Austin's SmartEnergy Startups Empower Consumers - Part 2

Today’s post is the second in a new two-part series about Austin startups that provide revolutionary new capabilities to energy consumers.  The first part focused on Curb, which develops an integrated home energy monitoring system that plugs into the breaker panel and allows for analytics and remote control.  Today’s post is about Gridmates, an innovative platform that allows individuals to give the gift of electricity as a charitable good, either through direct online giving or through an automated integration with home energy systems.

Interview with Gridmates Co-founder George Koutitas

We met George Koutitas, the co-founder and CEO of Gridmates at the Starbucks at the Domain on a sunny afternoon.  George had recently relocated to Austin from Greece, and was excited to tell us about his labor of love on the Gridmates project.


SA:  Tell us how you came up with this crazy idea?

GK: I developed the idea over three years of research on smart grids.  I was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Thessaly and International Hellenic University, working on smart grids and smart cities.

I thought: “Our energy infrastructure has developed by leaps and bounds over the past century: We produce energy, we store energy, we manage energy.  What’s missing?  We need the capability to give energy.  That’s the next step to a full experience interaction with energy infrastructure, for consumers.

Specifically, I was watching a TV program about a family in Greece that could not pay its bills.  Their energy was cut off.  The family was cold, and the parents were about the age of my wife and me.  This really hit me hard.  So, I started studying how to develop a business model for P2P energy sharing.  How could I give, for instance, one month of energy to this family?

Energy poverty affects, for instance, 48 million people in the United States.  Some get cut off, some give up food.  Paired to this challenge is, from the utilities’ perspective, $11B of unpaid bills.  Gridmates provides a platform for energy donation.  It connects givers to those in need and is a GoFundMe for energy, while helping utilities to recover uncollected revenues and improve community engagement.


SA: Can you tell us a bit more about how, and where, your service is deployed?

GK: The offering employs a SaaS model, and is provided in white-label fashion, to utilities.  We have pilots with utilities in Texas.  We are now in our second year.  We had an Alpha product in our first year.  We tested the product with Mobile Loaves & Fishes’ Community First! Village, which provides housing for people who are disabled and chronically homeless.  We actually provided 100% of the energy they needed.  We used the lessons we learned to update to Beta in our second year.


SA: So, tell us about the Beta, and recent innovations in the technology package, in general.

For the Beta, we’ve succeeded in integrating our product with solar panels and microinverters, to provide, for instance, the option of donating energy created from solar panels.  This allows customers to donate energy that feels ‘free’ to them.  That is, the psychology works.  And it’s tax-deductible.

But back to the technology, more specifically.  Our cloud platform supports several API’s. We’re leveraging these in a number of ways.  First, we’re developing a series algorithms and integrations with the NEST API that will support various scenarios for automatic energy donations.

Second, we integrate with Enphase and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s PVWATTS.  Enphase is the leading microinverter company in the US and PVWATTS provides performance estimates for photovoltaic installations.  Together, the two integrations allow owners of solar arrays to contribute on a percentage-of-production basis.

Finally, we have integrations with pricing and other data from the Energy Information Administration, so that people can translate their donations into “Days of Energy Provided” and, naturally, with Facebook and Twitter.


SA: Excellent.  Now I understand that the operation and stakeholders that support this capability is quite diverse, geographically-speaking.

GK: Yes! Our investors have come from San Francisco, Austin, and Greece.  Our software development itself takes place in Greece.  My co-founder, too, is Greek, and is an expert in SaaS and software engineering.


SA: OK, so you are Greek, of course, and you continue to invest in operations in Greece.  I do see that you have Austin-based investors.  But what, specifically, caused you to relocate?

GK: I knew that I needed to branch out from the small Greek market.  I had already spent, previously, five years in the UK, but I wanted to try this out in the US, the ‘business capital’ of the world.

And why Austin, specifically?  I had a friend who began a startup here: Schoox, an online learning academy with 70 employees.  He explained that Austin provided a great environment for startups.  Also, Angelos Angelou, who is a Greek-American, and a leader in economic development innovation, was an early supporter and investor.  He actually helped bring Samsung and others here and is, more generally, very interested in bringing international talent to Austin.

Finally, Angelos introduced us to Andres Carvallo, the former CIO of Austin Energy. Together, they convinced me to move here!

Austin has so many good things.  I say that, “Austin is your comfort zone outside of the comfort zone of your own country.”  People work hard but also have a good quality of life. Fundraising, therefore, doesn’t need to distract entrepreneurs from product development, since rent is manageable.  Ultimately, the burn rate for human capital is more manageable. We, entrepreneurs, need time for investors to get to know us!

A key drawback here, on the other hand, is that the investor community is more concentrated in angels, as opposed to VCs.  Startups should collaborate to improve that. Ultimately, to keep companies here, we need Series A and B investors.


SA: Finally, what’s your top piece of advice to other entrepreneurs?

Since we’re in a B2B industry with large legacy buyers, the sales cycle is long.  Say, 12-16 months, on average.  So, my advice?  “Keep your burn rate low!”