Energy harvesting (EH) has long been hailed as the remedy to replace primary batteries and provide reliable, perpetual power for applications ranging from industrial sensors, to tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS), to medical implants. In reality, however, the adoption of energy harvesters has been sluggish at best, and a major challenge has been to identify applications and use cases where there is true value. We recently spoke with Mike Perrotta, CEO at microGen, about the latest trends in energy harvesting technologies and applications.
MEMS Journal: How is microGen doing these days and what projects are you working on?
Mike Perrotta: microGen is doing great. Our team is energized, our message is clear, and our sales funnel is growing with new customers. We are expanding into “long-life” systems powered by a wide spectrum of energy harvesting technologies.
The demand for perpetually powered systems in monitoring the health of high-value assets is growing, especially driven by newly accessible solutions in the IoT world. For instance, we have been working on mining and construction equipment areas that use high financial return IoT devices. We provide system-level solutions, circuit board assemblies integrated with sensors, and radios powered by energy harvesting modules. The main goal is to make the entire wireless system last even longer by leveraging our extensive expertise in ultra-low power system solutions.
MEMS Journal: What are the main milestones on the agenda for the rest of this year and 2017?
Mike Perrotta: This is a simple answer -- applications, applications, applications. As we expand our customer base, we have become a results driven company. To do this we need to equip our distribution channels with all the tools and solutions they need to successfully support our customers.
MEMS Journal: What is your long term vision? How is microGen going to be a sustainable business?
Mike Perrotta: I think long term visions are overrated unless you are a recognized visionary. And that respect and title comes after delivering multiple successes for all stakeholders of a company. Our near term strategy, and the needed tactics to fulfill that strategy, is to provide products and services that are valuable to the customer. I know that sounds like motherhood and apple pie, but that’s it. So we are expanding, based on our strengths developed and honed over the past 3 to 4 years in energy harvesting solutions and full system hardware. That is a sustainable model in our view, in the view of many of our advisors, and our channel partners.
MEMS Journal: Founder Dr. Robert Andosca left microGen recently. What type of impact has that had on your company?
Mike Perrotta: Robert has had a profound positive impact on microGen and for that matter, in raising the worldwide attention on the MEMS vibration harvesting technology. So he leaves us with a significant legacy for which we are thankful and use as a springboard. The market challenges we face are not significantly different than the day Robert began the business.
In regards to vibrational MEMS technology, we have the technical core of engineers and scientists that Robert pulled together and they have really driven the detailed technical accomplishments over the last few years as Robert focused more attention on the CEO aspects of the business. You cannot really do both, and he transitioned well into the larger role.
MEMS Journal: What are the most interesting trends for energy harvesters? Which markets and industries hold the most promise?
Mike Perrotta: I believe the highest value proposition for adoption of harvesting technology in the IoT world for high-value asset monitoring and predictive maintenance. The tools are gaining ground, and analytics are pushing this forward. So we are talking about mining, oil and gas, heavy equipment, facilities monitoring, and transportation such as cars, trucks, rail and air.
MEMS Journal: Energy harvesting seems to be going through periods of popularity followed by periods of relative quiet. Is it different this time and why? Are there other enabling factors?
Mike Perrotta: Bottom line -- the engineer (our customer) needs to solve a problem that usually can be solved with a power cable or a battery. However, that same engineer may not have the time or budget to consider a really, really long lasting and competitive proposition for their company. Furthermore, many of these applications are in very harsh environments where a harvester can outperform a battery at any time. These areas are where microGen provides value. microGen has a recognized expertise in low power long-life systems, and we will deliver these solutions to the market, not just components. We use terms like “long life”, and “life-long”, over “perpetual” and “‘everlasting”.
MEMS Journal: What are the price expectations for energy harvesters? Are you benchmarking against, for example, batteries?
Mike Perrotta: Let’s look at this from a life-cycle viewpoint. Our value in employing energy harvesters as part of a long-life solution places the cost issue at a different level. So the relevance of a battery is really one of total lifetime solutions cost. I think we stack up really well there.
MEMS Journal: Are you currently in volume production with any of microGen’s products? Are there specific applications where you have the most traction?
Mike Perrotta: I outlined the areas of current traction above, and yes we are providing product. In the MEMS world, one is lulled into a vision driven the promises of huge volumes - devices by the millions. Sometimes that is a distraction that makes one miss the opportunities that are right in front of a company.
MEMS Journal: Tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) has long been considered a killer-application for vibrational energy harvesting. What are the current challenges in this market?
Mike Perrotta: Perfect case, great question and here is my view. TPMS is a commodity. Unless OEMs make a push and create an environment for longer lasting systems, nothing is going to change. And, frankly, why would OEMs do that? The safety elements of TPMS are satisfied and have been for years. Current systems now last for up to 10 years. There is no economic incentive, especially given that the vehicle owner has the onus of replacing a faulty TPMS sensor, not the vehicle manufacturer.
There has been discussion about adding more functionality into sensing systems, like tire slip and tread wear. First, technically, much of this can be done in software. Slip is a safety issue, and may become a regulatory issue at some point far in the future, but it can be done in software. Second, for treadwear, who owns the data and where is the value? Is it the tire manufacturer or the OEM? That’s a tough battle and a big bet in time and resources waiting for an answer. We don’t have the time to wait.
MEMS Journal: Some industry observers have suggested that sensor nodes have big potential for energy harvesting. What is the current status of this market?
Mike Perrotta: This arena is beginning to pick up. Early on we hitched our star to the wireless sensor growth. Well, that didn’t happen for a myriad of reasons. But now, with the affordable tools enabling IoT, and the reduced costs of the hardware, software and connectivity, the value proposition is renewed, especially for the high value asset markets.
MEMS Journal: Energy harvesting is very application specific. Do you find it challenging to enter markets where the energy source is not constant?
Mike Perrotta: Inconsistent ambient energy sources are a challenge for us certainly, and more importantly it is a challenge for our customers. Our response needs to be providing products that remove or greatly lessen that challenge. Interestingly, we can evaluate a situation within 4 to 8 hours once we receive certain data. That turnaround is pretty good, and I think we can mechanize that further. I am still looking for a company that doesn’t have to overcome challenges to be successful. I like our chances.
MEMS Journal: Can you talk a little bit about microGen’s energy harvesting technology? What is your core IP?
Mike Perrotta: As you may be aware, the initial technology is from the University of Vermont. We have built a much more comprehensive Intellectual Property portfolio that greatly expands upon the initial IP. Our investors are pleased with our IP position and the competitive advantage it provides.
MEMS Journal: Is reliability still a major concern for energy harvesters? What are some of the qualifying tests that you have to perform to convince customers?
Mike Perrotta: Any system and industry will have reliability questions. Pick the point in the supply chain where you enter and then you can specifically address the particulars of reliability. This is not about single component levels anymore for microGen.
MEMS Journal: Since you are now focused on system-level solutions and all kinds of energy harvesting technologies, how are you leveraging your silicon-based vibrational energy harvesters?
Mike Perrotta: In a solutions assessment, we will lead with our currently developed MEMS technology, and if that doesn’t solve the engineer’s problem, we will utilize other EH technologies combined with our ultra-low power design expertise. Our focus is no longer at a single component level but rather at the high-performing but cost-effective systems solution.
This article is a part of MEMS Journal's ongoing market research project in the area of energy harvesting technologies and applications. If you would like to receive our comprehensive market research report on this topic, please contact Dr. Mike Pinelis at email@example.com for more information about rates and report contents.
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