This is a story I’ve written a few times this year, but the questions keep rolling in and the ad keeps getting changed (and, frankly, it seems to me that the ad has been made more aggressive)… so we’re covering it again.
And it might be that writing about it again today and calling yet more attention to the stock goes against my personal interests (more on that in a moment), but that’s OK — we’re on a mission here to declaw the teaser ads and help people think for themselves.
The pitch is from Ray Blanco for Agora’s Breakthrough Technology Alert — the letter is helmed these days by Stephen Petranek and Gerald Calente, but Blanco is the “technology analyst” at Agora. And in exchange for your $2,000 subscription, he’s got a fascinating story to tell about a tiny little stock that’s going to skyrocket when a deal with Apple is announced.
Sound familiar? Yes, he has told the same story several times this year — it must work really well to bring in new subscribers, because we’ve seen this ad and written about it a couple times. Is it true? Maybe, you can be the judge of that… but I’m betting the other way personally.
The story starts with Blanco at Apple HQ…
“A few short days from now, the company whose headquarters I’m visiting…
“(The same company that made my phone—and probably yours, too…)
“Is expected to reveal its newest, most top-secret project to the world.
“And when it does, you can bet the usual fanfare will be quick to follow.
“The breathless commentary from industry commentators…Are you getting our free Daily Update
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“The hordes of eager consumers, lined up around the block to get the latest toy….
“I’m not sitting here in the lobby of Apple, Inc., sipping on my second cup of coffee, to find out what “most” people already know.
“Instead, I’m here to confirm something infinitely more valuable….
“Over the last year, I’ve obsessively researched what I believe to be the biggest technological innovation of the last 117 years…
“Waiting for the day when a ‘big break’ takes this technology from two labs in California…
“To millions of living rooms around the country.
“And if my research is correct…
“(And I’m almost certain it is…)
“You’re days away from being filthy rich”
No mincing words there, eh? So what’s he talking about?
“… on September 7th, in a packed auditorium just a few miles from here, that ‘big break’ will finally take place….
“Investors who took the time to see where the real story…and the real opportunity…really was…. Will walk away a staggering 79,900% richer.”
So what is that San Jose “start up” company that Blanco says will hit their “payday” on September 7? It is, of course, Energous (WATT) — but you probably already guessed that.
And yes, the big argument in the ad is that the announcement from Apple on September 7 will send the shares soaring. Here’s more from the ad:
“THE WRITING IS ON THE WALL:
“On September 7th, the CEO of Apple could send this fiercely innovative company from total obscurity
to the 7 o’clock news”
Why is that? Well, the implication is going to be that Tim Cook (that’s Apple’s CEO) will, when announcing the next iPhone model on September 7, also mark the date that “plugging in” dies.
The date and the Apple announcement about their next wave of products is pretty much confirmed — it’s been the speculated-about date for their next iPhone introduction for a while, but Apple actually announced the event and sent out invitations this week… they haven’t actually said they’ll be introducing new iPhones, but that’s certainly what everyone expects after introducing a new iPhone early each autumn for many years in a row, and they’ll probably release updates of other products as well. Who knows, maybe there will even be some “brand new” stuff that they’ve been able to keep secret from the technology press and the bloggers.
But the “‘plugging in’ dies” part is, of course, another matter. Blanco and others have been building up expectations of an announcement from Apple that their devices will use Energous’ wireless charging technology, and they’ve been doing this all year… and there are connections between this little technology company and Apple.
The specific “proven” connections between Apple and Energous are pretty tenuous, and they require some reading between the lines (which Blanco is happy to do — more on that in a moment). The first time Energous was teased, at least that I’ve seen, was early in 2015 when it was pretty young — that was Nick Hodge pitching the shares. But the rumors really picked up when they hit the mass media, particularly spurred by a Bloomberg story in late January, and I’d argue that it’s speculation about this Apple connection that has driven the stock more than anything else in the last six months, and it has also led to lots of follow-on speculation and coverage that really all builds on this same Bloomberg article. After that press report hit, Hodge picked up and teased the Apple connection as even more of a “done deal” than Ray Blanco is claiming in his current ad or the similar one that ran in May and June, and other pundits like Lou Basenese have done much the same thing.
My personal expectation, and yours may differ, is that the WattUp technology is not quite ready for prime time right now… and that Apple is extremely unlikely to commit to an unproven technology for the tens of millions of iPhones they’ll sell this Fall. Energous does not yet have a product in production using their technology, and every rational thought in my brain tells me the iPhone is not going to be the guinea pig.
So that’s where my skepticism comes in strongest — with this short-term prediction that Apple will announce that Energous’ WattUp technology is in the iPhone 7 that should be shipping in a couple weeks.
There is room for skepticism about Energous as a whole as well, of course, but that’s no surprise — it’s a startup company that has no products yet, and that is trying to get FCC approval for their technologies and working with partners to try to develop products, that’s a risky business. You can easily and rationally come down on either side: You can bet on the huge potential blue-sky market ahead if it all works out, or you can be skeptical that this particular solution will end up working. Either argument makes some sense to me.
But because of this massive ad campaign from Agora Financial, which is pretty easy for anyone who’s making an effort to figure out even without their own Thinkolator at hand (and which is probably bringing in a lot of subscribers to Breakthrough Technology Alert who are going to be supremely motivated to buy WATT shares), I expect that Energous is getting far too rich a valuation right now, and that the shares are moving primarily because of this speculation that Energous’ first product announcement will come from Apple next week, and that it will be an announcement about (arguably) the most important consumer electronic product in the world. I think that’s an irresponsible rumor to circulate, but maybe I’m wrong and this is the biggest secret Apple has ever kept — you can make your own call on that.
No one else that I can find is making the prediction, either directly or, like Blanco is doing here, through implication, that Apple will announce that they’re using Energous’ recharging technology in the next iPhone.
In fact, no one is even really seriously predicting that Apple will use one of the established magnetic resonance recharging technologies in this next iPhone, even though they already use that for the Apple Watch and Samsung has been selling its wireless-charging Galaxy phones for a long time.
This isn’t new for Apple — remember, a few years back folks like the Motley Fool were hinting that NFC chips would be in the next iPhone, revolutionizing wireless payments, and those rumors persisted for a long time before Apple actually decided the technology was ready and adopted it and built those NFC chips in, years after most smartphones had them (and decades after the technology was available). Apple leads when it comes to design and user experience, but it doesn’t always lead in ushering in brand new technologies to the mass market.
Wireless charging continues to generate occasional rumors for Apple, but is not in any of the widely followed “leaks” about the new case or the new look of the phone, or about what new technologies will be inside it. Most of those leaks of images for the possible new iPhone 7 are fueling speculation that it might be more waterproof, or that it might have a better dual-lens camera, or that it will be the first iPhone to not include a headphone jack or a home button. Folks love to speculate about that kind of thing, but most reports I’ve read indicate that 2017 or 2018 is the more likely timeframe to see the first “wireless recharging” iPhone, particularly if the wireless charging is something different than the technology that’s already widely available and built into Samsung and other phones. And, of course, there’s no real certainty about what kind of wireless charging they’ll go with. I would assume that they’re working with several different companies on wireless charging, and are developing their own technology enhancements along those lines.
Blanco does at least include a pretty strongly-worded disclaimer in the text of the ad:
“The information I’m about to share with you is little-known and inherently speculative…and NOT meant for the sort of investor who stays put in the ‘shallow end.’
“So if you’re the type who has a bad habit of betting the rent money when they should be betting ‘rainy day’ money, go ahead and think twice before investing.”
But he’s not at all shy about drawing the lines of this “Apple Connection” — here’s a bit more from the ad:
“Take out your calendar…
“And put a big, red circle around September 7th.
“Because that’s the day I’m expecting Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, to walk onto a stage…
“Make quick announcement…
“And send this 1 no-name technology stock on a mind-bending, multi-year tear.”
And I’d argue that the sentiment in this paragraph, widely distributed by what is probably the largest financial publisher in the world, in a few different forms, is the primary reason that WATT has moved from about $12-13 after its last earnings report to where it is today, around $18, less than three weeks later. I think WATT stock is more likely to be at $12 than $18 at the end of the day on September 7, and after the stock went crazy again on Monday morning, following a weekend of these ads circulating, I sold WATT short, something I very rarely do (my note to the Irregulars yesterday to that effect is here if you want the details).
So yes, I am literally betting against WATT having a great, company-changing announcement on September 7.
That does NOT mean that I’m betting against WATT in general or in the long term, I will be closing this short position within three weeks (and I did buy protective calls to limit my potential exposure, since otherwise short positions have unlimited risk and I don’t like that). I don’t really have a strong opinion about whether WATT will succeed in the next few years as they try to get their technology approved by the FCC and rolled out in consumer products… I just have a high degree of personal conviction that they won’t be mentioned by Apple next Wednesday, and that the stock is very likely to fall sharply as a result because it’s been irresponsibly inflated with speculation about what I consider a zero-probability event. You can certainly disagree with me, and many folks do, but I think the shares will fall 20-30% from this level, and possibly more, after Tim Cook’s non-announcement.
Who knows, maybe I’ll either be wrong or will have bet too early, and the Agora-fueled speculation will drive WATT shares up to $30 before September 7, in which case I’d lose money on the trade unless the fall after that is really, really dramatic. Or maybe some non-Apple good news will hit for Energous and mess up my trade.
There’s a lot of risk in betting against the market, and I’m not at all trying to convince you to join me — I’m just trying to share some of my skepticism in case you’re tempted to swallow this September 7 announcement that Blanco is selling… and for those of you who want to be long Energous shares because you like the story over the longer term, my expectation is that you’ll be able to invest in the stock at a lower price someday after September 7. The rush and the date in the ad are there because ads need specific catalysts and deadlines, or they don’t work — people are more inclined to sign up for a newsletter if they get excited and think they’re going to get hot actionable ideas that will bring them a profit within days.
So you know my perspective now, and my bias — and I’m always skeptical about ads that use a specific date, because that’s an important copywriting trick to create a sense of urgency in the buyer’s mind. Let’s run through the ad a little more, since Blanco makes some specific arguments about this Apple connection. He says he has “7 shocking pieces of evidence… directly implicating the small-cap company we’ve been discussing today with the world’s most valuable technology company.”
What are those pieces of evidence? I’ll go through them in order, he calls them “iClues” …
“iClue #1: The ‘Tier 1 Secret’ ….
“On March 9th, 2015, in a statement detailing their full-year 2014 results, this tiny, ‘Wireless Charging’ pioneer surprised its shareholders with an absolute bombshell of an announcement.
“They’d managed to secure a Joint Development Agreement with a ‘Tier 1’ electronics manufacturing partner…
“A partner that is—as industry observers went on to report—’one of the top five consumer electronics companies in the world.'”
And he includes a quote from one of the Wall Street firms covering the stock…
“While… management continues to abide by the terms of their agreement not to disclose the identity of the partner, we have always believed that it is…probable that, that unnamed partner is Apple for a variety of reasons.”
OK, I don’t have a problem with that. Apple is a very possible, even likely, “Tier 1” joint development partner for Energous. That doesn’t guarantee that the product will work as they want or be developed quickly, of course, or that WATT will benefit tremendously in the near term — skeptics about Apple deals often look at the story of GT Advanced Materials, but there are lots of possible outcomes in any early-stage deal or agreement.
iClue number two is essentially buttressing this same argument:
“iClue #2: PROCESS OF ELIMINATION
“As the company’s management makes clear the ripest market for their groundbreaking wireless charging technology is smartphones….
“Hitachi, Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Samsung, and Apple are the world’s top five consumer electronics manufacturers.
“But of those five, two—Hitachi and Hewlett Packard—don’t manufacture smartphones.
“Of the three remaining, one—Samsung—has already made major bets on its own form of wireless charging, which requires the user to place their device on or within centimeters of a ‘charging pad.'”
Blanco says that narrows it down to Microsoft or Apple. And since Microsoft isn’t doing much with phones right now, Apple is the logical choice.
That makes some reasonable amount of sense, though I’d also caution that “Tier One” is a term that really comes from the manufacturing supply chain — so when most people in the business talk about “Tier One” companies they’re talking about suppliers, not original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).
Some of Energous’ other quotes that Blanco pulls do indicate that it’s a company with a consumer brand, so maybe that’s splitting hairs on my part — the next set of “iClues” are what he calls “C-Suite Breadcrumbs” — references from the company that point to Apple:
“May 11, 2015
“Pressed to discuss the nature of the Tier 1 relationship on an earnings call, management reveals that ‘there are no stipulations for televisions.’
“May 12, 2015
“The very next day, at the tail end of the private investor conference in Los Angeles, a member of the audience asks what the company considers to be its major obstacles. The CEO cites regulatory concerns, but says consumer adoption is not a concern given ‘the cachet and the market presence of our…partner that we’ve talked about.’
And he says that the CEO raised his personal stake in the company by 78% and the Senior VP of Engineering raised his by over 440% in the year following that “Tier 1 partnership agreement.”
OK, I still won’t really argue with that — Apple is a reasonable candidate, maybe the most reasonable candidate, to be that “Tier 1” partner with whom they’ve signed a joint development agreement.
More clues? His “iClue #4” is about connections….
“two top players—one from Apple, one from small-cap innovator we’re discussing today—are working together in a group whose express purpose is to establish industry standards for wireless charging.”
“this tiny, ‘start-up’ company is working with China’s Foxconn Technology…
“Otherwise known as one of Apple Inc.’s most notorious business partners.
“The goal behind their joint effort? ‘…to evaluate the technology to determine the suitability for future Foxconn products and solutions.'”
“iClue #5: THE MAN WITH THE MIDAS TOUCH…
“who is in charge of the company?
“A gentleman by the name of Steven.
“In a single career, Steven has, by his own account, been the CEO of 9 separate technology companies…
“In Companies 1-8, he executed a “successful exit” (industry speak for “a BIG shareholder payday”) an astonishing eight times in a row.
“In other words: he only takes over at tiny firms…that have a MASSIVE payday coming down the pike.”
That’s a little bit of an exaggeration, the press releases I’ve seen about CEO Stephen Rizzone indicate that he says he participated in eight “liquidity” events for companies, but not that he was CEO each time (they say he was CEO, Chairman, or lead consultant for those companies)… but yes, he’s one of the “grown ups” who are brought in by small tech companies to provide adult supervision and experience as CEO, and such folks sometimes (not always) are focused on building something relatively quickly and on making deals and “exits.”
I don’t know anything else about Rizzone specifically, other than that the summaries of SEC filings on Yahoo Finance indicate that he owns about 100,000 shares and hasn’t bought any in the past year. They also indicate that the founder and inventor, Michael Leabman, only owns a few shares, which seems unlikely — I would assume he has preferred shares or some other ownership that’s not listed there, and that might be the case with other insiders as well.
That iClue, of course, is a clue that some people believe very much in this company — it’s not at all a clue that has anything to do with Apple or any specific product announcement.
“iClue 7” is more specifically about Apple, because apparently the “co-founder, co-inventor” at Energous used to work at Apple. Here’s a bit from the ad:
“When Michael’s parents made their $10,000 ‘angel investment’, they weren’t just betting on their son…
“They were also betting on his co-founder: Greg.
“While you won’t find a single mention of Greg in Corp’s latest filings and presentations…
“It turns out he was a MAJOR factor in some of the company’s earliest wins.”
That includes patent 9,130,397, which you can see here if you want to — that “Greg” is Gregory Brewer. And, as teased, he did spend 21 years as a consultant at Apple, ending in 2006 (though it’s specifically noted that his work was “low level” on his LinkedIn profile). He is not mentioned anywhere in Energous’ website anymore, but apparently is a significant shareholder through a “special investment vehicle” (he still owned 668,337 shares as of the last quarterly filing, he reportedly bought those shares for pennies before the IPO).
I wouldn’t put much faith in Greg Brewer’s history as a low-level Apple consultant when it comes to drawing a tight line from Apple to Energous, but you can if you want to.
So… that’s about it, those are the clues. Here’s how Blanco sums it up:
“… if my research is correct, we’re mere days out from the Apple brass introducing the world to the first-ever ‘Wirelessly Charged’ iGadget…
“Revealing what could be their most ‘shocking’ partnership…
“And putting this astonishing little company on the tip of every investor’s tongue from Manhattan to Moscow.
“In other words: the clock is ticking…
“And while I won’t pretend to know anything for 100% sure… (There’s always the chance I could be wrong about this.)
“If you do plan on taking action, I’m convinced that the best time to do so is BEFORE September 7th.”
And, of course, they offer a deal that sounds like it “can’t miss” — they say that they’re not offering a refund period on this subscription, but will “double you up” if the stock fails to double by the end of the year.
That means, in exchange for your nonrefundable $2,000 subscription, you’ll get the guarantee that if the stock doesn’t double (and you complain to them, presumably), they’ll give you a $4,000 credit toward other Agora Financial subscriptions.
That might appeal to you if you’re interested in other Agora subscriptions, but it’s a lot different than the money-back refunds that publishers typically offer for at least a month or two — and, of course, adding a couple subscribers to their other services doesn’t cost them anything.
So… what does one learn about Energous from sources other than Ray Blanco and Agora? We’ve covered this story quite a few times over the past year, and the stock has done very well to date, but the fundamental story has remained pretty simple. They are developing a wireless recharging technology that they call WattUp, and they have development agreements or joint venture deals or partnerships of one sort or another with several different electronics companies, most of them unnamed.
The technology is based on power being transmitted by radio frequency (RF), and though the thing that got everyone excited about the technology back at the Consumer Electronic Show in 2015 was the long-distance charging within a room (10-15 feet from a charging transmitter), they have three tiers of products they’re now trying to develop:
- A “Mini WattUp” transmitter, which is a little transmitter that fits in the USB port on your laptop, will power the “RF Receiver” chip in objects as small as a wearable device or Internet of Things sensor. The receive chip is what you’d imagine, a tiny 3mm square chip that could go in your fitbit or headphones or whatever. That’s what they say they’re developing for “Late 2016 / Early 2017,” and the basic offering is very similar to what a current magnetic resonance charger or charging mat or rechargeable toothbrush does: the device you’re charging has to be in contact with the transmitter, or within a couple millimeters. They say this technology has gotten FCC approval.
- A midsize WattUp transmitter, which might be inside some other electronics box (a desktop computer or car dashboard is a common example) and which would recharge devices within two to three feet of the transmitter. They say all the receivers are fully compatible with each other, so once you’ve got a receiver in your watch or your phone or whatever it can be charged by any of the transmitters. This midsize transmitter, which will be the first that would be really “wireless” recharging like I would think of that concept, without the requirement that your device is touching the charger, is planned for the third or fourth quarter of 2017.
- And the promised land, the thing that got people excited at CES a year and a half ago, is the Fullsize WattUp transmitter, which provides recharging for a full room (within 15 feet or so of the transmitter, almost as good as many bluetooth connections). That is expected to be ready for prime time, according to their latest investor presentation, in the fourth quarter of 2017 or “early in the first quarter” of 2018.
Neither of the “charging at a distance” products, midsize or fullsize, are FCC approved yet — I have no idea whether that will be a challenge or not.
The product development cycle is not easy and not always fast, particularly when you’re developing a new technology that requires regulatory approvals in addition to market acceptance. Energous did not spend ten years developing its technology as an unknown venture-funded firm, it essentially went public as an idea — that’s what IPO sponsor MDB Capital does, they take venture-stage companies with good stories and sell them to the public markets instead of funding them quietly for years like venture investors would. That’s challenging to manage, because R&D and product development are expensive and venture investors are more accustomed to paying for that than public stock investors are (with the exception of biotech, I guess, but biotech at least has a recognized, somewhat standardized, and fairly public product development cycle).
It sounds as though they’ve agreed to a “first to market” deal with whoever their “Tier 1 Partner” is, whether it’s Apple (as Blanco and others are convinced) or someone else, but that their first products will likely not be with their “Tier 1 partner” — here’s what they said about that last Fall:
“The first commercially launched products are expected to be for low-powered devices that are outside of the first to market requirements contained in the development and licensing agreement with the Company’s tier one partner.”
In the last quarterly press release, about three weeks ago, this is what the status with that Tier 1 parnter was:
“Announced that the company met a significant delivery milestone in July with its top-tier strategic partner representing substantial progress toward achieving full integration into the partner’s consumer devices. Also generated an invoice for engineering-related services, based on the achievement of additional technology milestones with the strategic partner.”
The latest on the chipsets, which as far as I can tell are required for receiving the charging “signal” (each chip connects to several antennas that pick up the power being transmitted), is that they will be ready for mass production in the third quarter, and that they expect to receive their first orders in the fourth quarter.
The most recent run in this stock in early June (roughly $10 to $13, then back to $10) was smaller than the current run — that one was caused, at least in part, by a similar promotion from Agora Financial that I wrote about here. At the time, Ray Blanco was promoting, with similar levels of certainty, the idea that Apple’s Tim Cook would be announcing new initiatives in wireless charging, and the heretofore secret partnership with Energous, at his WWDC keynote on June 12. I expect that was a made-up catalyst invented by the ad copywriter to gin up interest in the newsletter by that June WWDC deadline, though perhaps Ray Blanco really believed it was likely.
I read all of this and conclude that the September 7 “event” is again a made-up catalyst for Energous, fueled by rumor about the iPhone 7 having some Energous wireless-charging capability. I consider that to have zero likelihood, since that would mean they were lying about releasing a low-power product first and that they were somehow releasing their first product (and at a massive scale) before the first chipset is available, but your judgement may differ from mine. Maybe that’s possible if they’ve licensed the design to someone, or if there’s some little test product they’ll be selling, but it would be surprising — Apple could have introduced wireless charging for the iPhone last year or the year before based on existing pad/contact/magnetic resonance technologies, and they haven’t done it… so presumably they’re waiting for a better technology that doesn’t require your phone to be touching or resting on the charger. Until the midsize or fullsize transmitter is approved and seen as feasible, that noticeably better technology isn’t available yet.
I agree that Energous needs to have a major electronics manufacturer and brand on board to have hopes of getting traction fairly early on, but I don’t think there’s any chance that the iPhone 7 release on September 7 will be the introduction of Energous’ technology. The only small chance of Energous involvement, in my mind, would be if they get designed in to a future accessory product that Apple announces, like perhaps wireless headphones coming for December — but if Apple is really removing the headphone jack with this new iPhone, then they need to have good wireless headphones available day one, and the Energous mini WattUp transmitter apparently isn’t even available yet (but the contact charger Apple already uses for its Watch is, of course, available). Or who knows, maybe the new Apple Watch will be the Energous guinea pig — but that, too, seems unlikely, at least this year. My assumption is “none of the above” for September 7.
So, again, there are possibilities if you want to try to make it work, but they require some leaps of faith — and perhaps Energous is lying about the product development cycle, and Apple has been extra good at keeping big secrets (something that hasn’t been their strong suit lately, despite their secretive attempts). But I don’t think that’s at all likely. I think Energous has a chance of success, but given the fact that their product timelines have pretty consistently slipped later and later as they’ve tried to push development over the past couple years I wouldn’t be all that optimistic about it being a wild success in the next four months… and I don’t think the stock will have a good day on September 7.
To be clear, I am not betting the house on this, I’m not recommending that you short WATT, and I have no reason (other than general skepticism about new mass-market product attempts) to be particularly negative on Energous over the long run — I just don’t think the stock will perform well in the short term after this rapid Apple-rumor-fueled rise, so I’ve shorted the shares. I also have a protective call option at $22.50 for September, so over the next two weeks I’ll either lose about $5 a share if WATT soars well into the $20s or above, or I’ll be in the money if WATT falls to $17 or below. And I’ll be out of that trade either way before option expiration. I know that a great many of you have followed WATT over the past couple years, not least because it’s been teased by several different newsletters, so if you’ve got an opinion on the stock I hope you’ll share it with a comment below.
P.S. In addition to teasing WATT as a pick for both this Breakthrough Technology Alert and Agora’s Microcap Millionaires newsletter, Ray Blanco has also pitched the other publicly traded “wireless charging” stock, IDTI — though that was for his lower-cost newsletter Technology Profits Confidential back in June — you can see my story about that one here.
Disclaimer: In addition to being short WATT (protected by long WATT options), I also own shares and call options on Apple among the companies mentioned above. I won’t enter into any trades on WATT or AAPL (or those of any other company I mentioned above) over the next three days, per Stock Gumshoe’s trading rules.