Five questions with Vandy alum, Ubiquitous Energy founder Miles Barr

Miles Barr (Photo courtesy MIT Technology Review)

Anyone who’s stared helplessly at a dead smartphone, its charger sitting at home on a bedside table, can appreciate the mind of Miles Barr.

The Vanderbilt engineering alum and founder of Redwood City-based Ubiquitous Energy developed a transparent film that can power phones. Placed over enough windows, it can power an entire house or office building. Indoors, it converts overhead lights into electricity for devices.

Barr (BE’06) majored in chemical engineering, math and music at Vanderbilt and went on to earn his Ph.D. at MIT. He’s been listed in MIT Technology Review as one of the world’s top innovators under 35 and in Forbes 30 Under 30 for Energy. At 2:10 p.m. on Nov. 9, he will deliver the fall Chambers Family Entrepreneurial Lectureship in the new Engineering and Science Building, with a reception to follow in the Wond’ry makerspace.

The busy entrepreneur took time out from meeting with partners and investors to share the secrets of his success.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as an entrepreneur?

There are a lot of challenges, so it’s hard to pick one. One of the challenges is the number of different things you have to juggle. We’re simultaneously developing a new technology, fund-raising with investors and working with commercial partners – figuring out where this technology will find a home. You have to effectively navigate those different priorities, and having great team that can help you with that.

You experience extreme highs and lows — a great day in the lab or signing a contract with a new partner, followed by a day when you feel like you’re not quite going to get there. That’s when you’ve got to power through.

Our vision back at MIT was that we wanted to enable solar tech in new products and new surfaces, getting out of rooftop solar. We didn’t know at first that making it invisible was key to that vision. It took a fair amount of time to iterate between the tech side and the market side before we realized we had to make it transparent.

Barr is developing solar technology to eliminate the battery life limitations of mobile devices. (Photo courtesy of Miles Barr)

The MIT Technology Review article about you said, “Barr pairs his inventiveness with a flair for salesmanship.” What’s the key to a great pitch?

It’s really about storytelling. You’ve got to make what you’re doing accessible to the person you’re describing it to, explaining what it means for your audience. We’re inventing a brand-new product. It doesn’t exist today. So it’s not always simple for people to see how they might implement it or think about the benefits for what they are producing.

The key is finding a simple story that’s able to connect the dots on what value our technology can bring to the investor.

How did a Vanderbilt education prepare you to launch Ubiquitous Energy?

At Vanderbilt, I was a chemical engineering major and also majored in math and music, so I was fortunate to receive a multidisciplinary education with coursework from very different professors. That set a really good foundation in terms of problem solving, critical thinking and getting excited about fields that could become a professional career. I had exposure to research, working in Professor Kane Jennings’s lab, and that got me inspired to go into a Ph.D. program. The research I did at MIT ended up evolving into the technology we’re developing at Ubiquitous Energy.

You recently won Vanderbilt’s Young Alumni Professional Achievement Award. Do you still feel young at age 32?

I just got back from campus for Reunion Weekend, and I certainly feel older compared to who is there now. But this is great time in my career.

Do you ever get a chance to practice your trombone and piano?

From time to time. I live in small apartment and don’t want to get the neighbors riled up. But my wife, Lisa Barr (BMus’06), and I support the arts out here as much as we can.


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering