Since graduating, 2011 College graduates Meredith Perry and Nora Dweck have applied for a patent, created a startup — and also faced each other in court.
In November 2011, Dweck sued Perry — who is also a Nursing graduate — on 10 different charges relating to contract disagreements over uBeam, the startup they founded. The suit has since been settled.
uBeam, which was originally conceived by Perry, came to prominence after winning the PennVention competition hosted by the Weiss Tech House in April 2011. The uBeam system is a charge station and battery adapter that transfers energy in order to charge devices wirelessly. Perry calls it “Wi-Fi for energy.”
The duo, which used to call itself the “BeamTeam,” won $5,000 from the PennVention competition as well as other prizes that included $6,000 in cash.
Dweck and Perry were roommates during their senior year and were both members of the female sketch comedy group Bloomers. During their time at Penn, they became close personal friends, according to the lawsuit.
After graduating, they were invited to present uBeam at the annual “D: All Things Digital” conference in California to publicize their product to potential investors.
In anticipation of the conference in late May, the two women agreed to file a provisional patent application under Perry’s name, as well as a new company, uBeam, LLC. Perry was named chief executive officer and Dweck chief financial officer, and the contract apportioned 80 percent interests to Perry and 20 percent to Dweck.
Dweck sued Perry in order to get more rights in the company, demanding upwards of $10 million in damages and a 50 percent ownership interest. In the complaint, Dweck argued she deserved more than 20 percent because she had been instrumental in developing uBeam from the get-go.
“Dweck and Perry spent extensive time together sharing creative ideas and encouraging each other to come forth with creative ideas,” the complaint said.
In her counterclaim, Perry said she had to exclude Dweck from the company because she had resigned as CFO. She also argued that Dweck’s position in the company was limited to providing financial advice.
After the settlement, Perry and Dweck renewed their partnership.
“Startup founder relationships are complex,” Perry said in an email. “We had a dispute a long time ago, but our issues have long been resolved, and we are both happily involved with the company.”
Dweck is no longer CFO, Perry added, but declined to specify her new role at the company.
According to Rahul Mangharam, a professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and director of a cyber-physical engineering firm, uBeam as a product faces other technological challenges.
uBeam converts electric energy into acoustic energy in the form of ultrasound waves. Then it reconverts those waves through an “energy-harvesting” receiver.
“Usually when you try to convert one energy form to another there’s a lot of loss in efficiency,” he said, adding that uBeam requires two rounds of energy conversion.
Moreover, he explained, ultrasound waves are less practical than Wi-Fi waves. “Sound waves can only go in a straight line. They cannot have any obstacle in front of it.”
As a result of these limitations, it may take significantly longer to charge a phone or small laptop through uBeam than through a regular plug, Mangharam said.
“The laws of physics are going to be something they will battle against,” he added.
Nevertheless, Mangharam believes the product has marketing potential. “Any kind of public place would want this system,” he said, citing coffee shops and airports.
The uBeam company “has built one prototype after another to show that they’re getting better and better,” he said, adding this showed a “silicon-hacker mentality.”
For Mangharam, Perry showed perseverance despite facing the “formidable forces” of large companies and large lawyer groups in Silicon Valley. But he also worried this may have put her in the wary mindset “basically to trust no one and to keep on pursuing her dream.”
uBeam has since moved on to raise funds and work on other prototypes. According to Perry, uBeam has raised $750,000 from investing group Founders Fund.
“uBeam is now heads-down focused on engineering,” she wrote. “We are working with a team of engineers to build out and scale our technology.”
“Our goal is to make the world a more convenient and magical place to live in, and we will do everything in our power to make this a reality.”