Four New Energy Stars: A Greenstart Demo Day Preview

10/30/12Follow @wroush

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the associated electrical equipment, all shipped to the homeowner’s driveway.

Third is a connection with a local installer who can put the system together. Fourth, and perhaps most important, is a financing option to cover the cost of the other three parts. Financing ranges from $12,000 to $24,000, depending on the desired power output (3 to 5 kilowatts).

While a deal with a leasing company like Solar City or Sungevity usually doesn’t require homeowners to put any money down up front, Yecke argues that their customers are forgoing big savings. “In the lease model, for an average system the lifetime value will be a net of $12,000”—that’s the amount homeowners will save after their lease payments, primarily through lower utility bills. “For a 5-kilowatt JuiceBox that number is $80,000. That’s a $68,000 discrepancy, and as a homeowner I wouldn’t want to leave that on the table.” (The $80,000 figure assumes that installing panels will increase a home’s resale value by a certain percentage, and also includes a $7,500 federal solar-installation rebate that would otherwise go to the leasing company.)

The JuiceBox will be available to start in two pilot markets: Denver and Colorado Springs, CO, both cities where PV Power—an installation contracting company that Yecke founded in 2009—has an existing network of solar contractors. The company expects to expand to other cities eventually, Yecke says. It can afford to offer JuiceBox at reasonable prices because its own operating costs are low. “We operate virtually and we don’t own the labor or the materials,” Yecke says. “But I’ve seen the profit margins for some of the large solar [installation] companies, and we are directly in line with those guys.”

People Power

Gene Wang, the founder and CEO of People Power, is probably the most senior, experienced, and successful entrepreneur ever to come through Greenstart’s program. His last startup, Bitfone, had grown into the world’s largest mobile device management company before it was acquired by Hewlett-Packard in 2007 for $150 million. At Bitfone, Wang led the creation of software that helped companies manage their employee’s mobile phones; at People Power he’s creating software to help companies manage a huge panoply of other devices that are gradually being hooked up to the Internet.

“We’re shifting from a world of 5 billion computers to about 50 billion devices of every shape and use, from thermostats to door locks to smart cars to healthcare equipment to smart plugs and beyond,” Wang says. “The ‘Internet of Things’ will be comprised of all these connected objects, and our job is to turn these everyday objects into apps that you can control.”

Wang’s logic is that nearly every piece of hardware that’s sensing or acting upon the world will, sooner or later, be connected to the Internet and controlled from some kind of mobile interface—witness the Nest smart thermostat, for example. But not every manufacturer will want to learn all of the tricks needed to build friendly, engaging, usable apps to control these devices. That’s where People Power comes in—it will handle the networking and application layers so manufacturers don’t have to.

“At bottom we’ve build this whole open-source API [application programming interface] so that with any type or flavor of device, even things we’ve never heard of before, their manufacturers can easily connect up to our cloud and get the benefits of mobile access,” Wang says.

One of People Power’s first partnerships is with Monster, the maker of high-end cables, headphones, power systems, and other components for audio systems. At the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, Monster announced a “PowerControl” smart plug that monitors the energy use of appliances such as home entertainment center components and can be programmed to power these devices up or down at various times during the day. The plug, which will ship later this year, is controlled through a smartphone app called “Monster Power Control” that was built by People Power, Wang says.

Future apps from People Power will address areas like home security and monitoring, energy management, and home healthcare and wellness. “The common themes are, you connect up a device, you surf in on a mobile phone, you apply analytics, you take various actions to add convenience and comfort or reduce spending and add efficiency, or make yourself more safe and secure,” Wang says. “It’s all built around this vision of the Internet of Things.”

So why would someone with Wang’s background be interested in joining an accelerator? “One of the things about Greenstart that really impressed me and, in my view, distinguished them from other types of organizations like this, is their strong focus on user experience and user-centered design,” Wang says. “We’re really pleased to be working with David Merkoski.” Merkoski is the former Frogdesign creative director who joined Greenstart as its chief creative officer last spring.

“In my five previous startups I’ve really learned that it’s all about the user experience,” Wang says. “So the way they think about this is the way we think about this.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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