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Portable power start-up Lilliputian Systems unveils Intel investment and partnership

Posted by Scott Kirsner  November 16, 2010 03:30 PM

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lillimps.jpgThe product that Lilliputian Systems has been developing for the better part of a decade sounds promising: a compact little fuel cell that can power consumer electronics, using replaceable $2 butane cartridges. The energy density of butane (a/k/a lighter fuel), of course, is much higher than a lithium ion battery. And who wouldn't want a cell phone or laptop that could run for a week or two, rather than requiring nightly assignations with a wall socket?

Wilmington-based Lilliputian has been slowly improving its fuel cell prototypes, and wending its way to the market. Company executives still won't say when you'll be able to buy one, but today they're announcing that Intel Capital is making an investment in Lilliputian, and that the chipmaker will also produce the silicon wafers — a crucial component of the finished fuel cells — at its Hudson, Mass. manufacturing plant. At right is a company-supplied example of what a finished fuel cell (the company calls its device the "Mobile Power System") might look like.

The Lilliputian Mobile Power System will cost about $100 and will be sold by partners, says vice president Mouli Ramani. Initially, it'll be used to recharge devices like mobile phones, Bluetooth headsets, digital cameras, and music players that have USB ports. (Power-thirsty laptops require more than the MPS' three watts of electricity, and Lilliputian's initial product won't be capable of recharging them.) Ramani says he's already traveling around with a prototype of the Lilliputian Mobile Power System, using it to keep his BlackBerry juiced up. "I now don't even think about what my cell phone charge is," he says. "It's like having a wall outlet in my pocket."

Eventually, Lilliputian's power systems could be integrated into new mobile phones or laptops, rather than sold as accessories. Instead of plugging them into a wall outlet once a day, you'd just jam in a new butane cartridge every week or two.

Whenever Lilliputian gets its first product on the market, it better hope it sells well: prior to today's Intel investment, the company had raised about $90 million in venture capital, and taken a $5 million low-interest loan from two state agencies, MassDevelopment and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. The company's backers include Kleiner Perkins, Atlas Venture, Stata Venture Partners, and Rockport Capital. (I mentioned the company in this February column, "Patience can pay off when investing in start-ups.")

Intel's investment and supplier partnership with Lilliputian were announced today at Intel Capital's annual CEO Summit in southern California.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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