Dr. Benton Calhoun, Cofounder of PsiKick Credit: Photo provided by Tom Tom Founders Festival

In September 2014, the Tom Tom Founders Festival launched the Founding Cville project which highlights local artists, civic leaders and entrepreneurs “whose groundbreaking and original work has impacted Charlottesville and the world.” Charlottesville Tomorrow is republishing the eighteen profiles of each of the inaugural Founders.

Dr. Benton Calhoun, Cofounder of PsiKick

Dr. Ben Calhoun is one of the world’s foremost experts in ultra-low-power circuit design for semiconductors.  As a Professor at UVa’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, he has published more than 100 peer reviewed papers and two books on the subject and as a Co-Founder of PsiKick, he has taken that knowledge and put it into practice.  PsiKick is designing and commercializing wireless sensors that need no batteries and power themselves by harvesting ambient light, vibration, thermal and radio frequency energy in the environment. These low power chips are based on Dr. Calhoun’s work and vastly expand the potential for an “Internet of Things.”

What is PsiKick?

PsiKick is a start-up semiconductor company that has developed and is commercializing very, very low power wireless sensors that can harvest energy from their surroundings and power themselves. These sensors are the basis for an emerging concept called the “Internet of Things.” Everything will be connected  – not just your smartphone and iPad but things like your clothing, car, buildings, roadways, coffee pots, thermostats, lights, etc.  – just about anything you can imagine. All of these things will all have some form of embedded, ambient intelligence and “smarts” inside and will be able to monitor themselves and interact with other devices and your phone. This is happening now, and you can see it clearly in the Nest thermostat and other ‘smart’ devices such as Fitbits, wireless door locks, smart appliances, etc.  This will soon be standard in so many more things and products including many things most of us never think much about. Walls, bridges, street lamps, garbage cans, street signs, windows, tractors, pens, medicine bottles, packaging, and on and on.  – all of these things will be “smart.” Our sensors, which are actually very sophisticated wireless integrated circuits or “chips” – provide the functionality for all of this to happen. Their low power and energy harvesting means that they can and do sustain themselves without the need for a battery. Hence you, the user, won’t have to worry about replacing dozens and dozens of batteries every month because they ’self-power’ from ambient energy. Many people are familiar with the concept of ‘vampire’ energy – devices like a DVR or printer that are plugged into the wall that aren’t on but nevertheless consuming power in standby mode. Well, PsiKick chips enable a sort of reverse “vampire” condition. Devices using our chip actually harvest energy from surrounding light, vibration, or heat and turn that into useful work.

How did it start? What was the inspiration?

The inspiration for founding PsiKick was a wireless electrocardiogram (EKG) sensor that we developed at UVa in conjunction with the University of Michigan and University of Washington that continuously monitors your heart’s EKG waveforms for cardiac arrhythmia without a battery. The idea for that chip was that it could be integrated into a wearable “band-aid” like patch or even into a form fitting undershirt  – and would provide continuous monitoring for A-Fib arrhythmia. The EKG sensor actually powers itself from a patient’s body heat. It worked beautifully with no battery! That inspired myself and Dr. David Wentzloff at Michigan (we were friends from graduate school at MIT) to form a company. But since we were both academics, neither Dave nor myself knew much at all about business or how to start a company. Luckily, a mutual friend introduced us to Brendan Richardson here in Charlottesville. Brendan’s background was as a VC in Silicon Valley and he has actually invested in a number of semiconductor start-ups so he knew enough to evaluate what we had developed. Honestly, after our first meeting, I thought he would not be interested. He was quite honest with us about how hard semiconductor start-ups were to pull off. But for everything he pointed out, we felt we had a pretty compelling answer. He went away after our first discussion and thought about it. A few days later he called up and said, “I think you should do this. And I want to help you do it.”  A week later we had incorporated as PsiKick and haven’t looked back since!

What was the biggest setback?

Such a great question! And hard to answer. Startup companies face a constant stream of set-backs, and we are no exception. Most start-ups face the primary difficulty of raising capital. That was relatively easier for us, partly because Brendan’s background gave us an edge and partly because we didn’t need too much to get going and the strength of the technology was pretty compelling. When we raised our Series A financing a year later (this past March) we spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley talking to VCs. While they were all impressed, most of them had given up on semiconductor startup investing in favor of mobile apps. But we met enough of them that we did connect with firms that think truly BIG. New Enterprise Associates got our vision in the first meeting and they eventually became our lead investor for Series A. They’ve been great.  Our biggest challenges at the moment  – I wouldn’t call them ‘setbacks’ per se  – are picking our first market to tackle and finding and hiring the very best industry people, not just in Charlottesville but from anywhere. We have so much opportunity in so many different markets that it’s imperative we choose one to conquer first rather than trying to do too much at once. We talk about that every day. On the hiring front, we get truly great engineering talent from UVa and Michigan  – circuit designers who are world class in low-power circuits and architecture. But semiconductor industry people in marketing, manufacturing, and sales are all located elsewhere. Effectively, there is no semiconductor industry here. It’s almost entirely based in Silicon Valley or in Asia. So our challenge is not only to find those people – the A++ people – but also to convince them that the next great semiconductor company is actually based in Charlottesville, VA. Not easy. But we’re doing it.

When did you begin to suspect this could be a success?

Basically, when we started the Company in 2012. No person in their right mind launches a start-up  – much less a semiconductor start-up  – unless they’ve convinced themselves it could be a success. We KNOW it can be successful. But there is a long, long path to get there and a lot of hard work. And some luck. And as a startup that is still quite early, we cannot label ourselves as a “success” yet, but we know what the path looks like and what we have to execute on  – and we have the team, the technology, the investors and the market opportunity to get there.

What has been the biggest positive impact you have observed?

I know this sounds cliché or maybe even corny but I am most excited by the impact of a team uniting inside the company that believes in each other and in the company vision and by the impact of our vision for potential customers. It’s very rewarding to see 10+ years of research, work and effort inside the Universities and from our research groups to begin to take shape as a real thing that will enable previously impossible products to exist. We’ve hired many of our PhD students as they’ve finished their studies and we now have an amazing team working on this stuff night and day inside PsiKick. It’s also incredibly exciting when we meet customers who get excited about this too. That happens all of the time. Nearly every day, in fact. These are big companies that everyone has heard of. We can’t disclose those conversations yet, but so many companies that everyone has heard of and knows  – and across many industries  – are evaluating our technology for their own needs. If we’re successful, “PsiKick Inside” could apply to just about everything you see, touch or interact with.

Have you founded other businesses or initiatives?

This is my first actual business, but as an Electrical and Computer Engineering professor at the University of Virginia, I founded a vibrant research lab that focuses on ultra low power chip design that led to this company among other things. I’m a new entrepreneur in a startup sense, but I now realize I’ve been very entrepreneurial in my academic career from the beginning, always pushing the boundary of what’s possible. Doing it in a company is an exciting change and one I’m really enjoying a lot.

How do you define Founding?

Founding is an action driven by will to bring an idea into reality. What does that really mean though? It encompasses so many different things that it would be impossible to list them all. But mostly, looking back on it, the key action is simply “Beginning” – in other words, just START! That’s the biggest hurdle – just getting started. Make the decision to START, and then START. It’s as simple and as complex as that. And find really great people to do it with. Co-Founders are so important. Make sure you trust them and that they can bring skills to the equation that you don’t have. And vice versa. Founding a company is hard work but you don’t need to figure it ALL out upfront before you begin. I think that keeps a lot people from launching. They think they need all of the answers. Not true. You figure things out in real time as you go. Planning too much up front doesn’t work because everything changes all of the time and you’re always adapting. So, find some really great cofounders, sketch out a plan, and most important, BEGIN. That’s “Founding”.

What brought you to Charlottesville, and what keeps you here?

Both my wife and I grew up nearby in Virginia, and I was an undergraduate at UVa. We both love Charlottesville and its people. It’s Home. It’s a really special place as well for reasons that anyone who’s been here already knows. What keeps us here is all of that but also this opportunity we have in front of us to contribute to the rise of innovative companies in the area.  Charlottesville is a natural hub for innovation and start-ups that has innovative technology from UVa, knowledgeable and excited investors, and a place everyone wants to live. It makes it so much easier to to attract people here to join companies and to keep them here once they’ve arrived. The lifestyle is so positive and rewarding  – it’s hard to imagine living anywhere else. Maybe Charlottesville is the next Silicon Valley?

What’s next? For you and for your initiative?

We are heads-down and focused on making products that can make the internet of things as useful and beneficial as possible. Our first commercial chips should begin showing up early next year. Lots and lots going on below the surface here.  But hopefully in the not too distant future you’ll be using lots of PsiKick chips – and probably without even knowing they’re there.

Founding Cville culminated in an award ceremony at Tom Tom’s Fall Block Party
with over 6,000 in attendance | Credit: Tom Daly Photography