February 27, 2015
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Dr. James Hubbard, Jr. tells me over the phone. It’s a quote from Arthur C. Clarke, the futurist and science fiction writer behind such genius works as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Childhood’s End. Clarke was an influential figure for many modern-day scientists, all of whom likely aspired to become a part of his fantasy worlds. Hubbard, who has just finished explaining to me the workings of his company’s MESH power management system, brings up the quote from Clarke to remind me that humans – so burdened by their own perceived limitations – often marvel at man-made technologies exceeding such self-imposed boundaries. An appropriate response, really, considering I spent the last hour in awe of what he and his son, James Hubbard III, have invented.
The two Hubbards are cofounders of HIS Energy, the Hampton, VA-based startup that won the coveted “Nation’s Hottest Showcasing Startup” at Tech Cocktail’s second annual Celebrate Conference. Their company was chosen among more than 50 top startups from across the country for its “SemperCell” technology – a power management system that could change the way we utilize energy in industry-standard sensors. “I remember we were sitting in the audience, and they put up the sign saying we won. I just remember James getting up on stage, and I was sitting on the floor in front of my seat,” says Dr. Hubbard, recollecting the experience. “I was stunned…absolutely stunned.”
“Every day, when we come into the office, we rub [the Tech Cocktail first-prize chalice] like a magic lamp.”
Listening to him over the phone, it seems almost as if the two have just won the day prior – a tone of anticipation and exultation still very much palpable in his voice; yet, time has indeed passed – months, in fact – and I’m on the phone with father and son, both of whom never fail to repeat to me throughout the call about their excitement over what has happened and what they expect to happen in the not-too-distant future for their company. “Every day, when we come into the office, we rub [the Tech Cocktail first-prize chalice] like a magic lamp.” This prolonged excitement – while certainly pleasing to hear – throws me off a bit, though; I mean, after all, what the two have managed to create, along with their respective backgrounds and their unique cofounder relationship, certainly deserves naught less than the highest praise.
“From the time James was 5 years old, James was over my shoulder, watching me build things and start companies.”
Having served as engineer and an academic for more than 40 years, Dr. Hubbard spent many of his early years attaining his Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctorate’s degrees in engineering from MIT. Over the years, he found himself serving as the head technology or engineering executive for companies like iProvica Inc. and institutions like the Boston University Photonics Center, as well as teaching at his alma mater, the University of Maryland, and the National Institute of Aerospace. A little after his son’s graduation from college in 2011, the two would embark on a joint venture that eventually led to the founding of HIS Energy. “From the time James was 5 years old, [he] was over my shoulder, watching me build things and start companies. About three months after he graduated [from college], he told me he wanted to start a company,” says Dr. Hubbard.
In 2012, the father and son team founded Hubbard Innovative Systems, which brought together Dr. Hubbard’s expertise in engineering new technologies and James’s newly acquired skills in marketing and management. After a few months of working on the company and producing new adaptive structures, James eventually stumbled onto and conducted further market studies on energy harvesting and the application of these adaptive structures on industry-standard sensors. With this knowledge in mind, the company focused on developing an ultra-low, power management system that could not only monitor the health of these sensors, but also harvest energy from the environment. The result? The SemperCell.
During our call, it’s at this point of the interview wherein things get a bit hairy. Having very little technical knowledge myself, Dr. Hubbard explains to me the technology behind the SemperCell like this:
“There are literally billions of sensors around the world – all connected to the Internet….sensors for oil and gas pipelines, bridges, fans, and other infrastructure…all created to collect data and manage different functions. But how do you power those sensors? Right now, batteries are being used…but those are inefficient and companies have to change batteries frequently and billions at a time. And the thought of retrofitting powerlines to these sensors makes no sense. The SemperCell sits on a pipe or a fan, harvests the energy from its environment (from vibrations, light, or even temperature) and stores that energy to power the sensors.”
Summed up: the SemperCell will basically save companies and government bodies the time, money, and other resources typically associated with managing the health of these sensors, as well as actually powering those sensors…by sucking in the natural energy around it. (Even as I write this article, I still find it hard to fathom that such kind of technology can exist). According to the Hubbards, knowing the huge potential for such a technology is what led them to start HIS Energy, and focus specifically on marketing and selling the SemperCell.
“Right now we’re focused on getting ready to begin our beta test, which should happen in March,” says Dr. Hubbard. The company has been hard at work since winning first place at Celebrate. They’re in the process of signing alliances with large system integrators, through which their SemperCell will be tested – with hopes of getting sales by the end of the year. They also note that they’re in the final days of due diligence with an investor to raise a $1 million seed round, as well as closing in on bringing on a new CEO and president to further accelerate HIS Energy.
Reflecting one last time on HIS Energy’s experience at Tech Cocktail Celebrate, Dr. Hubbard exclaims “Do you know how challenging it is to show the rest of your family a picture of you partying with a llama in Vegas?”
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