Wiliot nabs $30M from Amazon, Avery Dennison, Samsung for a chip that runs on power from ambient radio frequencies

As we continue the quest for better and more efficient sources of energy to link up our connected world, companies that are developing new power solutions are attracting attention.

Today, a startup called Wiliot, which makes semiconductors that harness ambient nanowatts of electromagnetic energy from cellular, WiFi and Bluetooth networks to work without batteries or other traditional wired power sources, announced that it has closed a $30 million round of funding.

The backers are a notable mix of strategic and financial names: they include Amazon, Avery Dennison, Samsung and previous investors Norwest Venture Partners, 83North Venture Capital, Grove Ventures, Qualcomm Ventures, and M Ventures. Another “retail giant” is also involved in this round but the name is not being disclosed.

Sources close to the company tell me the valuation of it is $120 million post-money. It has raised $50 million to date.

Co-headquartered in San Diego and Israel, it’s important to note that the startup has yet to manufacture or commercialise its chips, which are being publicly unveiled for the first time today.

(I’ve seen a demo of them, and they definitely appear to work: Wiliot chips pasted to small pieces of paper, and supported by clothes pins arranged on a desk but linked up no way to anything else, were hooked up to small buttons and other items. When you press a button, for example, the chip transmits that information to the cloud, where you can in turn see the activity on a dashboard.)

The plan, according to co-founder and CEO Tal Tamir, will be to use this latest Series B funding to work on that next stage of the business: figuring out how to produce its chips at scale and at a competitive price point versus other solutions like RFID tags, as well as secure its first customers.

There are potentially a number of applications where you might imagine a battery-free chip and sensor — today the Wiliot chip can measure temperature, location, air pressure, and can transmit data back to the cloud — could come in handy, such as in manufacturing, logistics, and tagging and providing data about anything that isn’t inherently an electronic device, expanding the universe of what can be covered in an internet-of-things network.

But Steve Statler, Wiliot’s SVP of marketing and business development, said that likely first customers will be in the apparel industry, where the startup’s chips could be embedded on the care labels both to help track items of clothes from manufacture to sale, and subsequently to provide services to the people who buy those items.

“That can cover anything from washing instructions to helping provide wardrobing recommendations,” he noted. That will, of course, depend on whether the customer opts in for such assistance and/or doesn’t cut the label off the clothes.

Wiliot’s chip has yet to roll out commercially, but the company is banking on its investors to help it get there.

Avery Dennison is one of the world’s biggest label makers and producers of RFID tags; Samsung (and Qualcomm) have a huge presence in the global semiconductor market; and Amazon is apparently most interested by way of its cloud services business AWS — the Wiliot chip architecture hinges on most of the computing happening in the cloud — but don’t forget that Amazon has also been making some interesting moves into apparel and AI-based fashion assistance itself.

“We think that at some point in future every item will have its own identity,” said Francisco Melo, VP & GM, Global RFID, in an interview, who points out that Wiliot’s primary way of transmitting information out — by way of Bluetooth — makes the information “readable” by the most basic of devices these days, the smartphone. “How do we take that digital identity to help consumers at the end of line to know what they should or could do with a product? There are a number of use cases that you can think of and trigger with Bluetooth that you couldn’t do with RFID.”

Another boost to the company is the track record of its founders. Tamir and co-founders Yaron Elboim and Alon Yehevkely, as well as others on the founding team of Wiliot, had previously founded and worked at another startup, Wilocity, a maker of 60 GHz wireless chipsets, which was acquired by Qualcomm for about $400 million. Before that the three co-founders were together at Intel, speaking to a strong track record of chip-making.

Ambient energy harnessing has to date focused on a variety of natural, non-human produced sources such as solar energy, geothermal energy, wind, waves, river currents and so on.

A newer iteration on that has been tapping into the vast amount of electromagnetic energy that gets produced through existing wireless services, potentially a much bigger and readily available source in areas where wireless services already exist, and that is where Wiliot plays.

Of course, this will mean that Wiliot’s chips will not work in the most remote of areas where there is no connectivity at all. That is one of the challenges that the startup has yet to tackle. Another is, of course, more energy efficiency on devices themselves to operate on nanowatts rather than watts of power.

But ultimately, Wiliot and others in the same area like France’s Sigfox are taking the first steps that could open the door to more sophisticated ambient power solutions.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Tamir said. “We think many edge devices will come that will harvest radio frequency energy. But the problem is not what you harvest but how much you need. If you get nanowatts of energy and a phone consumes 3-5 watts when active, you can see where this has to go.”