Interview with Katie Hall
WiTricity is working on transferring electric power over distance, without wires. This groundbreaking technology, first invented at MIT, could soon power cell phones, game controllers, laptop computers, mobile robots, even electric vehicles, without ever plugging in a cord.
Dr. Katie Hall joined WiTricity in 2007 as Chief Technology Officer. Prior to joining WiTricity, Katie was a founder of Wide Net Technologies, Inc., which developed unique optical communication and sensing systems for both government and industry. From 1999-2003, Katie was Chief Technology Officer, co-founder and Director at PhotonEx Corporation, where she led teams developing the industry’s first commercially available 40 Gb/s wavelength division multiplexed core optical transport system. From 1993-1999, she was a Staff Member, Senior Staff Member and Assistant Group Leader of the Optical Networks Group at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory.
Katie began her career in 1984 at AT&T Bell Laboratories as a member of the Lightwave Systems Research Department. She holds eleven United States patents and has published over 100 journal articles and conference papers. She has been an Associate Editor of IEEE Photonics Technologies Letters, has served on the Board of Directors of the Optical Society of America (2004-2006), on the Board of Governors of the IEEE Lasers and Electro-Optics Society (1998-2000), and is a Research Affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Katie holds a B.A in Physics from Wellesley College (1984), and an M.S. (1990) and Ph.D. (1993) in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT.
An Interview with Katie Hall Chief Technology Officer, WiTricity
Date: July 16, 2010
NCWIT Entrepreneurial Heroes [intro music]
Lucy Sanders: Hi, this is Lucy Sanders. I'm the CEO of the National Center for Women & Information Technology or NCWIT, and this is the next in a series of interviews with women who have started IT companies, just wonderful entrepreneurs who have a lot to tell us about their success in entrepreneurship, a lot of great advice. With me is Larry Nelson from w3w3.com. Hi Larry.
Larry Nelson: Hello. I'm so happy to be here. This is a great organization, NCWIT, and the interviews that you've been doing with all these wonderful women, sharp women, it's fantastic.
Lucy: Well we're getting a lot of uptick on these interviews, a lot of good remarks from people, so thanks for that, and thanks for w3w3's partnership with us.
Lucy: Awesome. Also, Lee Kennedy is here, a serial entrepreneur and founder of Boulder Search who's also on the NCWIT Board of Directors. Hi Lee.
Lee Kennedy: Hi, it's great to be here, I'm looking forward to this interview.
Larry: Yeah. Lucy: I'm very excited about this interview. First of all, the person we're interviewing worked at Bell Labs. Yay!
Lucy: We always like those Bell Labs people. She's a very impressive technologist. She's an expert in photonics, and she holds 11 patents, so I think easily one of the top technical talents that we've interviewed. She's a serial entrepreneur and her latest company is especially exciting, called WiTricity. They transfer, get this, electrical energy or power over distance without wires.
Lucy: So imagine all the cables in a room-size space, all the cables disappearing. I personally think that would be just fabulous, considering all the cables I have right here in my office. I'm sure that we'll hear more about the technology, but I watched a YouTube video on WiTricity which I thought was hilarious, and people who are listening to this interview should go and pull it up and look at it, because the tag line that I wrote down was, "Being stuck in with a bad power cable is like being stuck in a bad relationship." [laughter]
Lucy: That really describes their mission, and I'm very eager to get on with this interview with Katie Hall. Hi Katie, how are you?
Katie Hall: I'm fine, thanks. Thanks very much for having me.
Lucy: We really are looking forward to interviewing you. Why don't you tell me a bit about WiTricity? I should tell listeners that Katy is the CTO of the company, and we're very eager to hear... First of all, the name is interesting, so you might want to say why you chose it, but also what the latest happenings at the company are.
Katie: OK great, thanks. WiTricity actually is a small start-up company that was founded at the end of 2007. It's a spin-out, really, from MIT and some technology that was developed there by a professor Marin Soljacic, who has a great story of how this technology came to be. Which is that he was woken up in the middle of the night a couple of times because he had a cell phone that, when it started to run out of charge, would beep. The only way he could get it to stop beeping was either to plug it in, or to actually take the battery out. You couldn't just turn the phone off. It was really annoying. You'd have to not only get up to have to deal with the phone, you'd have to find the cord, and maybe it was the fifth or sixth time in a row he'd been woken up and he finds himself standing in the kitchen holding the phone in his hand and looking at the outlet on the wall and saying, "Why can't this thing take care of its own charging? How come I can't just get the power from the outlet to the phone?" It really motivated him to start thinking about how could he get that power wirelessly to his cell phone. So, he did some looking around, being an MIT professor, you go off and you try to see what's already out there, is there a solution to the problem. But he couldn't find anything that could be used in a house that would be very efficient. There are things like radio waves that are used to transmit information from cell phone towers and for TV broadcasts and things like that. There are inductive systems where, if you have an electric toothbrush in your bathroom you might know that if you put it in the cradle it'll recharge itself. Those kinds of systems only work over very short distances. He wanted to be able to go actually a couple of feet. So he came up with this idea that he should be able to use resonance as a way to transfer the power, and the nice thing about resonance is that power is transferred between two resonant objects very efficiently, but it doesn't transfer power to anything else that is off-resonance. For something like a home application, you can transfer power from the outlet to the phone, but you're not going to put that power anywhere else, it's not going to be going into people or plants or any of the objects around it. So it's this great technology. He came up with it, demonstrated it, and the amount of interest from people when they saw the first demonstration, which was lighting a light bulb over about six or seven feet... Actually, the team was sitting in between the source coil and the receiver coil and then they were lighting a light bulb, and it just captured people's imaginations in a way that was amazing. Marin started to receive all kinds of calls and emails from people saying, "This is fantastic. Could I use it for this application, or that application?" We realized that this is the kind of thing that you start a company around. I'd known Marin for many years and had worked with him on other projects to do with photonics and, like you mentioned at the beginning, some of the stuff I had done originally at Bell Labs. He said, "We're going to start this company and we're looking for people who know how to do start-ups, would you be interested?" I absolutely jumped at the chance, because both the technology and the people involved in it were, to my mind, top-notch. The company has been around now for two years and we've been really doing the engineering that it takes to start to put this kind of technology into real-world products. We're looking at ways to recharge consumer electronics like cell phones and cameras and iPods and things like that, which are relatively low-power applications. We're also looking at things as different as charging electric vehicles. So, imagine you have an electric car and you can drive it into your driveway and then get out and go in the house and the car just takes care of its own charging. You don't actually have to plug it in. So, this is wide range of applications that the technology can address and we are developing all kinds of systems now to prove it out.
Larry: Wow, that's fantastic.
Lee: Can I be one of your pilot users?
Larry: There you go. Wow.
Larry: Katie, we know prior to WiTricity, you were the founder of Wide Net Technologies but how did you exactly get into technology period? And then the other part of it is what technology do you find today that's very cool?
Katie: Well, I was trying to think about how did I first get started, and I think for me really when I got the most interested in it, at least in science was in college. And oddly enough, I had no thought of being, spending my life or my career in science. When I entered college, I was really thinking more about being a politician because I really just... There were lots of things I felt there like the way they work and I thought just... You can make the world better and I can do that by being politician. That was really what my goal was when I first started. But I wanted to get my science requirement out of the way. So, I signed up for physics course when I was a freshman and it was a web course. Those introductory physics classes that you take where you roll a card stone and incline and you shoot balls out of pens and some things like that. And I just love it. It was so much fun. It was fun to actually do the work. It was fun to see there were equations that people understood the laws of motion and you could write down equations and predict how things are going to happen. And I just got absolutely hooked by the technology and especially by having my hands on something, working in the lab. And so then really, it only took me one semester before I switch my major with physics from there and on out that was really how I got interested in it. In terms of technology that I think is cool is I like the simplest things. I want to find something in the store that is a solution to some problem you have around the house. For example, one of the things I like to collect are these bicycle cups. I don't know if you have really seen those but they are sort of concentric rings and you can extend them and it forms a cup and then you can push them back down, pack it up and use it to carry in your back pocket. So, lot of the technologies that I like are very simple design that solve some kind of a fundamental problem. I really just like that something you look at it, you get it right away. And you do just think it's cool. I mean anybody who loves technology loves to see something well done like that well designed.
Lucy: So, Katie, it's clear that you've been a serial entrepreneur and it sounds like from what you are just saying that it started off in college wanting to change the world. Tell us about what it is about entrepreneurship that really excite you and why you continue to work with new start-ups.
Katie: Oh, it's funny. I think it is actually the same motivation which is that you want to make the world better. We can have an idea. You think you can see the way things are being done and you think they are not being done the best way they can be done and that you have a better solution and you want to go out and you want to prove it to people and you want to make it available to people. I think it's just so exciting to do a start up. You find a team of people. I love team work. I've always played sports all of my life. So, I really do enjoy being part of the team. It's kind of alarming when you work on your own and I think this is... When you get the right group of people together, what's the expression about the whole is more than the full its parts. When you can find something that comes together like that and all of a sudden your efforts are being amplified by the people around you and you are making real progress and you are able to change things. WiTricity is a great example. When we saw the excitement to everybody had for us to be able to eliminate wires and all kinds of applications. Some of them are medical for example. If you want to recharge and imprint device. Some of them are industrial. You can just really hopefully make the way people live, make their lives better with the technology and being able to be part of the team that developed that is really exciting.
Lee: I say it's exciting. I'm sitting here and thinking can I come and help? It's very exciting.
Lucy: I mean this is like a breakthrough technology.
Katie: We love all the help we can get.
Lee: Well, and so, it is a case I think that in your technologies, you are improving the world. I mean that's one of the goals that drive great technologists. Along the entrepreneurial past, who influenced you? Your mentors or who encourage you? We are always eager to hear that because it is very insightful.
Katie: Yeah. It's interesting and I think it's important to recognize the people that helped you along the way because I certainly know I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for people that really helped me out every step of the way. And I think for me it started even when I was just a little kid. My grandfather was a bit of a tinker-er and an inventor. He was always coming up with things around the house. He made special kinds of carts that we could drive around in the driveway and built an automatic rebound machine. And he was only doing a little workshop down in the basement and he always includes us on that. Come on down and let's take this thing apart and figure out how it works. So, he was definitely a guy who was always curious and interested and because being around that note kind of sunk in. And of course, I also have to credit my mom as well who just was really... She just believed in all of us. All of her children so strongly that she would say, you've got to find what it is that you are good at and you have to do it well because the world needs people like that. And about that specifically saying go into science or that sort of thing but just find out what it is that you can do and try to make the world a better place. When I got to college, I had a great professor who actually taught that first class that I talked about. And really encourage me to stay in science. Especially when you're a freshman, if someone takes the time to find out who you are and what you're thinking, what you're interested in... In the case of Liz, she watched out for me all through college and told me, "These are the classes you should be taking." Before I finished up I actually worked in her lab on campus, just sitting around and talking, and finding out what her life had been like. You know, people who will stand by you. You have good weeks and bad weeks, you have good tests and bad test. Having somebody encourage you all along, so you keep that chin up and keep moving. Those kinds of people in your life are absolutely essential. When I went to Bell Labs I worked with a guy, his name is Bob Jopson, and he also gave me a lot of responsibility, but also a lot of help, in a really nice way. He'd give you really fun things to work on, but made sure that you had the resources that you needed to be successful. I actually went to Bell Labs before I went to graduate school. When I went to graduate school, I was lucky in the sense that I had spent a lot of time already working in the lab, and I was quite familiar with it and was able to fit right in. I had a professor at MIT, his name is Eric. He's very famous in the field of optics that he's working in, but he's a very down to earth guy. He was always there for his students, and taught us a lot about how to be professionals, how to review papers, how to participate in societies. I think I've also been especially lucky in that the people I've worked for have always been really upstanding people. They really care about doing things the right way and being ethical, and all of those things that are so important to science, and that get taught not in a class, but by working with people. I've really been blessed to have people that taught me those important lessons all the way along.
Larry: That's great. With all the support that you've had over the years, and the successes that you've had over the years, what is the toughest thing that you ever had to do professionally?
Katie: One of the things I love about what I do... I always think one of the most important things you can do when you're choosing a job is to consider the people that you're going to be working with. This is actually advise that Liz gave me when I was in college. She said, "Care a lot more about who you work with than what you work on." There are so many interesting problems in the world that you know you're going to be able to find good ones, but there's nothing that's really worth working on if you don't really like or trust the people that you're working with. The hardest times, when I look back on them, are times of change where maybe somebody was leaving some place to go take another position. And even though you might have been wishing them well, it's always hard when you lose a teammate, or if you had to cut down the size of a team because of the various things that were going on with the business or the economy. I think at work those are some of the hardest situations that you face.
Lucy: Yeah, I think we've heard that consistently in the interviews we've done. Katie, you've had a lot of great advice, it sounds like, in your career, and we have a lot of young people that listen to our podcast. If you were sitting here today with a group of young people, what advice would you give them about entrepreneurship?
Katie: That's a good question. I guess I think about the things that I've learned, and I think sometimes it's really important to try to take a risk and not be afraid to fail, because chances are you are going to fail at something along the way. You're going to certainly make mistakes, everybody does. Sometimes people can very clearly think about all the things that could go wrong down a path, but they forget to remember all the things that could go right, or how great it would be if it went right. Just because you don't know how to get to the end point, it doesn't mean you should not step off and start. Most people, if they tell you the truth about how their careers have gone or how their companies have gone, they tell you things in retrospect, "Here I am now, let me tell you how I got here, " and it can sound like such a straight path. It maybe even sounds like they knew from the very beginning how they were going to get here, when in reality, if you look back, it probably was very zig-zaggy. They might have had some completely different idea in mind, and something, in the process of solving one problem, came up that took you in a totally different direction and turned out to be your life's work. So, I'd say to take a risk and to be brave, and don't be afraid to fail, and don't take yourself out of the game. I think a lot of people are very hard on themselves, and they say, "Oh, I'm not good enough to do this, " or, "I'm not smart enough." Whatever thing they can think about themselves where they think it's a reason not to take a chance. But being an entrepreneur is very much about being part of a team, and you never know which pieces are going to come together to make that great puzzle. Not everybody is going to score a basket, and not everybody's going to be the best re-bounder. You need all different kinds of skill sets and personalities and passions, to come together in a mix that's going to make the whole enterprise work. I would just really encourage people. If you think you're interested, and you're enthusiastic and you're passionate, and you want to work hard, you should definitely take the leap, because it's just so much fun to be an entrepreneur and to be working in a start-up.
Lee: That's really great advice, it's not a straight line. Sometimes you have to take the first step to see what the second step's even going to be.
Katie: Oh, absolutely.
Lee: I think once you understand that, you kind of go, "Yeah!" But it does take... it's a little scary sometimes.
Katie: Sometimes you figure it out as you go, right? Lee: Yeah, exactly. We're really interested in understanding personal characteristics of entrepreneurs as well, Katie. We're curious about personal characteristics that you have that you think make you a successful entrepreneur.
Katie: Well, one thing is I don't like to be told no.
Lee: God, OK. [laughs]
Katie: And in fact, when somebody tells me no, it makes me mad and I just think, "Oh, yeah? Well, let's see." Maybe that is not actually very flattering. [laughs]
Larry: We want the truth.
Lee: We want the truth. I mean I had an employee one time lean over to another new employee and say, "Don't say no." Whatever you do, she is not good with that word.
Katie: I mean whenever you see something or somebody will say, "Oh, you can't do that. That can't be done." Well, come on. I mean there are some things fundamentally that cannot be done, but there are actually very few things that are like that. Most things are just really hard and I just love that some are very stubborn about that. If some... If I decide I think something can be done, boy, I just hard headed about it and I'll try and try and try very persistent manner. I think that is actually can be a very good quality when you have to be knocking down barriers. Most are pretty competitive like I said before, I like teamwork and I always played on teams. But I like to... You work hard to try to be the best and being part of a company is really no different. You work as a team and you want to make the best product that is out there. You want to find the best solution to a problem and you really won't take no for an answer, right? You are going to run into all kinds of problems that you can't predict. You have to be optimistic because you have to be able to sort of keep at it and keep at it and maybe it is the second time you try something you saw that maybe is the hundred time. But if you really believe that the solution is there somewhere then you find it.
Lee: I changed my phraseology when I worked at Bell Labs. I never said no again when somebody asked me something. I hated it so much so I changed it to I don't know how to do that.
Larry: All right, now, Katie with everything that you do and you're involved with everything else. How do you bring a balance into your personal and professional life?
Katie: Oh, boy, I hope I bring a balance. [laughs] That's one of the hardest things that you have to do. I think because I have a family. I have kids and they are absolutely the most important thing in the world to me. But being a working mom or being a working parent means that you are spending a lot of time away from your kids and so finding that balance is hard. And especially I think in a start-up company, the hours are long and sometimes it's very unpredictable. As hard as you try to say, "Oh, I'm going to always make sure to map out X amount of time for home and X amount for work." It never really holds that way. I think thing about balancing is you are always tipping one way or another, right? There's always a correction that's in process. I think I try to be sensitive to that so that you make sure that you're keeping your priorities straight because sometimes, suck has the young people especially when they get started. It's like you are a lot more likely to get complaints at work if you don't show up, then you are going to get them at home if you don't show up. But that doesn't mean that you should always be giving into those. You really do have to work hard to keep that balance. I wish there was an easy answer and I wish I knew it but I seem to just sort of constantly befalling one way or the other and then trying to correct that and get it right.
Larry: Just keep it up.
Lee: Yeah. Yeah, we want that wireless stuff.
Lucy: Yeah and speaking of that wireless stuff, you have achieved so much and your company has been going at this for a few years now. What's next for you? Where do you see Katie going?
Katie: Oh, boy. Since I've already admitted that I didn't know, that I can only work back and tell you what my past is, I don't know. Right now, we are right in the middle of getting more WiTricity going. And so, my thoughts about the future for my career are... I mean I'm just all consumed right now with what I'm working on and part of the reason that is so exciting is because the technology can be applied so many places. I mean one of the things we say to people is think about it as replacing disposable batteries or extension cords. And if you think of all the places where those things are used, you can see that the applications are limitless and so we are just having so much fun learning about all the different areas where the technology could apply and building commercial systems. Even though, we've been at it for a couple of years now. The company, it's still really young in its life cycle and there are just so many exciting things happening. Right now, as far as I can see into the future, I will be working on this but we have to check in on a couple of years I guess and see.
Lee: Well, so, I have a career path for you.
Lee: I do because I think we should have more computer sciences on Capitol Hill. So, just check back in a few years and we'll manage your campaign for when you run for Congress.
Katie: I have to say I still get the urge every now and then when I see something going on. And I'd say, oh, I really wish I could do that but you only have so many hours in the day. There are only so many things you can tackle at once. Lee: Well, you will be really wealthy after this exit and then you can run for office. So, see?
Larry: I love the idea.
Lucy: So, Katie before we finish, I'm sure our listeners are dying to know when is the projected date for the first commercial application?
Katie: Oh, yes. So, we are actually expecting that people will start to see this technology in commercial products by the end of this year beginning in next.
Lee: Oh, my gosh. Wow.
Lee: Shock beam. Awesome.
Lucy: Well, Katie, thank you so much for talking with us. We really enjoyed this interview. I want to remind the listeners that they can find this at w3w3.com and NCWIT.org. Thanks so much. Please pass this on to other listeners who might be interested.
Lee: Thanks Katie.
Katie: Thank you very much guys. This has been really fun. [music]