A power transfer system that uses lasers to wirelessly send energy to distant devices may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but “far-field electronics” is an emerging field, and the focus of startup BeamFeed LLC, helmed by recent CUNY Queens College (QC) graduate Erina Vela and Dr. Mohammed-Ali Miri, professor of physics at QC.
Growing up in Astoria, Vela, who received her BS in physics this past June, always liked science and math, and thought she might become a biomedical engineer. “I enjoy hands-on learning,” she said. “I was always curious about the details of how things worked, and my dad encouraged me to study math.”
While Queens College did not offer an engineering major, Vela began studying physics with the intention of transferring to complete an engineering degree. But once she started her physics classes, she realized just how much she enjoyed what she was learning and decided to take on the major. It was while taking “Physics of Telecommunications,” taught by Dr. Mohammed-Ali Miri, that the journey towards BeamFeed began.
Dr. Miri shared how their partnership got underway: “It was during COVID, and all classes were taught remotely. I am always looking for students that are interested in taking on special projects to develop their skills for graduate work,” he said. “With Erina, I noticed her passion for the course, so I asked if she was interested in doing an outside project to further explore power transfer.”
“People are already doing this with microwave and radio frequencies, and there are already wireless chargers for smartphones,” he added. “I was more curious about larger, longer-range transfer, and seeing if we could do it with optics, which is my area of expertise.”
“Dr. Miri took a chance on me,” added Vela. “We never met before COVID, and I was sort of in a gray area, having just switched to a physics major. I was excited to get involved in such a forward-looking project.”
Vela explained further, “Our technology is based on wireless power transfer, which involves sending energy to wirelessly charge and power distant devices. Currently, the bottleneck for power beaming systems is the receiver unit. BeamFeed has developed a power converter which addresses this issue by absorbing laser energy with much greater efficiency. While conventional solar cells don’t cost much to produce, they are not as efficient in converting light from a broad frequency range to a much narrower one. Because our novel power converter is designed specifically for laser power beaming, BeamFeed can more effectively focus on that narrow frequency.”
I-Corps soon became a part of the picture. “While we were doing research, we could see there were many applications for power transfer and for wireless technology using clean sources of energy,” said Vela. “I-Corps was really an opportunity to hone in on one market and segment; if we could prove it with concrete results, we could transfer that work to a startup.”
“We don’t have business backgrounds,” added Vela, “And we knew we needed to explore what our product could be and who we would be selling to, and that’s a big part of I-Corps.”
Learning that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) had just launched an I-Corps pilot program, Vela and Dr. Miri put together a full proposal for their review. “NASA is one of the big players, and many of their objectives aligned with what we wanted to explore in our technology,” said Vela. “The program officer, Maggie Yancey, became kind of a mentor for us.”
“It’s very special that BeamFeed has a team with a recent graduate,” said Maggie Yancey, Entrepreneurship Development Lead for NASA. “Dr. Miri provided significant support and guidance, but also let Erina take the reins and lead; I was able to provide them with guidance as part of their grant support. It’s been great to work with someone so young, energetic, and passionate about pursuing entrepreneurship.”
“Erina is a great example for others,” added Yancey. “So many can relate to her story. She offers a model of participating in this program and using your skills in a way that can best contribute to the process.”
Vela and Dr. Miri began with a regional I-Corps at the NY I-Corps Hub in Fall 2022, to help identify where their technology might have the greatest impact, and who might be among the primary customers. “Then we did the national I-Corps in Summer 2023, also with a NASA grant,” said Vela. “That really highlighted our specific markets—primarily drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs—and what the future of BeamFeed could be. We learned that there is high demand for tech that elongates battery life.”
Vela found that regional I-Corps offered great preparation for what would come next. “In regional, you are simultaneously learning all the different pieces to the Business Model Canvas while applying them in a very fast-paced environment,” she said. “Part of the challenge is in the doing. You must quickly absorb your findings and refocus or translate them as you move forward. We were 100 times more proficient by the time we got to nationals. The NY Hub team is very supportive but also challenging in a good way—they set us up for success, and we knew we needed to keep up that standard of work.”
Reflecting on the key lessons from her I-Corps experience, Vela shared, “Failure in the academic sense means the inability to grasp a concept, and as a student, that is a daunting feeling. In the I-Corps program, however, failure serves as a learning opportunity. Recognizing that your innovation may or may not be a viable solution is a part of the process and lifts this pressure to succeed. Going through I-Corps, I learned to embrace the entrepreneurial journey including every course session, customer interview, and ‘failure’.”
BeamFeed is continuing to experiment and getting some concrete results. Dr. Miri said, “One of the big challenges now is to secure seed funding to be able to create our first prototype that we can test. We are actively working on that.”