Young Entrepreneur Has A Better Idea. Now What?

Aug 23, 2011
Originally published on August 23, 2011 11:22 am

Meredith Perry turned 22 this month. She just graduated from college and started a new company built around a technology she recently invented.

There's plenty of bad economic news these days, but Perry and her company, called UBeam, are trying to defy it — she's hiring and entertaining funding offers from investors.

Perry's invention: a transmitter that can recharge wireless devices using ultrasonic waves. It's like Wi-Fi, she says, except instead of a wireless Internet connection, her's transmits power over the air.

"What happens is, the ultrasound, which vibrates the air, vibrates what's called a piezoelectric transducer," she says. "And what happens is the ultrasound will vibrate the piezocrystals, and the crystals will move back and forth, and that will generate an electrical current."

Perry says the idea came to her when she went to class with a dead laptop and no power cord. She wondered: Why can't I recharge without a cord?

"It's 2011, and if we have quote-unquote wireless devices, they should actually be wireless," she says.

It's one of those ideas that seems too elegant and simple to be true. Perry is used to fielding skeptical questions. No, the waves don't cause cancer. Yes, she has filed for patents. And yes, it has been tried before — but not using ultrasound.

A Different Kind Of Inventor

Perry's story is unusual — she's 22 years old and a woman starting a high-tech company. But she downplays her youth and gender.

Perry seems to have always gone through life on fast forward. She was just in Houston running a zero-gravity experiment for NASA, where she was a student ambassador. She flew in a plane that went up and then down at very high velocity.

"It's called the 'vomit comet' for a reason," she says.

Things at UBeam also happened swiftly. This past April, she won an invention competition at the University of Pennsylvania.

Her idea caught the eye of Walt Mossberg, a technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He asked her to present at All Things Digital, a conference he runs that is like Mecca for the tech industry.

Perry pursues her interests with an intense, nerdlike focus.

Arthur Perry, her father and early source of funding for UBeam, says as a child, Meredith wanted to invent things, like an umbrella you could use while biking. He recalls her at age 8 reading a book by Louis Sachar.

"She loved it so much, she somehow found out his phone number, called him up and actually spoke to him on the phone," he says. "At age 8, you know — that's Meredith. Not enough to read the book — she had to speak to the guy who wrote it."

Perry has no background in electrical engineering. She is self-taught by reading online, mostly Wikipedia.

'A Guppy Navigating A Shark Tank'

In the business world, she's like a guppy navigating a shark tank. Fortune 500 companies already called to issue veiled threats, telling Perry she ought to license her technology to them.

"And they also know that you have zero money, and they have tons of money, so you'd lose in a lawsuit," she says.

Perry often turns to a team of mentors from school and at other companies. They say she's a quick study and good at listening to advice. Still, it's hard having UBeam's success or failure resting on her young shoulders.

"I literally feel like I'm bipolar, like, every single day, because I'll go from an extreme high thinking this is going to be a billion-dollar company to thinking this is totally going to fail a half an hour later," she says.

One huge decision weighing on Perry right now is where to take funding. She has an offer from a private equity firm but is meeting with other potential investors. She's also trying to hire three engineers and an experienced business partner.

"There are about 8 billion decisions that you need to make daily. Like, I'm the janitor and I'm the CEO," she says. "Everything you can possibly think of from what logo should I chose to who should I hire, to should I take money from this person to what lawyer should I get."

Perry says she's determined to make UBeam succeed. But she also has four other business ideas she'd like to get to.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

Now let's meet a young entrepreneur who's facing a different set of challenges. Meredith Perry turned 22 this month. The college grad has started a company around a technology she invented. Perry's company is called UBeam. That's spelled with the letter U. As NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports, UBeam is hiring and entertaining funding offers, but also dealing with pressure from the big guys.

YUKI NOGUCHI: It's a hot summer morning. Meredith Perry shows up to our meeting at a coffee shop dragging what looks like a giant tool chest behind her.

Ms. MEREDITH PERRY (UBeam): Well, the system itself probably weighs about like 10 pounds, but with the case, it's like 100.

NOGUCHI: Perry pulls out her invention: A transmitter that can recharge wireless devices using ultrasonic waves. It's like Wi-Fi, she says, except instead of delivering an Internet connection, her device transmits power over the air. I'll let her explain.

Ms. MEREDITH PERRY (Entrepreneur): So, what happens is, the ultrasound, which vibrates the air, vibrates what's called a piezoelectric transducer. And what happens is the ultrasound will vibrate the piezo crystals, and the crystals will move back and forth, and that will generate an electrical current.

NOGUCHI: Perry says the idea came to her when she went to class with a dead laptop and no power cord. She wondered, why can't I recharge without a cord?

Ms. PERRY: And it's 2011, and if we have quote-unquote "wireless devices," they should actually be wireless.

NOGUCHI: It's one of those ideas that seems too elegant and simple to be true. Perry is used to fielding skeptical questions. No, the waves don't cause cancer. Yes, she's filed for patents. And yes, it's been tried before but not using ultrasound.

Her set up consists of two toaster-size boxes, and it seems to work.

Ms. PERRY: And there it goes.

NOGUCHI: Wow. A volt meter registers charge. Perry's story is unusual. She just turned 22 and she's a woman starting a high-tech company, but she downplays her youth and gender.

Perry seems to have always gone through life on fast forward. She was just in Houston running a zero-gravity experiment for NASA, where she was a student ambassador. She flew in a plane that went up and then down at very high velocity

Ms. PERRY: It's called the vomit comet for a reason.

NOGUCHI: Things at UBeam also happened swiftly. This past April, she won an invention competition at the University of Pennsylvania. Her idea caught the eye of Walt Mossberg, a technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal. He asked her to present within three weeks at All Things Digital, a conference he runs that's like Mecca for the tech industry.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So let's bring out UBeam.

NOGUCHI: Arthur Perry, her father, says as a child, Meredith wanted to invent things, like an umbrella you could use while biking. He recalls her at age eight reading a book by Louis Sachar.

Mr. ARTHUR PERRY: She loved it so much she somehow found out his phone number, called him up and actually spoke to him on the phone. At age eight, you know, that's Meredith. Not enough to read the book, she had to speak to the guy who wrote it.

NOGUCHI: Meredith Perry has no background in electrical engineering. She's self-taught by reading online, mostly Wikipedia.

In the business world, she's like a guppy navigating a shark tank. Fortune 500 companies already called to issue veiled threats, telling Perry she ought to license her technology to them.

Ms. PERRY: And they also know that you have zero money, and they have tons of money, so you'd lose in a lawsuit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NOGUCHI: Perry often turns to a team of mentors from school and at other companies. They say she's a quick study and good at listening to advice. Still, it's a lot of responsibility on her young shoulders.

Ms. PERRY: I literally feel like I'm bipolar, like, every single day, because I'll go from like an extreme high, thinking like this is going to be a billion dollar company to like this is totally going to fail like half an hour later.

NOGUCHI: One huge decision weighing on Perry right now is where to take funding. She has an offer from a private equity firm but is meeting with other potential investors. She's also trying to hire three engineers and an experienced business partner.

Ms. PERRY: There are about eight billion decisions that you need to make daily. Like, I'm the janitor and I'm the CEO. And everything you can possibly think of from what, like, logo should I chose to who should I hire, to should I take money from this person to what lawyer?

NOGUCHI: Meredith Perry says she's determined to make UBeam succeed. But she also has four other business ideas she'd like to get to.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.