Full beam ahead
Entrepreneur Greg Kushnir heads Kiwi start-up Emrod – the company spearheading a breakthrough wireless power transmission technology as the alternative to copper-based power lines.
Entrepreneur Greg Kushnir heads Kiwi start-up Emrod – the company spearheading a breakthrough wireless power transmission technology as the alternative to copper-based power lines. It’s an exciting technology with unimaginable potential.
There were two thoughts that came to mind when Greg Kushnir and his company’s wireless power transmission technology was all over the media earlier this year. Is it safe? And, why does it sound so much like science fiction?
After spending an hour with Greg in-between lockdowns in Auckland, NZBusiness came away convinced not only of the technology’s safety and viability, but also of its massive potential for reducing the cost of power distribution, avoiding power outages and supporting the planet’s appetite for renewable energy.
The idea of wireless power transmission is not new – in fact, its origins date back to the late 19th century. Nikola Tesla is perhaps the most famous early inventor associated with various wireless transmission experiments. Emrod’s technology doesn’t quite go back that far, although Greg explains that some of the technology has been around for almost 60 years. In simple terms, it resembles radar and stealth technology that utilises electromagnetic waves to transmit and absorb energy wirelessly – and over vast distances.
Greg’s company and its partners, which include government-funded Callaghan Innovation, have worked on a feasibility study and prototype with the goal of making the technology commercially viable. He says the connections, market traction, advice and access to engineers and scientists, all made possible by Callaghan, have been vital to his young start-up.
So who is Greg Kushnir? How did he get so enthused about such a revolutionary business? And why choose New Zealand as a base?
Born in Russia, Greg immigrated to Israel when he was a young child. That’s where he completed his Bachelor in Computer Sciences, followed by his Masters in the United States.
But it was in New Zealand where he came to the major crossroad in his life when in the same week he received a PhD scholarship from Waikato University and a venture capitalist offered some serious funding to back his first start-up.
As Greg confesses, as much as he loves teaching, he won’t be having a career in academia any time soon. There’s simply too much he wants to achieve as an entrepreneur.
That venture capital funding took him back to Israel for seven years, where his collective business ventures eventually earned him enough money to retire.
However, while the original plan was to retire in New Zealand, Greg still couldn’t deny his entrepreneurial DNA.
He found himself back here working with Ice Angels and a number of start-ups. And when that didn’t satisfy him enough he launched his own company to focus on the one area of energy supply where there was a “gold nugget” of opportunity.
Copper-based power lines are an entrenched concept – it was time for fresh thinking around wireless transmission.
“People have ‘beamed’ energy for quite a while,” he says. “But if you can do it efficiently and cost effectively, then you can unlock a whole new set of capabilities and economic value – resulting in less power outages, and the greater uptake of clean energy.
“For example, many wind-turbine projects fall through because creating traditional transmission infrastructure is just too expensive,” explains Greg.
Line companies are excited about Emrod’s wireless technology too, because it comes with minimal environmental footprint. There is the prospect of supplying energy to places like Stewart Island, for example, without the need to deface the natural landscape with ugly pylons and diesel generators.
Already Greg has been swamped by requests from all over the world, from organisations wanting to be ‘guinea pigs’ or pilots for Emrod’s technology. “There will definitely be no shortage of market traction,” he says.
“Of course, it’s important that we develop, test and deploy the technology in New Zealand first, so we have a reputation we can leverage off.”
He says the speed at which this country’s regulatory body approaches the technology’s approval will largely dictate whether New Zealand can benefit first.
“Just as people only remember the very first astronaut who walked on the moon, people will only remember which country adopted wireless power transmission first. In this fledgling market, New Zealand has to be the Neil Armstrong.”
Tapping into local talent
Today Emrod works with a number of organisations in the development of its prototypes, and taps the Kiwi talent pool through various universities.
“These students provide value to us, and at the same time we teach them the skills that can support their engineering career,” he says. “There is definite synergy.
“I also want to contribute, albeit in a small way, to the building of a skillset here to support a high-tech [industry] eco-system.”
Greg says the strategy all along has been to reach out to other companies, contractors and universities to secure the right talent. And once they’ve helped students develop their skills, subsequently many will go on to propagate their knowledge with other companies.
His vision for Emrod does not just involve targeting low-hanging fruit, such as local and global line companies, but also other vertical markets such as aviation (where it could be utilised for powering drones and electric aircraft while in flight – lowering battery weight and increasing payload and endurance) and shipping (where it could extend the range of various electric-powered vessels).
“There are many compelling uses that we can’t even imagine yet, such as in space,” says Greg, reminding me that the Internet was originally a military technology intended to function as a decentralised communications system that could survive nuclear war.
Back in the 1960s few could imagine the widespread benefits the Internet would ultimately deliver to the modern world.
As a seasoned entrepreneur, Greg understands how failure can hang over a start-up.
“Entrepreneurs are like gladiators facing the lion in the ring. They may lose – because four out of five start-ups fail. [The possibility of] failure is something you must accept as part of the entrepreneurial process,” he says, “and it can happen at any stage – even after raising millions of dollars and you’re well down the track.
“Remember, failure is not a stain, it is something to learn from. So when a tech start-up fails, which many are bound to do, ask how did they fail? Have they learned from it?
“It’s about managing failure – not avoiding it at all costs.”
Risk is inevitable too, he adds, and it should also be managed, not avoided.
With Emrod being a first mover in a market segment there is the added pressure of educating the market. “Any company we engage wants to see a whole lot of proof in the technology,” says Greg.
He’s grateful that New Zealand’s second largest electricity distribution company Powerco took a leap of faith to become the first to test Emrod’s technology. Getting traction in the local market and providing value here before the technology is sold to offshore interests is important he believes. Kiwi investors and clients must enjoy the benefits, and skillsets must be developed, he says, while acknowledging that mergers and acquisitions can still provide long-term value for this country if managed wisely.
Greg believes all start-ups, if they want to succeed, must have speed in getting to market. “If we don’t see more sense of urgency, we could see a whole lot more start-ups failing.
“You must have the mindset that, ‘If I don’t achieve it fast, it’s not going to be worthwhile’.”
Covid and beyond
The arrival of Covid created issues for Emrod in relation to component supplies, laboratory access and group participation. However, Greg says while it did slow things down and push costs up, they kept hiring talent right through the thick of the pandemic, and never took their eyes off the prize.
Going forward, he believes the question isn’t whether Emrod will achieve commercial success, it’s about building the business in the correct way – to maximise value for all its shareholders, stakeholders, employees, and for New Zealand.
The laboratory testing regime is already well advanced. The next step involves extensive field trials to ensure that all the safety mechanisms work as they should, and there is no negative impact on the environment.
Greg believes they have already proven the viability of the technology and the value it can deliver to New Zealand and beyond. As a first mover, Emrod has the jump on the rest of the world.
But there’s still no time to lose.