Seattle Week in Review: Tradeoffs in Wi-Fi, Solar, Self-driving Cars

Xconomy Seattle — 

Sneak out for a run on one of the first springlike days of the year, or stay inside and finish that project? Connect via Wi-Fi or save your phone’s battery? Own your own self-driving car or join a transportation network? Meet with a potential customer or order beer for your event next week? We all face tradeoffs, large and small, and we’ve spotted several in this edition of Xconomy Seattle Week in Review.

—What if you could connect over Wi-Fi using a tiny fraction of the power required today? What would that mean for Internet of Things devices? A University of Washington team responsible for a series of innovations in wireless power, communications, and controls, over the last few years is out with a system called Passive Wi-Fi that promises connectivity that uses 1/10,000th the power of current standards. Their invention made MIT Technology Review’s 2016 list of the top 10 breakthrough technologies.

Passive Wi-Fi. Photo via University of Washington

Passive Wi-Fi. Photo via University of Washington

You might think you’d have to trade power savings for throughput, but the UW team says its technology can achieve rates as high as 11 megabits per second.

Researchers led by computer science and electrical engineering professors Shyam Gollakota and Joshua Smith devised a way to separate energy-hungry analog functions of Wi-Fi systems—the radio frequency transmissions—from the digital ones, which are carried out by chips that have benefited from Moore’s Law and now sip microwatts of energy. In Passive Wi-Fi, the analog functions are confined to a Wi-Fi base station that’s plugged in. Devices connecting to the network have no analog functions, relying instead on selective reflections of the radio frequency signal sent out by the base station to generate packets that can be decoded by smartphones and other devices.

What does this mean? A video explaining Passive Wi-Fi puts it this way: “Now, paper towels, coffee, or sugar can communicate their status using Wi-Fi and alert the user.”

A company called Jeeva Wireless has been formed to commercialize the technology.

—Techstars Seattle is off and running with its seventh cohort of startups. Nine companies were selected for the accelerator program, which provides nascent tech businesses with three months of resources including mentorship, introductions to potential customers and partners, and access to investors.

(The program switched from a summer-fall schedule to winter-spring this year in part to spare startup founders the temptation of Seattle late summer fun when they should be heads-down on their business. A tradeoff potentially avoided, this week’s weather notwithstanding.)

“As with past classes, our 2016 class embodies the best of our regional innovation ecosystem, tapping unique centers of excellence like space / satellite communications, data visualization, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs / drones), online gaming, retail and enterprise SaaS,” writes Chris DeVore, managing director of Techstars Seattle. (DeVore sounded off earlier this week on his 2016 investment outlook as part of Xconomy’s national investor survey.)

The nine companies and their one-line descriptions:

  • Beam: connecting gamers through interactive live streaming
  • DroneSeed: replanting forests safer and 10X cheaper. Using drones.
  • Fig Loans: affordable credit for low income families.
  • Keepe: efficient marketplace connecting Property Managers & Contractors.
  • Kepler Communications: real-time access to space borne data.
  • Reflect: embedded analytics for your app.
  • Shyft: making swapping easy for shift workers.
  • Subcurrent: a Slack bot for collecting simple and powerful feedback at work.
  • Validated: merchants buy you things, in exchange for business.

And here’s our look at Techstars Boston’s latest startup class, also announced this week.

—In other accelerator news, 9Mile Labs holds a demo day for its fifth cohort of startups on Thursday, March 3. It is also accepting applications for the next class through April 18.

—Retro government posters are all the rage in February. A couple of weeks ago it was a new batch touting imagined vacations to space from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (with a cool Seattle connection).  This week, we came across a batch of Works Progress Administration-style posters touting the successes of the Department of Energy’s Loan Guarantee Program in funding large-scale renewable energy projects. While the program was pilloried for the high-profile bankruptcy of solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, among others, the majority of its loan portfolio—consisting of deployment projects rather than technology manufacturing—is performing as expected. The Loan Programs Office issued some $32 billion in loans and loan guarantees. As of last October, it counts losses of about $780 million, or 2.3 percent of loan commitments.

DOE-LPO_Illustrated-Posters_04_PV_Full_533x800_0

—The Loan Guarantee Program helped get the U.S. utility-scale solar industry off the ground, financing the country’s first five solar photovoltaic projects of 100 megawatts or more. Private financiers have since stepped up—though they still benefit from federal tax credits and other incentives—investing in some 28 utility-scale solar photovoltaic projects in the last five years. That’s part of why the U.S. solar industry installed nearly 7.3 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic capacity in 2015, a record, with utility-scale projects leading the way. Moreover, “For the first time ever, solar beat out natural-gas capacity additions, with solar supplying 29.5 percent of all new electric generating capacity in the U.S. in 2015,” reports Greentech Media, whose research arm tabulates annual industry figures along with the solar industry’s trade group, the Solar Energy Industries Association.

—The National Weather Service finally has a pair of respectable supercomputers for weather prediction modeling and research. The machines, provided by Seattle-based Cray (NASDAQ: CRAY), were long overdue, says University of Washington meteorology professor Cliff Mass. “Quite honestly, it was embarrassing that the nation with the largest weather research community and which had invented numerical weather prediction, allowed its weather computer resources to lapse in such a profound way,” Mass writes in a blog post celebrating the new XC40 machines, each with some 100,000 processors, capable of running at 2.0 petaflops. Most of the funding for the purchase of the supercomputers came through a disaster relief appropriation in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which was a low point in recent U.S. weather forecasting.

Now, the question is how the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will use its new powers. More tradeoffs. Mass has his opinions. “These computers should be seen as an opportunity to clean house and modernize and rationalize the National Weather Service modeling suite,” he writes.

—Widespread adoption of self-driving cars may help reduce climate change by lowering road transport emissions. Or, if they make car travel so pleasant by removing the chore of driving, they could drive significant increases in usage and associated greenhouse gas emissions. A team of researchers including University of Washington professor Don MacKenzie unpacked these possible futures in a new paper that’s important reading as society prepares for what could be a seismic shift in mobility. One big factor is whether people will be willing to trade individual ownership of self-driving cars for participation in a system of shared, on-demand vehicles. Here’s our coverage.

—On Monday night, battery maker UniEnergy Technologies held an event to celebrate its recent funding round. After the speeches, Russ Weed, the company’s vice president of business development, had to deliver some bad news: There was no beer.

“Sometimes there are tradeoffs in life,” Weed explained. “The tradeoff this weekend was either we talk to a last-minute large opportunity or I went and bought beer. Sorry I picked the former. So at the back you’ll have water, tea, coffee, and so forth. And please come to the next event that will be bigger, I promise, and we’ll have beer.”

Tune in next week for more from UniEnergy Technologies’ new investor, Japanese financial services conglomerate Orix. We spoke with the company’s head of energy and eco services, Yuichi Nishigori.