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Inside Powermat's struggle to make cordless charging mainstream

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When he started Powermat Technologies Inc in 2006, Ran Poliakine envisioned a cordless future where millions of consumers would watch television, charge their phones and power up their kids' toys without plugging into a wall socket.

[JERUSALEM] When he started Powermat Technologies Inc in 2006, Ran Poliakine envisioned a cordless future where millions of consumers would watch television, charge their phones and power up their kids' toys without plugging into a wall socket.

A decade on, Mr Poliakine's vision remains a long way off. While Powermat's charging technology is increasingly being used in phones, cars and Starbucks cafes, widespread adoption remains elusive. It doesn't help that the Israeli company is being roiled by management infighting, dividing the board and prompting Chief Executive Officer Thorsten Heins to offer his resignation.

The last thing Powermat needs right now is a distraction. Competition is intensifying with a rival technology called Qi, and Apple is said to be cooking up its own version. Consumers, having waited years to be freed from pesky charging cords, increasingly say they want someone - anyone - to provide a simple way they can wirelessly charge their phones, tablets and laptops.

Jim McGregor, the principal analyst at TIRIAS Research, says wireless charging won't become mainstream until a widely available service lets people power-up on the go. "If you have to go around to multiple places, you don't want to carry a charging mat with you," he said. "You want to charge where you are."

Mr McGregor says it's striking that wireless charging hasn't taken off despite the concept's appeal. Powermat's struggle to become ubiquitous is emblematic.

Since its founding in Neve Ilan, a kibbutz-like cooperative outside Jerusalem, the company has tried one business model after another. First Powermat sold mats - hence its name - that charged devices placed on top of them. Since recognizing that low-cost rivals were commoditizing the business, Powermat has largely stopped making consumer hardware (although the company still sells co-branded products with Duracell and the US$12 Powermat Ring, which plugs into a handset to enable wireless charging).

The company also licensed technology to automakers and inked partnerships with hotels and restaurant chains, including Starbucks, which has installed Powermat technology at hundreds of cafes.

In the past few months, Powermat has tweaked its strategy again, moving to a service model. The company has developed a "mobile engagement platform" that it will sell to businesses - mostly restaurants, bars and hotels - so they can provide wireless charging to customers who've downloaded the Powermat app. As customers eat, drink or work, they'll receive coupons and ads via Powermat's cloud-based system.

David Green, who researches wireless power for market intelligence firm IHS, said that while offering ads is a "massive bonus" for the provider, it also carries "a risk of being off-putting" to some consumers.

"Dropping a phone on a table to charge is great," he said in an e-mail. "But getting someone to download an app, sign in, click away an advert . . . it's more challenging."

Down the road, Powermat executives are betting that cordless technology will be standard for new residential and commercial buildings - giving the whole industry a lift. "The ability to charge on the fly will be part of global infrastructure," said Ron Ferber, a Powermat investor and board member.

Much will have to happen first. It's true that consumers are increasingly demanding wireless charging. But even though more and more companies are baking the technology into their mobile devices, only about 20 per cent of consumers were using it in mid-2015, according to a survey conducted last year by IHS. That's largely because there still aren't enough places where people can power up.

Ubiquity probably won't arrive until the industry coalesces around a single standard. In 2008, the Wireless Power Consortium formed around one called Qi, the Chinese word for energy. Powermat joined, then broke away to create the Power Matters Alliance, which developed a technology called PMA.

Last year, it merged with a third group to form the AirFuel Alliance. That could reduce the number of standards from three to two. While that counts as progress, most phone makers - obsessed with keeping their products svelte - won't want to squeeze two kinds of technology into their handsets.

The market would also benefit from technology that lets people charge their phones or laptops from a distance - rather than placing them in a specific spot. Powermat declined to say if it's working on such technology, but Apple is said to be cooking up a new version that would let users power up their iPhones or iPads further away than currently possible. The new technology could start appearing in mobile devices as soon as next year, according to people familiar with the plans. Some reports have said the range could be as much as 15 feet. If true, that would be a game-changer - posing yet another challenge for Powermat.

In the meantime, Powermat will have to put its house in order. The board is divided between two factions. One camp is led by founder Mr Poliakine, who has criticized CEO Mr Heins for burning through cash and other issues. The other side includes shareholders Goldman Sachs Group Inc and private equity firm Hudson Clean Energy Partners, who support Mr Heins.

The CEO has offered to resign, according to a person familiar with the situation. Assuming Mr Heins leaves, Powermat will have to find a replacement and heal divisions on the board.

In an interview, Hudson CEO Neil Auerbach expressed optimism about Powermat's prospects. "We believe the wireless revolution is now here and the company is well positioned to lead it," he said.

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