What Mark Suster Missed In His Blog Post Defending uBeam

Commentary on Mark Suster’s blog of early hours of May 13th defending uBeam and its founder Meredith Perry, concluding with some gratuitous but well intentioned advice for him and Meredith Perry.

March 13, 2016

Introduction

Mark Suster, the lead and most visible investor in the embattled previously hyped wireless charging start-up uBeam, wrote a very straightforward, contrite yet resolute blog post entitled “What is it Like to Wake Up and Have the Press Ready to Torpedo Your Business?”  

In it he describes the reactions of the uBeam staff to the recent negative press coverage doubting Ubeam’s claims of being able to productize it’s secretive ultrasonic wireless technology, a criticism which has been building over the past few months following the first investigative reports in October 2015 doubting the secretive microfluidics and lab-on-chip technology behind another hyped start-up (Theranos), and given impetus by a series of blog posts titled “Lies, Damn Lies and Start-Up PR” by an ex-VP of acoustics Paul Reynolds and one of the key original technologists at uBeam, criticizing the hype and claims.

Suster while claiming that the technology is far more advanced than naysayers believe, candidly admits not just the product may not ship in the timeframes announced earlier and at least some of the key challenges that outside engineers as well as Reynolds state still exist, but the possibility of failure (while resolutely backing the founder and CEO Meredith Perry).

If for any reason we fall short of expectations we have set in the market, I will be the first person in line to admit it and then to immediately fund Meredith’s next company.

 The piece is well written, admitting some of the hype and “hubris” while pointing out (perhaps for the first time in public) that uBeam is more than its much hyped CEO but a team of qualified engineers with PhDs and experience.  

He also does away with the strawman uBeam defense that its proposed technology does not violate physics and admits the key question as its critics contend is the commercial viability of such a product.   It appears the first time, uBeam seems to have knowledged the difference between what’s scientifically possible versus what is commercially viable (includes the engineering, costs, regulatory, safety aspects versus the alternatives).

So What Did He Miss?

There is an aphorism:

When I got a Bachelor’s, I thought I knew everything. When I got my Masters, I found I didn’t know some things. As I got my PhD, I realized I knew nothing.

When uBeam – and specifically its CEO Meredith Perry who has a Bachelor’s  – rode the hype based on a publicly stated vision and a relatively simple science proof of concept in 2011, one can’t blame the same clueless press who compared her to the next Elon Musk without any visible product or near-to-ship prototype, to cover their asses in the wake of the unfortunately timed Theranos scandal by suddenly amplifying the doubts expressed over the last six months by engineers outside and now by an ex-insider.  Those who live by PR often die by it.

Perry –  who personally got all the praise and the publicity meeting with Presidents and celebrities, and the chance to pontificate about how engineers and experts were too jaded to “think different” and all one needed to innovate was vision, drive and Google, engineering and scientific expertise in the particular field be damned – can perhaps be excused as an over enthusiastic “nerd” (Suster’s word) who just graduated with a Bachelors in an unrelated field who suddenly got a public opportunity to brain dump all her thoughts to an adoring audience. 

Fair enough, Perry did not know better. But where was the presumably more experienced Suster? Did he counsel Perry to tone it down without dampening her drive and cult like self-belief that makes it possible for mountaineers to climb Everest without an oxygen mask? Did he heed the warnings of engineers like Paul Reynolds to not let hype get ahead of the product (as indeed Suster confirms Reynolds on several occasions did)? Was he a sound mentor to Perry?

When Perry started throwing around quotes from Gandhi and Einstein, to defend herself against technical criticism, did Suster explain the absurdity of such defensiveness or the context of these unique contributers to humanity?

Mohandas Gandhi struggled for years from his 30s, developing and implementing his concept of non-violence and bringing it back to a vast, colonized, fracticious subcontinent of over 300 million and helped inspire and largely unite this disparate mass of people to seek independence and awaken the conscience of the colonizing Empire, while subject to violence, hardship, jail, giving his life soon after independence was achieved.  (The movie gives some of the story.)

Albert Einstein in 1905 – the Annus Mirabilis – at 26, the same age as Perry is now, wrote four papers any of which would be a Physicists career defining moment: on Brownian motion, the Nobel Prize winning Photoelectric effect – which contributed to Quantum Mechanics (whose principal theories and implications ironically Einstein rejected) – the mind bending Special Theory of Relativity and the Mass-Energy equivalence.  He followed this up in 1915 with the universe bending General Theory of Relativity, one of the two great paradigm shifts (along with Quantum Mechanics) in the physical understanding our universe in human history.  Along the way he also made fundamental contributions to thermodynamics, optics, philosophy, mathematics. 

Basically these are giants in the history of humankind whose contribution to humanity can only be appreciated with deeper historical and technical knowledge.  They are not punchlines to use against technical critics to prove the efficacy of what even in the best case would just be a cool invention. (And try defending your point of view in academia with “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win“).

So Perry with the exuberance and resilience of youth, and the arrogance of a fairly intelligent, driven person whose sudden public fame, wealth and access seemed to self-affirm her hubris can be excused. Where was the wise counseling and mentorship from Suster? 

Affect on the Team

Suster makes a point to dwell on the  demoralizing effect that the negative press had on the team.  Fair enough. 

But did he dwell on how the personality cult around Perry on the hype up might have demotivated the team?  When Perry disparaged engineers and experts, when the press made out Perry to be uBeam’s inventor, where was the thought or mention of the team and personalities that was doing all the heavy lifting?

While Steve Jobs got a lot of the hype – it must be stressed after Apple shipped or demo-ed working products – it was as a  product visionary and one who created entire markets, not as a key technologist like Steve Wozniak in the early Apple or designers like Jonathan Ives or supply chain management experts like Tim Cook who were integral to the whole.  Even as Jobs reaped much of the fawning praise the presence of the team was not far behind. Plus Jobs had earned cult like status within his team let alone outside.

With uBeam it publicly appeared that Perry was single handedly inventing everything from the complex hardware to software to algorithms with flunkies with doctorates just putting finishing touches on the product (whereas it was more likely the reverse).

Indeed from Paul Reynold’s posts it appears some of that lack of respect seemed to have pissed him off and contributed to his departure.  Was Suster as concerned with the morale of the team then?

The Feminist Icon in STEM

Suster alludes to Perry’s gender and her being “communicative, outspoken, young and blonde” and not a “shy, pimply, awkward male engineer” a reason for what he terms “personal attacks”.

No doubt there are many sexists in Technology and outside who are eager to attack women.  Perry herself did not shy away from being defined as a woman appearing in, for example, Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen conference and the like.  Or having hagiographical articles by a Women 2.0 editor which actually began like an Onion parody 

A lot of the cringe-worthy adulation like the above – Become a Billionaire! No experience needed! Just need to know how to use Google! And Think Differently! Apply Now! –  cane about precisely because in a field with a dearth of, and potentially hostile to, women, Perry was an inspiration and someone to emulate.

But what exactly was there for women to emulate?  Being an enterpreneur? Sure.  But no, it didn’t stop there: it was made out that she was someone for women in STEM to emulate. Indeed she herself described herself as a “scientist”.

To be fair, Perry does actually have a Bachelor’s degree in Astrobiology, though one would normally associate a scientist as being one with a PhD.  And of course as she herself candidly admits,  wireless technology is not her basic field and she did not know anything about it prior to her vision of using ultrasound for wireless charging.

So the message to women in STEM from those like Perry seemed to be to not worry about getting Bachelor’s degrees let alone advanced degrees in a particular field of expertise relevant to a future career (or indeed in the case of Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, another women-in-STEM inspiration, a college degree at all), but have a vision, be dogged and hire sheep like Scientists, Technologists, Engineers with PhDs and experience – all ironically male it appears for uBeam and Theranos –  to constantly prod them out of their unimaginative stupor to produce the idea in the visionary founder’s head.

Indeed what Perry (and Holmes) represent is symptomatic of an anti-intellectualism where advanced degrees and fundamental research instead of being seen as a progressive way to deeply understand and investigate issues in a systematic manner under the guidance of experienced mentors and peer reviews and communication, leading to the creation of new ideas, are seen as impediments to true progress.

The Theranos Comparison

Suster briefly mentions Theranos in the context of Ubeam not making “fraudulent claims [like Theranos]” and disawoving a comparison.

In a strict sense he is right: the questions  surrounding Theranos are of a different magnitude than the one around Ubeam as a recent Fortune article made clear.

Yet at the same time he is being disingenuous because the same woman-in-STEM hype that propelled Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos with no publicly proven technology under doubts and criticisms from scientists in the field, also propelled Perry.   The two were hagiographically mentioned in the same breath, one as the next-Steve-Jobs and the other as the next-Elon-Musk.   They were hyped in large part not just for their articulate, driven personalities, their absolute self-belief and confidence, but photogenic looks and relative rarity as women among a bunch of generic white male enterpreneurs all promising “disruptive” and “democratizing” technology.  And not only did they not shy away from outlandish comparisons of proven inventors (in the case of Holmes even to “Beethoven [and] Einstein“) but seemed to cherish and amp up the fawning coverage.

And it was not enough they were working on cool technology. No, they had to talk about humanity and how they would save lives and the Planet. Even uBeam got into the healthcare saving-humanity hype by stating that their technology would eliminate “bacteria spreading through electrical outlets” (presumably the number one threat in hospitals).

While Suster is right that many start-ups don’t succeed, it’s hard not to argue that the largely self created hype around both Theranos and UBeam with secretive, unproven technologies with huge scientific challenges to overcome, did not set them up for colossal expectations. It’s like a Poker game. No one remembers the hands that folded early or the bluffs with small bets that lost; when the stakes get to millions and billions, that’s when everyone gathers around the table to see whether you show or fold. Except in this case eventually even a bluff will have to be exposed.

And expect the same buzz on the way down as on the way up except it’s gushing praise one way and abject scorn the other. 

Conclusion

While Suster’s post is to be commended there are a few lessons here:

  1. He needs to be much more of a mentor to Perry, balancing her natural zeal, drive and ambition with the way she portrays herself or is allowed to be hagiographically portrayed in the wider press.
  2.  

  3. While everybody understands marketing hype is part of the start-up game to attract funds on one hand and talent on the other – use of the words “disruptive”, “revolutionary” are de riguer to get attention – widely broadcasting it in public before a working product is available borders on the unethical and just puts pressure with little upside except stoke the vanity of the founder. For a masterclass in how to launch a revolutionary product see the now iconic launch of the first iPhone in 2007 by Steve Jobs which was a secret until first revealed to the world with a working hands-on demo.
  4.  

  5. For Perry: acknowledge your team, let them speak if they need to. Share the spotlight. Don’t treat them like a bunch of losers who didn’t have the imagination till you showed them the light (even if that’s how you feel). There’s no upside to that. (Don’t confuse entrepreneurial intelligence or being rich to technical or philosophical intelligence).
  6.  

  7. Be wary of fawning reporters and press. The same guys who built you up will tear you down to save their asses before moving onto the next thing. There is zero integrity in much of the tech press (or perhaps even the wider one) most of whom are interested in getting clicks. It’s like Hollywood. Though unlike in Hollywood where PR is very much of the product and can cover up subpar acting talent, here the ultimate decider as Suster says is the marketplace. That’s your ultimate judge.
  8.  

  9. Stop seeking self-affirmation from other enterpreneurs and slogans. Listen if anything to your (constructive) critics. Think of it as close to a peer review as possible (a normal part of a PhD or academia where heated debates and sharp challenges are seen as part of the process to strengthen ideas and not as ad hominem attacks to bring down a person (eg the Bohr-Einstein debates.)

In either case, I think whatever technology uBeam has and will develop probably will have use, in the worst case in niche areas, in the eventual best case in the grand vision touted of being everywhere, with the most realistic goal of somewhere more towards the niche, with the possibility of spin off technologies. Somebody had to make the attempt. Failure as the famous Michael Jordan ad implies (original here and modified HiDef here) is often a necessary path to Success.

Good Luck!

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