The pros and cons of conning pros

Raising funds for a new engineering venture always brings with it the temptation to promise more than you can deliver.  At the very least, that seems to be what has happened with a Texas-based outfit called at various times Wireless Power, Texzon Technologies, and Viziv Technologies, which is currently in bankruptcy proceedings.  As I have had very peripheral dealings with the organisation personally, perhaps I should tell the story from my perspective.

Five or six years ago, I was driving along a connecting road south of Dallas, Texas, when I saw a curious structure sitting out in a pasture half a mile or so north of the road.  It was a sort of tower consisting of a tall, narrow sheet-metal box, a square girdered column on top of that, and a rounded hemispherical metal dingus to top it off, the whole thing being a couple of hundred feet tall (60 meters).  It wasn't a windmill, I didn't think it was some kind of weird artwork, but it wasn't any kind of antenna I was familiar with either, so when I got back home I did some Internet digging.

Turns out it was constructed by an outfit calling itself Viziv Technologies.  Their website is still up as of this writing, and being interested mainly in the technical aspects of what they were doing, I studied it in some detail.

In a sentence, they seemed to be trying to revive Nikola Tesla's old dream of power transmission without wires.  Among the many wild promises Tesla made in his lifetime that he fell short of delivering, wireless power transmission was one of the more striking ones.

In experiments in Colorado Springs around 1900, Tesla claimed to have developed a system that would allow him to send useful amounts of electric power indefinitely long distances without wires.  But the most authoritative biography of Tesla by historian of technology W. Bernard Carlson says that the longest-distance transmission Tesla actually documented in his experiments there was sixty feet (18 metres). 

Around the same time, a couple of German physicists named Arnold Sommerfeld and Jonathan Zenneck were working out the mathematics of how electromagnetic waves (including the kind of waves Tesla was using) followed the moderately-conducting surface of the earth.  The mathematics is rather difficult, but by 1920 it was well understood.  Local AM radio stations use what amounts to a Sommerfeld-Zenneck surface wave to reach their listeners.  Of the fifty kilowatts or so that goes into the most powerful AM stations in the U. S., the vast majority of that power winds up heating the soil, and only a few milliwatts here and there is delivered to receivers. 

The Viziv folks were reviving Tesla's dream of transmitting power without wires, but in their website's discussion of Zenneck waves, groundbreaking experiments, and promising results, they never mentioned the question that Tesla never answered satisfactorily about his idea:  if anybody can get free power just by putting up an antenna, how are you going to bill for it, even assuming it works?

But the Tesla connection explained the odd resemblance of the top of the Dallas tower to Tesla's grandest folly, a giant wooden tower with a hemispherical dome built in Wardenclyffe, Long Island, which was demolished during World War I to prevent German submarines from using it as a landmark.

A few months after I saw the tower, an electrical engineering student of mine contacted me for some advice.  He was thinking of interviewing with a company called Viziv Technologies, and would I take a look at their website and tell him what I thought?  I can't remember exactly what I said, but it was probably some version of the standard advice I give to every student wanting to join a startup: 

"Do it while you're young and without a lot of obligations. It probably won't go anywhere, but you might have some fun and it will be a good learning experience no matter what happens."

Something or other made me look into how Viziv Technologies was doing a month or so ago, and the answer is, not too well.  Google it now and you get a lot of bankruptcy-filing documents.  It seems that after inducing investors to put a lot of money into salaries, equipment, the tower, and other expensive stuff, the company failed to deliver on its promises. 

To be fair, they were not putting all their investment eggs in the wireless-power basket. They were also talking about low-frequency communications and location services and so on.  But unless they had discovered something that Sommerfeld and Zenneck and everybody else doing electromagnetics since 1910 had missed, there wasn't anything remarkable about Zenneck waves except the fact that most non-electrical engineers had never heard of them. 

According to one comment posted on a physics discussion page, a couple of brothers named James and Kenneth Corum were the techno-whizzes behind Viziv.  These people have undoubted technical credentials, and have gone on record as doing investigations and reproductions of some of Tesla's most interesting experiments, including one in which he claimed to have made ball lightning.

But even smart people can be hoodwinked by those who wish to use them to acquire gains that turn out to be ill-gotten in retrospect.  The comment claimed that the technology was "demonstrated to work with great efficiency" (whatever that means), and then somebody rooked the Corums out of their intellectual property and forced the company into bankruptcy so they could grab the patents for themselves.

Not knowing which side of the fence the writer of that comment stands on, it's hard to say what really happened.  Another interpretation that I personally lean toward is that the business people in charge were using the Corums as science oracles to talk to non-technical investors, who pretty much had to take their word for whatever they said.

Something made the company go into bankruptcy, but it would take a forensic accountant and an investigative reporter weeks to figure out exactly what. All I can conclude is that the people putting in money ran out of patience when some promises were not fulfilled, and turned off the cash spigot. 

It's ironic that a company based on ideas that Tesla first promoted without fully understanding the maths behind what he was doing has apparently ended up where Tesla did:  without credibility in the technical or the business communities, and broke.  Viziv Technologies may rise again, but at this point, I wouldn't put any money on it -- or in it.

This article has been republished with permission from Engineering Ethics.


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