The days of a meter reader checking a spinning dial are long gone. Nowadays, many companies rely on automated smart meters that can tell you how much electricity you’re using in 15-minute intervals.
That’s a lot of data.
“Right now, utilities aren’t doing anything with that data,” says Ty Benefiel ‘14.
, a clean-technologies startup that recently launched an interactive tool that turns smart-meter data into real-time analysis of electrical use and provides homeowners with tips they can use to cut their energy bill.
Made up of students and alumni from Kellogg and Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, MeterGenius already has drawn interest from outside of Evanston. The company has run a six-month pilot program with Infinite Energy, an energy supplier in Texas, since February. The provider pays the company for the service, which it then provides to customers for free.
“We’ll analyze the data and we’ll send the specific recommendations to them on how they can be more energy efficient,” says Benefiel, co-founder of MeterGenius.
The startup has also raised $125,000 through various case competitions and grants, including a $50,000 grant from Arch Grants, a St. Louis-based nonprofit.
Going this route has allowed Benefiel and his team to keep ownership in their company, rather than relying on angel investors and venture capital firms.
“We’ve been able to keep almost all the equity of the company and raise enough money to fund all the initiatives we’ve been working on,” Benefiel says.
MeterGenius came together during an NUvention: Energy course. Originally, the plan was to build monitors that customers would place over their outlets to reduce “vampire energy,” electrical power consumed by appliances while they’re offline or idle. An online platform would complement the device, offering energy-saving tips.
But after a quick survey, the group learned that few people were interested in buying a device; their electricity bills didn’t warrant such an investment. “It was a little difficult abandoning the idea,” Benefiel says. “But the underlying goal was to eliminate electricity waste and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. So no matter how good our product was, if no one used it, it wouldn’t be effective.”
The “A-ha” moment came when the group met with Mark Pruitt, former director of the Illinois Power Agency. Pruitt explained that the real issue for suppliers was retaining customers. Also, he liked the platform idea, but as an added feature that suppliers could offer.
That’s when the team built out an algorithm that used smart meter data to forecast electricity consumption and a platform for suppliers to leverage. Infinite Energy committed to the pilot before the site was built.
“That’s when these executives really showed interest,” says Benefiel. “That’s when we knew we were onto something.”
As part of the Arch Grants win, Benefiel will relocate the company to St. Louis for a year, where he’ll have access to funding, free coworking space, access to legal and marketing services, website hosting and mentorship by local entrepreneurs and professionals.
It’s part of Arch Grants’ mission to cultivate a tech community in the Gateway City, one where grant recipients not only flourish in St. Louis, but also stay.
“A lot of people in St. Louis want to see the companies (that won an) Arch Grant succeed,” Benefiel says.
It’s the type of program Benefiel would like to see Illinois initiate. Last April, he took that message to Springfield, speaking before the General Assembly on the need to keep clean technologies in the state.
“We’ve got these great universities in Illinois and a lot of great technologies are being developed by students,” he says, “but a lot of students are leaving to go to the coasts where cleantech is more established and there are more incentives to launch.”
The move will make the next few weeks that more hectic for Benefiel. “I graduate and a week later I get married, go on my honeymoon and then come back and probably move to St. Louis in mid-July,” he says.
Here’s hoping he turns off the lights.