Per Vices, The Rare YC Hardware Startup, Sets Out To Disrupt Wireless Communications

Y Combinator might be best known for software plays like Dropbox and Airbnb. But it’s also harbored a few hardware companies, notably the one that blew out Kickstarter funding records with Pebble Watch this month.

There’s actually one more waiting in the wings.

Per Vices is a startup from the latest class that’s looking to disrupt how wireless communications are sent. They’ve built a device called Phi that can interact with any wireless or radio signal. It’s a transceiver that can demodulate and process signal data up to 4 Gigahertz.

In plain English, that means one of Per Vices’ devices can re-route your cell phone calls through your landline connection, if for example you have bad 3G service in your house. In theory, that means you could set up a decentralized wireless network where mobile devices and desktops are sending communications to each other instead of one where all mobile phones have to send and receive signals from carrier-operated cell phone towers. It’s a critical issue the industry needs to solve as data-hogging mobile subscribers eat into the profit margins of the carriers.

For now, however, the company is focusing on the hacker and hobbyist market as the device is a PCI card that supports Linux machines. (So yes, that limits the current potential audience size).

However, the longer-term goal is to build something that’s both accessible and affordable to the mainstream market. On their site, Phi retails for $666 for just the card or $750 with antennas, but the cost of producing it (as with many interesting hardware products) is getting lower every year. Comparable products from rivals like Ettus Research sell for $1,300 or higher.

They’ve hacked a few demos with the product, including one where you can pick-up HDTV transmissions and watch shows on your phone or call a walkie talkie using your mobile phone. They’re hoping that hackers will find even more interesting ways of using the Phi, like how some developers figured out how to subvert Microsoft’s Kinect.

Per Vices founders, Victor Wollesen and Yi Yao, are a physicist and an electrical engineer who used to work in the defense industry. But sales cycles there are endlessly long, so going the consumer route promises a faster time to market.