EVERY TIME HE WENT TO HIS HOTEL ROOM KRIS MCNEIL FACED THE FRUSTRATION OF untangling a shopping bag full of wires. A software developer for a St. John’s-based start-up company, McNeil found himself wearing many hats, including product management and sales for the local company that did a lot of business in New York and California. At the time, Bluetooth and other wireless technology was simplifying data transmission, “but I still had to deal with a ball of power cords,” he recalls.
It was this inefficiency that launched him on his journey as an innovator and entrepreneur, a journey that recently led him to cut a deal as a wireless power hardware supplier for Boeing’s drone program.
At 37, McNeil is the founder and President of Solace Power in Mount Pearl. He grew up in Spaniards Bay in Conception Bay North with his younger sister, two step brothers, and their parents. According to McNeil, other than his love for math and science, his Tandy computer, and a few early successes in writing code, there was nothing in his early years that impelled him on his current path.
Boeing drone receiving wireless power charge from Solace Power’s RC2 technology.
Immediately after graduating from Ascension Collegiate he moved an hour down the road to St. John’s where he enrolled in Memorial University for a major in chemistry. One of his elective courses was computer science and McNeil was so intrigued by the possibilities that he switched to a double major in computer science and math. Degree in hand, he walked into his first job in the early 2000s with a start-up company writing software programs for the mobile-phone market. “I gained a lot of confidence in that job right out of school,” he says. “I stepped into many different roles, quickly expanding into sales.”
And it was while he was on the road, wrestling with power cables, while data wires and connectors became obsolete, that he started researching wireless power technology. At first it was more out of interest. As McNeil tells it, there was no real Aha! moment, but the more he learned, the stronger grew his sense of opportunity. In the mid-2000s McNeil was hired as a product manager with the former ICAN. There he worked closely with business owner Neil Chaulk. In his spare time, McNeil continued his independent research and wrote his first business plan. “I think having been in the start-up company and seeing how it worked, and then working with a Neil who has a lot of business savvy, helped to give me the confidence that I could do it,” he says. In his research McNeil was inspried by Nickola Tesla a man whom Einstein is said to have regarded as the smartest man alive.
Whether it appeared rational on the surface or not, McNeil decided in 2007 to make the leap of faith. “I was a software guy, but I wanted to start a hardware engineering company.” During his investigations McNeil was inspired by the legendary electrical engineer Nikola Tesla, and in his years of research he’d uncovered technology that he thought had potential to be adapted to drive his wireless power vision. With an agreement from Chaulk to sit on his advisory board, McNeil left ICAN to work full time on his new company, Solace Power.
McNeil (R) with Neil Chaulk at graduation from the Genesis Centre.
For the first two years he worked out of his home as he finessed his business plan and sought financing options, securing research investment from NRC IRAP, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and private investors. In 2009 he moved into the Genesis Centre, Memorial’s arms-length business incubator, hiring four electrical engineers. “We had a couple of technologies we were investigating and in our efforts to identify the one that was the best fit for Solace, we came up with our own way of wireless power transmission.” They called it resonant capacitive coupling or RC2.
“RC2 allows greater spatial freedom so that as long as the hardware is within a certain range it will accept a charge,” explains McNeil, “and that gives us an advantage over competing technology that requires the hardware to be positioned much more precisely or it will not charge.” In 2011 McNeil crossed an innovation milestone when Solace filed for its first patent, which they have now secured for North America, Europe, and a large part of Asia. Two years later Solace graduated from the Genesis Centre and the horizon of potential applications for their technology has been expanding ever since.
Their “high performance technology” has many applications for the ocean and defence technology sectors and in automotive markets, according to McNeil. For example, they are in the prototype development stage now with Notus Electronics for the power supply to fisheries-related sensors. In January of 2015 they signed an agreement with Boeing to develop remote charging of drones. As they increase the capabilities of the technology and continue research into miniaturization, investment continues from government, from private investors, and even from employees.
The Solace Power Team and members from the cast of “Family Guy” prepare for Flat Earth Domination
The support for start-ups from the innovation ecosystem in the province is better now than ever before, says McNeil, with world-class local expertise, supportive programs and organizations like OceansAdvance, and the growth of angel investment. He is also hopeful for the future of the innovation start-ups in Newfoundland and Labrador. “There is more interest today among young people in technology programs because they’ve been given a real understanding that they can start their own business,” he says.
McNeil believes his path towards commercial wireless power is illuminated by his drive for efficiency. “I like to make things more efficient. And I don’t like wasting time. If you can make something better, smaller and faster, then why not do it?”