesting technology. Will everyone adopt it? I don’t know.”

SEEKING UNIFORMITY

Eventually, the fragmentation problem needs to be addressed, says Mr. Llamas of IDC.

“There are several different standards, and it’s not helping (adoption of wireless charging),” he said. “People want one standard for all their devices.”

One key player that hasn’t lined up with either standard is Apple Inc., forcing companies to make sleeves or other devics that allow iPhones and iPads to be charged wirelessly.

“People are waiting to see what Apple is going to do in this space,” Mr. Llamas said. “In the U.S., close to 40 percent of all smartphones are iPhone. That’s not to be overlooked.”

NuCurrent has licensed its technology to companies that have incorporated it into products, but it’s not widespread.

“This (Gill) product may take off. It could be the opening act of a potentially exciting opportunity,” Mr. Babcock said. “We have other products in the pipeline. This is the first one that’s a big deal.”

He said NuCurrent’s technology also has been selected for automotive use by a consortium of automakers, including BMW.

THE SWITCH TO WIRELESS

NuCurrent’s technology improves wireless charging by arranging antenna materials in a different way, increasing efficiency. The company started out working on a wireless-charging solution for implantable neurostimulators. Then it switched to wireless electronics.

“We got really good at making this type of antenna,” Mr. Babcock said. “It works really well in consumer electronics.”

NuCurrent has 14 patents, but it’s hardly alone in the race to capture the market for wireless charging. The eight-employee company is squaring off against some international giants, including Germany’s Wurth Elektronik GmbH & Co., Japan’s TDK Corp. and Vishay Intertechnology Inc. based in Malvern, Pennsylvania.

Mr. Babcock points to Gill’s decision. “They could have done it with someone else’s antenna, but ours made it work more efficiently and made it quicker (to market).”

Undaunted, he insists: “We’re not the only antenna maker. We have the best antenna. We have better technology. What we compete with is scale.”

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