06 October 2013

NZ’s PowerbyProxi Sits on a Potential SEP Goldmine

ZapA $4 million investment by Samsung Ventures Investment Corporation in New Zealand company PowerbyProxi Limited has received wide coverage over the past week (see, e.g., the IAM Magazine blog, scoop.co.nz, gigaom.com and AllThingsD, among many others).

On the face of it this is a good news story for the NZ start-up company, which was founded in 2007 based, in part, on intellectual property originally developed at the University of Auckland.  PowerbyProxi claims to have developed the world’s most advanced and safest wireless power system, and the first commercial wireless recharging system capable of 3D power transfer, regardless of how a device (such as a smartphone) is oriented within the recharging unit.  It also claims to own a portfolio of 126 granted patents worldwide, along with numerous further pending applications.

There are two components to the Samsung deal.  Samsung Electro-Mechanics has entered into a strategic partnership with PowerbyProxi, under which it will license the NZ company’s consumer electronics and home appliance wireless power IP and technology.  The other component is the $4 million in strategic funding from Samsung Ventures Investment Corporation, which will also see Samsung Ventures America senior investment manager Michael Pachos joining the PowerbyProxi board, suggesting that the deal gives Samsung a substantial equity interest in the company.

In addition to the capital injection and the strategic partnership, the deal with Samsung will give PowerbyProxi something that is probably far more important to its long-term prosperity – an enormous amount of additional clout in the process of establishing a global standard for wireless power transfer.  Indeed, if PowerbyProxi’s technologies were to be adopted for such a standard, it could find itself in possession of a substantial portfolio of standard essential patents (SEPs), for which every company implementing the standard would require a licence.  It would doubtless be required to offer licences to those patents on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms, however the cumulative royalty income generated for such licences would nonetheless be enormous.

Battle of the Standards Bodies

If wireless charging technology is to become widely implemented, it will require development of a standard to which all devices can conform.  Consumers do not want to be troubled with compatibility issues.  A common standard will enable charging points to be located in homes, offices and other locations (such as shops, restaurants and cafes) so that all the consumer has to do it put down their device within the charging zone, and it will immediately begin to recharge while they go about their activities.

It seems, however, that we are still some way from that ideal situation.  There are currently three groups working on wireless charging standards: the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC); the Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP); and the Power Matters Alliance (PMA).

To date, the only wireless charging technology that has made it into any actual products is the WPC Qi standard – Samsung, Nokia, Google, Blackberry and LG all offer devices with support for wireless charging via Qi.  However, in some respects the A4WP specification is more technically advanced, in that it supports charging of multiple devices simultaneously, along with ‘spatial freedom’ (i.e. the ability to transfer power to a device no matter how it is oriented on the charging pad).  In all of this, it seems that PMA is basically the new kid on the block.

However, it is here that the politics of the standard-setting efforts become murky:
  1. Samsung is a founding member of A4WP along with Qualcomm and Powermat Technologies;
  2. Powermat Technologies is also a founding member of PMA (other members of which include Toshiba, Pantech and ZTE;
  3. Samsung is also a member of WPC, and its products which support wireless charging do so via the Qi standard (despite Samsung’s status as founding member of the ‘rival’ A4WP);
  4. PowerbyProxi is a member of WPC, and its VP of Business Development – Consumer Technologies, Tony Francesca, is chairman of a WPC task force designing a wireless power resonant extension to the Qi specification, with the goal of adding support for multiple device charging and spatial freedom;
  5. two weeks ago Qualcomm joined WPC, which The Register reported as being an effort to eliminate PMA from the competition;
  6. but last week Qualcomm also joined PMA!

the Future for Wireless Charging and PowerbyProxi

It appears as though Qualcomm – most likely along with some other heavy-hitters, including Samsung – is looking to find ways to ‘merge’ the three standard-setting efforts.  In any event, one set of wireless charging technologies will ultimately emerge victorious and, whatever those may be, Qualcomm will have had a significant influence on the outcome.  So, too, will Samsung – and with this backing, there should be realistic prospects that some of PowerbyProxi’s patented technologies could be adopted.

If matters pan out this way, PowerbyProxi will be guaranteed a revenue stream from licensing of its essential patents to other implementers of the ultimate standard.  On the other hand, if none of its innovations were to be adopted, then PowerbyProxi would almost certainly be in the position of having to pay licence fees to other patent-holders if it wishes to compete in the market for wireless charging systems, gaining little benefit from its own investment in the development of wireless power technologies.

A partnership with a major player in this space thus appears to be an extremely wise and timely move on the part of PowerbyProxi.

Image Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

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