Tim Szeto, who built a business selling little metal balls, has built a product that could change the way consumer electronics snap together. Now all he's got to do is convince some of the biggest companies in the world to buy into it.
Mr. Szeto's product is a system for connecting devices called NanoPort. "It's like MagSafe meets USB," he explains, which about sums it up. Instead of plugging a USB connector into a socket, his system enables users to simply snap two flat edges together to form a magnetic seal. When they do, not only do the devices stick together, but they can share both power and data.
The system works by letting an array of tiny magnets move within the device, arranging themselves to form a tight magnetic grip once they detect a match. Once they do, a connector is released to share data and power between the two devices.
Mr. Szeto came by the technology in a roundabout way: His company, Nano Magnetics, sells clusters of small magnetic spheres called NanoDots as novelty sculptural toys. However, Health Canada ordered NanoDots and a whole raft of similar products off the Canadian market last year; small, powerful magnets can be dangerous if swallowed by children, or anyone else for that matter.
With regulatory action in the offing in the U.S. as well, the company realized it might need to pivot. So it accelerated development of a new product they had in the works, which applied what it had learned about magnet behaviour, and the NanoPort was launched at the Consumer Electronics Show last year.
In a demonstration video, NanoPort envisions being used to connect smartphones together edge-to-edge, tiling them to become one big tablet. But there are simpler applications, which run the gamut of everything you could want to connect to a smartphone in a snap-together fashion, be it a camera or battery pack or docking station.
Not only does it promise to be simpler, more fun and less fiddly than plugs, it would let cellphone makers build entirely enclosed devices, with no exposed sockets. The port runs on the existing USB standard, so hardware manufacturers would only need to swap out the connector component to make their products work with this system.
But of course, peripheral makers aren't going to adopt a product if there's nothing to connect it to. Mr. Szeto's task is to convince hardware makers to adopt the standard – he says he's in conversations with major, but undisclosed, manufacturers – or to convince them that his technology is worth buying.
"Most companies like ours get acquired, but we're not building to get acquired," he says. For now, NanoPort is launching a developer kit at the upcoming CES show next month in Vegas, hoping to stoke interest in the hardware community, ranging from hobbyists and makers on up to the manufacturing giants. "Our play is to get this into as many people's hands as possible," he says.
It may not be a snap, but until then, he'll just keep plugging away.