FINSix Wants You to Ditch Your Laptop “Brick” for Its Small, Stylish Adapter

9/2/14Follow @mlamonica

Some emerging technologies first come to market in business-to-business applications—LED lights, for example, took hold in TVs before consumer bulbs.

Hardware startup FINSix has found the opposite to be true: its initial product will be squarely aimed at consumers, thanks in large part to a successful Kickstarter campaign.

Early next year, the company plans to release Dart, a power adapter for laptops that’s one-quarter the size and one-sixth the weight of the “bricks” that normally come with laptops. The $79 device also features an integrated USB charger and a sleek design with colors that recall iPods more than plain laptop power cords.

So far, on-the-go consumers have shown a good amount of interest: FINSix managed to raise more than $500,000 through a Kickstarter program after showing off prototypes of the Dart at the CES consumer electronics conference earlier this year. The company notes that conventional power adapters add another 25 percent of the weight and volume of a laptop, even as more consumers are buying very small “ultrabooks” to save on weight.

The Dart represents a change of plan for FINSix, formerly known as OnChip Power. The company was formed in 2010 by a group of MIT students who wanted to commercialize a new type of power electronics that offers various performance benefits than today’s products, including better energy efficiency.

The founders originally thought the technology would appeal to makers of LED lighting because it offers a more efficient way to deliver power. But when they talked to potential investors about applications, the idea of a miniature, multi-purpose power converter kept resonating, CEO Vanessa Green says.

The Kickstarter campaign, which comes on top of about $8 million in investment cash, validated the idea and gave the company the means to move into production. It also gave the design team some valuable feedback. “There’s a real pull from this space. This lets us use this as our entry point and expand into other markets,” she says.

Power electronics convert the alternating current (AC) signal from the wall socket to the direct current (DC) used by electronics and other machines, such as electric motors and solar inverters. It’s not the most glamorous field in tech and not something most consumers ever even think about.

Vanessa Green

FINSix CEO Vanessa Green

But many experts believe it’s an area that is ripe for innovation: the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E agency notes that a large amount of energy is wasted in switching between AC and DC and that 80 percent of the electricity in the U.S. will flow through power converters. In addition to improving power adapters for portable electronics, this technology can yield better and cheaper transmission equipment for electric utilities, according to ARPA-E.

Power converters in electronic devices deliver small packages of charge in a way that suits a particular device—a laptop operates at a higher voltage and wattage than a smartphone, for example. Switches inside power adapters take the energy from the wall, temporarily store it in components called inductors and capacitors, and then deliver little chunks of DC power to electronics.

FINSix says its switching operates 1,000 times faster than traditional products, which means its converters can use smaller components to store energy. The company’s first product is a stand-alone adapter, but the technology could also be embedded into laptops themselves, Green notes. Another benefit of the Kickstarter campaign is that it showed potential customers in power cord manufacturing that there is interest in smaller adapters, she says.

Earlier this year, the company switched its headquarters to the San Francisco Bay Area from Boston, where it still keeps a development team. The move was done because a number of key hires were out West, and because it’s a good location to work with supply chain partners, Green says.

A handful of other startups are trying to take advantage of advances in power electronics in different ways. Goleta, CA-based Transphorm has developed a new semiconductor material that makes power conversion more efficient, and Woburn, MA-based Gridco Systems has developed a set of power flow controllers for electric utilities.

FINSix has its hands full getting its laptop adapter certified, built, and delivered to consumers, but Green says there’s room to improve the technology’s power conversion efficiency and address different types of products.

“We’ve targeted the consumer markets but the technology and the core miniaturization of power electronics is a differentiator. There’s an opportunity for the technology to make a broader impact,” she says.

Martin LaMonica is a national correspondent for Xconomy covering energy and technology. You can reach him at mlamonica@xconomy.com or @mlamonica. Follow @mlamonica

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