San Francisco Bay area residents still don’t quite get the circular charging pads that sprouted last week on tables and counter at local Starbucks outlets. At a Starbucks in Palo Alto, one customer didn’t understand why the battery wouldn’t charge when she set her cellphone on the mat, which is designed to charge devices wirelessly. When she learned that her phone model required the use of a charging ring to take advantage of the feature she decided to take a pass. She said she didn’t really need the recharge now, and she wondered whether she should move to another table to avoid any radiation danger the charging station might pose.
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Powermat Technologies, the Israeli company behind the charging concept, is not worried about such minor “teething pains.” Instead, it is celebrating the culmination of three years of intensive effort in the roll-out of their Powermat charging spots at 200 Bay area Starbucks.
While the quality of Starbucks’ coffee is debatable, its influence when it comes to technology is indisputable. Many people in fact see it as a technology firm rather than just a chain of coffee shops. It began with the ambitious rollout of free Wi-Fi in its stores in 2001, when 95% of mobile devices lacked wireless capability, and continues with the company’s quick embrace of new technologies. Some of the coffee brewers used in the stores, for example, use the so-called Internet of Things: Hooked up to the cloud, they can track customers’ drink preferences, among other functions. The company is also working on “smart” refrigerators that can track the expiration dates of its contents, alerting baristas when milk is approaching its use-by date, for example.
At Apple’s most recent developers’ conference, Starbucks’ collaboration on the Apple iBeacon indoor positioning system was highlighted. This technology makes it possible to identify customers as they approach a store and have their favorite drink ready for them even before they enter. And then there’s Starbucks’ leading role in the field of mobile payments: Last year Starbucks customers in the United States made more than $1 billion dollars in payments to the company using their cellphones. And when you consideration that the company’s collaboration with Google is expected to boost Wi-Fi speeds at Starbucks branches tenfold, you get a sense of how Starbucks has become a magnet for startups and tech execs.
All this helps to explain Powermat’s euphoria over the modest launch of its charging pads in San Francisco-area Starbucks outlets.
“It was a long, three-year process to reach this moment,” said Ran Poliakine, a cofounder of Powermat Technologies who was the CEO until recently. “Starbucks is a very large company that all the technology companies are wooing, so we had to work hard to earn their trust and come with a vision that was appropriate to their approach. There were a lot of tests, a lot of examinations and a lot of adjustments that had to be made.”
You’re not the only company offering wireless charging solutions. Why did they choose you?
“There are a lot of companies offering charging services via Wi-Fi, but our solution is actually an electrical network that’s connected to the cloud, providing smart charging. Our network can automatically direct you to the next place where you can charge your battery. We’ve create a combination that can manage it and also guarantee that our solution will still work even if charging technology changes. It was clear to Starbucks that the next thing after free Wi-Fi was solving the power problem. They were being hurt by customers who were running cables through the stores and were looking for the best technology to address this. Since no other company offers such full service, they chose us.”
While a number of the newer models of cellphones offer built-in wireless charging, for most of the devices that are currently in use a little help is needed, in the form of a ring that is plugged into the device’s charging (USB) port. Starbucks sells the Powermat Ring for $9.99, but allows customers to use them for free.
Powermat promises that charging times are the same as for charging with a cord. For now, the mats only work for cellphones and tablets, but in the future it will be possible to charge laptops as well.
Starbucks has been training staff to promote the service, and is expected to launch an advertising campaign touting it soon.
“We were pleased with the customer response to the pilot tests we conducted over the past two years and we now expect an even greater level of customer satisfaction as we set forth to offer wireless charging capability on a national scale,” said Adam Brotman, chief digital officer at Starbucks.
The main concern expressed by customers who encountered the charging spots in stores is about radiation levels. Poliakine is adamant that the stations are safe. In fact, he says, “Wireless charging is much safer than using a cord because it is a managed network that provides only the amount of electricity that is needed. The level of radiation is lower than when you talk on the phone and certainly lower than a corded charger. Electrical outlets are still the main cause of fires. The two-pronged power plug dates back to the era of the horse-drawn carriage, so [this] marks the first meaningful upgrade to the way we access power in well over a century. I think the time has come.”
Powermat, which was founded eight years ago and is headquartered at Neveh Ilan, just west of Jerusalem, has just been through a rough patch. J. Christopher Burch, an American billionaire who is one of the company’s investors, sued Powermat, claiming that poor management had caused a $200-million write-off of the company’s value. He also demanded that Poliakine be replaced as CEO. Other shareholders called Burch’s move an attempt to take control of the company and its stash of cash.
The lawsuit has been settled, and last week Powemat announced the appointment of Thorsten Heins as chairman and CEO. Heins was CEO of BlackBerry between January 2012 and late 2013, a period in which that company’s share price dropped by nearly 50% amid stiff competition in the smartphone market.
Poliakine will be vice chairman of Powermat. “I will continue to be active in the company and will be an ‘evangelist’ for the wireless charging market,” Poliakine said, declining to address allegations of a power struggle at the company. “All kinds of things happened, but they are interesting only at the level of gossip. We now have the right leader, the money necessary to grow quickly and in the coming years we will be all over the world.”
Powermat has raised $250 million over the years from investors including Goldman Sachs, General Motors, Leumi Partners and rapper Jay-Z, who served as a company pitchman. Powermat, which has a combined staff of 100 in Israel and the United States, has a partnership with Duracell (which investor Warren Buffett recently agreed to buy from Procter & Gamble) but is due to be acquired by) and a joint product line that includes covers that extend the battery life of a cellphone.
Starbucks is gearing up for pilots of the Powermat system at its stores in Europe and Asia. Powermat, meanwhile, is also reporting cooperative ties with other companies. “We are working in cooperation with McDonald’s, The Coffee Bean & Teal Leaf, Delta Airlines, Samsung and more,” Poliakine said. “Our goal is to be the new electric company and Israel’s biggest company. You won’t need electric cords at home or anywhere else. That’s it. We’re finished with cords.”