Category Archives: Startups

GeoStellar Gives Solar Adoption A Boost

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Image via AmericaSolarDirect

Bringing Big Data down to earth isn’t just a figure of speech for Geostellar, a Washington, D.C.-based startup using social media to drive solar adoption. A big part of the $16 million it’s raised is being spent on crunching data and getting it into the hands of homeowners who want to generate their own clean energy.

“We’re all about the home owner,” CEO David Levine said in an interview at SXSW. “The energy industry hasn’t done them any favors. What people need is an advocate, something that works for them.” What works is a transparent ROI, some marketplace effects and a sliver of competition, which Geostellar describes as the “Glory” piece in its marketing campaign. For the past three years, Levine’s team has been building out its 3-D models, based on data that’s gathered by the same planes that Google, Apple and Microsoft use to snap pictures of the earth.

By combining its satellite imagery with the latest utility and energy rates, Geostellar uses your ZIP code to render three different snapshots of your home’s energy potential. Playing to different motivations, it displays the results under the categories, “Money,” ”Power” and “Glory,” which show electricity savings, electricity output and CO2 emissions, respectively.

Guessing that most of us aren’t experts in the last two — kilowatt-hours and carbon-dioxide tonnage — it breaks those benefits into something more digestible, like how many flights or loads of laundry you avoided. That’s where the social media part kicks in. They’re betting peer pressure will drive much of the adoption as neighbors try to one-up each other. Recent developments from companies like Opower — which uses social media to encourage energy efficiency in the home and works with with more than 70 utilities — show the approach is catching on. By liberating customer data around energy usage, behaviors and costs are amplified. In Geostellar’s case, current users can share their information within the application or externally on Facebook and Twitter.

Driving down costs

When homeowners are interested enough to get bids, it collects estimates from a large pool of installers and provides a detailed comparison of the proposals. According to Levine, part of the difficulty in assessing a homeowner’s options is the lack of standardized vendor processes and the variance around Solar Renewable Energy Credits.

Some vendors, for example, could have a pricing advantage because its models are based on a different set of assumptions than its competitor: The lower-priced proposal might assume utility rates would rise an average of 7 percent over the 25-year life of the panel, while the other vendor, with worse savings, only assumed a 4 percent rate increase.

By functioning as the broker, Geostellar meshes all the rates and best practices from vendors and delivers an “apple-to-apples” comparison, as Levine describes it.

That helps both parties. Confusion is removed from the bidding process and installers can focus on scaling installation, instead of spending on soft costs associated with things like marketing and customer churn.

In a March research brief, financial services firm Raymond James Financial cited data from the Rocky Mountain Institute that estimated soft costs represent more than 60 percent of total U.S. system costs, and are roughly four times higher than in Germany, despite higher labor prices. That’s a key metric because Geostellar charges installers a transaction fee, one it says is less than a solar installer’s cost to acquire a customer.

“With solar, now that the technology is proven, the industry’s biggest challenge is driving down costs,” Raj Prabhu, managing partner at Mercom Capital Group in Austin, Texas, said in a recent Bloomberg article. “The new money is going downstream to help build markets. The industry is now mainstream.”

First published at GreenBiz.com

I Caught Up With An Austin Startup Providing Real-Time Transit Options

ride_scout_ride_results

Urbanites and UT students have a new way to get around asRideScout™ announced its formal launch in Austin this week. CEO Joseph Kopser and his team have built a real-time, mobile aggregator and comparison engine for ground transportation options. And with ties to the sharing economy and transit’s rising importance, they appear to be in a good spot.

Two big hooks provide the lure for the app. Its “best ride” ranking is an easy way to see pricing and estimated times. But the kicker is the breadth of options you get. Buses, transit, subways, taxis, limos, shuttles, car-sharing, and even pedicabs are included. The iPhone app has been out a month or so, and an Android version should be ready this Fall.

It’s been a quick ascent. Just last spring, RideScout was still embryonic before placing second at the HATCH Pitch Competition at last year’s SXSW. From there, Kopser and some of his West Point alums raised $350k  and started building in late July.

ridescout_ride_results_2Now it’s in a bit of a perfect storm. Cities are faced with infrastructure challenges everywhere, as traffic increases, roads are in need of repair, and urban populations continue to rise. The low-hanging fruit for many metros is to optimize what already exists. When buses or rail cars aren’t filled, those are idle resources that are funded with taxpayer dollars. That’s one of the pieces that’s caught the City of Austin’s attention.

“RideScout will push highly motivated citizens to alternative modes of transportation, helping to fill underutilized public transit capacity to keep more cars off the roads,“ said Todd Hemingson, Vice President of Strategic Planning and Development for Capital Metro.

Hemingson and other city planners have no doubt seen the light, or at least the data.
Here’s an excerpt from NextCity that pulled figures from the American Society of Civil Engineers‘ recent report. 

“Public transit ridership increased by 34 percent between 1995 and 2011, according to the American Public Transit Association, and the ASCE report states that access to transit across the country has grown by nearly 10 percent.

That’s the big upside. But here’s the other part.

“Although transit investment has also increased, “deficient and deteriorating” regional transit systems cost the national economy $90 billion in 2010.”

Until those crumbling pieces can be fixed, cities will need more innovation from the RideScouts of the world. A whole ecosystem needs to be nurtured around infrastructure. Part of it’s behavior, but as we’ve seen with other trends, unlocking data with the right technology can open up all sorts of possibilities. As Austin City Councilman Chris Riley puts it, “the default answer for transportation in Austin doesn’t have to be a personal car.”

Last week’s SXSW Interactive was a good test for the young company. Kopser struck deals with  AirBnB and some of the car-sharing companies in town and was able to refine some ideas they’ve been building on.

Gensler_installation


However those pan out, it was clear the transportation needle moved significantly. For the first time, for better or for worse, transit-oriented discussions were everywhere. Regulatory tussles, rideshare launches, and more kept things moving.

However those pan out, it was clear the transportation needle moved significantly. For the first time, for better or for worse, transit-oriented discussions were everywhere. Regulatory tussles, rideshare launches, and more kept things moving.

As SXSW ended, there were other indications they might be onto something. In SX flair, urban design firm Gensler challenged people to come up with ideas to improve the city. It solicited feedback using a physical installation (photo above) with the hashtag #designatx. What were the top things mentioned? Mass transit, traffic, and congestion issues,  things the firm described as “practical and things that could be implemented.”

“Austin has the perfect launch city mix: terrible traffic congestion and rapid population growth of technology savvy residents looking for alternatives to car ownership,” said Kopser.

Can’t argue with that.

First posted at AustinStartup.

App Maker JouleBug Combines Data And Gaming To Drive Sustainability Actions

Buzzing around the SXSWECO conference, you’ll hear all sorts of personal stories about how people are lessening their impact on the planet. Whether or not it signals a larger shift in behavior is still debatable. Generally, it takes an incremental approach, one that can undoubtedly be augmented by technology.

One company, Raleigh-based app maker JouleBug, is betting it can move the needle with  a data-driven approach to gaming.

“We’re really an award program for sustainability actions,” said Founder Grant Williard. “It’s educational, but it also touches on our competitive spirit.”

JouleBug takes a mobile-first strategy, as its gaming mechanics are geared around simple tasks that you track and submit as they’re completed.  As expected, the app has a strong social media element too, allowing you to invite people through Twitter or Facebook as well as the ability to share what you’ve completed.

While data is the juice that keep things flowing, JouleBug’s strongest piece is the integration it provides with your utility or gas company. If you’re provider is set up, you can easily suck in your utility bill and get a snapshot of your usage. Williard says they’ll soon be able to give you an archive as far back as a year, and include gas and water bills.  The visualizations that accompany your data is one of the things that Williard says sets them apart. But it’s not just pretty graphs, you’ll see the badges you’ve earned along with  recommendations based on past usage.

But even with all that, getting people to use something daily is tall order. Look at Foursquare, they’re years into the model and it’s still unclear whether gaming can carry it. But seeing Foursquare cut a deal with OpenTable gives you a sense of how they and JouleBug might evolve. Both companies have aspirations beyond the consumer, and it starts with integrations and alliances.

 “We’re focusing our business development efforts first and foremost where the value is the highest and where the biggest energy and cost savings can take place,” explained Williard.

And they’ve made some progress, recently announcing a deal with the City of Raleigh. That partnership allowed Raleigh to tailor the platform to include everything from credits for taking green-oriented city tours to waste diversion and composting. The city says it’s been a real catalyst for raising awareness around sustainability, and even used the momentum to implement a Green Restaurant certification program.

The Raleigh partnership gives JouleBug some momentum as its newest offering, JouleBug Communities, becomes widely available by the end of the year. That package will target municipalities, companies and universities and will help entire cities track and understand the effectiveness of their sustainability strategies. I asked Williard about implementation and pressed him again on adoption, this time in the context of the other Raleighs of the world. He said other municipalities are bringing their leadership onboard first. As citizens and peers see usage from core users, the competition heats up.

The other area where JouleBug shines is around its technology stack and capabilities.  For one, Williard brings some enterprise solidity to the company, having sold his previous endeavor to Adobe.  That know-how will also play an important role when pulling together the type of integrations currently in the queue.

Beyond straight-forward application programming interfaces (APIs), there’s also the Energy Department’s Green Button standard. The goal of that program is to standardize the way energy data is represented and delivered. And with some of the largest U.S. utilities already participating, it’s that type of reach that’s in front of JouleBug. Williard estimates the coverage map is close to 25 million people.

Numbers aside, there’s plenty of room for a few players in this space. The data and gaming combination isn’t going away, it’s more about who can innovate on top of those disciplines. And at some point,  there will be plenty of companies ready to buy a head start over the competition. JouleBug appears to be in an interesting position.

You can meet the JouleBug team in booth #8 at this year’s SXSW Eco (www.sxsweco.com) conference and tradeshow taking place in Austin, Texas October 3-5, 2012.

SXSWECO Session: Startups And Corporations: Bringing Clean Technology To Market

Cleantech Group’s Greg Neichin Moderating

Cleantech Group‘s Greg Neichin opened up Wednesday’s panel “Startups and Corporations: Bringing Clean Technology to Market” with an important observation.  The cleantech market, and certainly the broader energy energy space, is a bit different when it comes to getting big companies in the same room with startups.

“For the most part, they tend to get along,” he told a packed session.

The session assembled a good mix of panelists, from a startup and venture capital firm to sustainability executives from Nike and Intel.

Nike’s Dan Cherian described its approach to working with startups, and dispelled the notion that its startup relationships are purely investment-oriented.

“We don’t just do investments, we’re involved in things like licensing, joint development agreements and strategic alliances, ” Cherian explained. “Not all of our innovation happens inside the company, we think of it as strategic partnering and investing,” he added.  As Cherian summarized Nike’s view, it was clear the company sees sustainability as as a growth opportunity, with Cherian saying Nike is “heavily invested” in  helping the company grow through sustainable business.

Intel’s Lorie Wigle and Rockport Capital’s Dhiraj Malkani

Intel’s Lorie Wigle, the company’s GM of Eco-Tech, said much of its startup work is focused on energy efficiency. Specifically, her team looks at the application of technology  and how to grow revenue. Wigle mentioned a joint project with KLG Systal that tackled water management. Through KLG and other partners, Intel was able to see their technology implemented in different ways, underscoring the importance of tightening up your partner network before approaching larger corporations.

On that note, Streetline‘s CEO Zia Yusuf brought some street-level (not intended)  levity to the big company pitch discussion.

“Many startups make the  mistake of thinking ‘we got the meeting’ and the ”number of meetings’ are a good metric for progress,” said Yusuf.  His assertion was those elements have nothing to do with success . “It gets down to can the corporation sell more of their product because of what you do.”

Nike’s Cherian concurred, urging young companies to make their objectives very clear. “If your objectives are clear, we (Nike) have the right people in place for you to interface with”, he explained. He says Nike has three or four areas set up  within the company to address various segments of innovation.

“Even if you talk to the business development group or venture unit, you have to realize they might not have the decision-making capability, ” he said. “When we get a message from a company, we apply that correspondence to whichever filter is the best fit.” Cherian added one other tidbit for the startup crowd: get a recommendation. He said even the slightest nod from a known partner or third-party can help startups in the early cycles with various corporate groups.

Another key discussion was the role large corporations can play in developing industry standards.

Streetline’s Yusuf mentioned their partnership with IBM, where they’ve integrated Big Blue’s Cognos platform. He stressed how important it was to understand the dynamics of the marketplace and who’s pushing open technology.

“Startups should know who leads the market and what products are innovating, ” said Yusuf.  “IBM would love to sell us a bunch of their products, but we know which pieces of their platform help us solve our customers’ problems.”

Intel’s Wigle mentioned the company’s involvement in the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel and how much intelligence it’s captured from the ecosystem as technology is commercialized.  Because Intel has some much infrastructure that startups need, the company established its own incubation program, of sorts.  Technology Days brings together startups in Intel’s portfolio and allows them to make their pitch. Not only can Intel share its R&D practices and standards work, but young companies get a purview of what’s coming down the technology pipe.

The panel bridged some of the standards discussion with a few examples of where data and technology are currently coming together for disruption. All of them agreed the “internet of things” was shaking things up the most around cleantech innovation. With smart sensors, advanced levels of automation, and the move to open data, companies like Fitbit and Nest were cited as two companies capitalizing on the standards push.

If startups should come away with anything, it’s take the time to get your ship in order before approaching the big guys. If you’re focused, have the right partners, and understand protocol, they’re listening.

Sun Ovens Can Be Mobile Too

I met with one of the more interesting early-stage startups I’ve ran across this morning in East Austin. They’re nestled in a heavily wooded lot that’s a maker’s paradise.  More to come on that, but here’s one of the more creative schematics: a sun oven mounted on a bicycle.