On any given day in a typical commercial building, utilities and machines are constantly running in the background as office inhabitants work. While building tenants and their employees are filing paperwork, answering phones, punching keyboards and meeting in conference rooms, air conditioning is blasting, laptops are charging, lights are burning and office machines and devices are forming a sort of twisted symphony of energy consumption.
Meanwhile, building owners and facilities managers can’t be sure where, when and how energy is consumed on a day-to-day basis, let alone translate that figure to actual dollars that can be saved with less energy usage.
But a solution that’s been in the works for eight years will soon hit the market. Chapel Hill-based Smart OES is a suite of energy management tools that measures and records energy use and aggregates that data in an energy management dashboard online.
A series of milestones happened last year to finally get Smart OES to market. They include a new COO with experience in the energy sector and a $1.3 million fundraise, oversubscribed from the original $1.2 million planned.
The product behind the investment is a system made up of two hardware devices and a cloud-based software platform to aggregate and visualize data.
Smart Circuit Monitors attach to wires in circuit panels, which provide customers insights on where and when energy is wasted throughout their offices. Smart Sockets do the rest of the work within walls’ electrical sockets to measure and control energy consumption of whatever appliance/device is plugged into them.
Results are then sent to a web dashboard, where customers can see which sources consumed the most energy throughout their buildings. They can also gather insights on how to intentionally spread out the usage among certain utilities, in order to save money on power bills.
Now that the startup has procured the funds needed to get electrical and safety certifications for the hardware, further develop the cloud component of the system and manufacture enough inventory to serve the customer waiting list, Smart OES is prepping for a second quarter product launch and more growth to come.
Years in the making
The idea for Smart OES came from a pair of innovative thinkers in Houston, who had established solid careers as leaders and entrepreneurs.
Bryan Hassin was an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Rice University, leveraging a startup background as head of global operations at Poken, a now-acquired event management platform, co-founder at R7 Solutions, an enterprise software company, and executive roles at a few other companies.
William “Zak” Zakroff had a long career in the global energy industry as an analyst, business development manager and later general manager at General Electric (GE), and the founder of his own project-based consulting, venture capital and private equity firm Zakroff Group.
While pursuing their own professional endeavors, the two created and refined the Smart OES system, later initiating a pilot to prove their vision that office energy waste could be reduced through an affordable hardware and software solution. They were able to simultaneously save building owners money and lower the annual greenhouse gas emissions emitted by commercial buildings.
When thinking up customer targets, the co-founders had to be creative. In the past, Hassin says he’s seen energy management firms struggle to convince customers to try a new system because they invested so heavily in older ones and didn’t always see the savings promised.
This hangup was a point of consideration when the co-founders were imagining an energy waste solution to begin with. With Smart OES, rather than requiring a big up front investment, customers can try a small-scale pilot version of the solution before expanding to more areas of a building.
Customers can actually see how much energy they are saving, rather than relying on calculations from their vendors. And Smart OES also links to existing machinery rather than requiring the purchase of a large machine.
Adding a new COO, supporting a larger mission
A big drive in pilot sales happened when Smart OES brought on Kevin Chell as COO and also an investor.
Chell has an array of previous management experience, as COO and later CEO of General Marine Contractors and on the executive team at Swanson Industries, which provides equipment manufacturing and repair services for the mining, construction and industrial sectors in the U.S. and globally in Australia, Brazil. Chile and China.
“The addition of a COO comes at a crucial time as Smart OES prepares to transition from pre-commercial development to commercial sales and operations,” wrote Hassin in a newsletter sent to Smart OES supporters earlier this month.
At Smart OES, Chell supports fundraising, procurement, manufacturing and logistics.
The customer waiting list now tops 50 organizations, many of which have multiple office locations. The roster ranges from small companies, churches and K-12 schools looking for more green energy practices to a multi-million square-foot university campus to use Smart OES’ energy savings solution to enhance the efforts of an existing energy management team.
The key target is customers with mid-sized offices largely unserved by existing energy management offerings.
“They need enterprise scale energy management but find the high capital cost and long payback periods of traditional energy management offerings to be prohibitive,” says Hassin.
Hassin has an even larger vision for Smart OES as it grows. He believes the system will become a crucial supporter of the virtual power plant (VPP) movement, a nuanced template of power usage aggregation that uses IoT (and similar communicative technologies) to transport data to cloud servers.
Smart OES’ role in these VPPs, Hassin says, will be “helping to protect electrical grids against brownouts during peak times.”
Now, the design process is completed so the devices can successfully work with the Smart OES Cloud to send over data to be analyzed and controlled by on/off signals in customers’ offices.
This is a solution Hassin believes will work well for Smart OES customers, as it provides a more effective contrast to services by other existing firms.
Establishing a home in the Triangle
What’s unique about Smart OES’ recent $1.3 million fundraise is that none of the dollars came from Triangle investors. Instead, most of the funding came from Texas and Europe, places where Hassin has lived, worked and built a solid reputation in his career.
Hassin attempted to raise money in the Triangle, but found investors averse to the risk of investing in an early-stage energy management company. Smart OES was also new to the area.
Still, North Carolina was a draw for the company. There’s a wealth of budding startup cleantech companies.
And despite not receiving any investments from the Triangle area, Smart OES found plenty of well-connected individuals in the local startup scene to be helpful in establishing a footing here. Hassin cites examples in John Austin of NC IDEA and Groundwork Labs, 1789 Venture Lab’s Jim Kitchen, UNC Center for Entrepreneurial Studies Director Ted Zoller, and Jan Davis, a serial entrepreneur and angel investor who’s also an active board member for several Triangle startups.
Smart OES found a local manufacturer in GRT Electronics. And the Wireless Research Center of North Carolina, located in Wake Forest, also has been a “real asset as we have conducted the wireless testing of its hardware products there,” says Hassin.
All of these are pivotal in the company’s further footing in the local greentech community, advancing an original (and overarching) mission to contribute to a movement of virtual power plants across the U.S. and globe.
Hassin is continually motivated by his startup’s mission. He says he and the team are reminded of the importance of the problem when they come across local buildings still lit up at night.
He provides an example in the Quintiles office, which he repeatedly passes en route to RDU for early morning flights. Hassin considers this a demonstration of what his company is working to tackle, reminding him “just how far we still have to go to address office energy waste.”