Austin's SmartEnergy Startups Empower Consumers - Part 1

Today’s post is the first in a new two-part series.  The focus of the series will be on two Austin startups that provide revolutionary new capabilities to energy consumers.  Today’s focus is Curb, which develops an integrated home energy monitoring system that plugs into the breaker panel and allows for analytics and remote control.

 
 

Interview with Curb Founder Erik Norwood
We spoke with Erik Norwood, the founder and CEO of Curb, at his South Austin office, which was buzzing with the activity of engaged employees, furniture upgrades, and the brewing of a fresh cup of coffee.  Erik immediately welcomed us into his company’s concerns of the day, and shared some of his ongoing fundraising, site expansion, and staff expansion initiatives.  After reviewing these exciting developments, we asked Erik about his background.
 
SA: Can you tell us a bit about your background, and how you came to found Curb?

EN: I’m from Northern California, and spent ten years in LA.  I studied engineering at USC and then built satellites for GPS and DIRECTV.  I learned how to build hard things and came to understand how to manage very complex processes.  But these large organizations were just not for me.

So, I decided to come to UT to get an MBA in finance and entrepreneurship.  I wanted to find a way to get into smaller businesses and to understand how to build an organization.  I wanted to work at a VC, so I could observe the mechanics of a broad range of small organizations getting going, so I interned at S3 Ventures.  I moved on from there to become one of the early employees at Circular Energy, which provides solar and other electricity services to consumers and businesses.  I was excited, of course, by the opportunity to build a new company.  We raised a few million dollars, and sold power (retail energy) and owned assets on the roof, at the edge of the grid.  The process for selling solar is highly-intensive and the market is highly-fragmented.  It’s really tough work.
 
That was the hard part.  The awesome part was that I was exposed to, and helped lead, engineering, ops, and finance.  Then, there was a merger between Circular and ProPower Providers.  As part of that process, we spun out Curb, in 2014.  The concept of Curb was based around the thought that we needed to know where the energy was going, how it was being used at the endpoint.  It’s almost appalling that our actions are almost entirely divorced from the energy we use.
 
Energy bills are usually set to autopay and this scenario lends itself to passivity.  This is a fundamental building block that we are missing as a society.
 
SA: Awesome founder story, and I definitely see your passion!  Now, tell us a bit more about how the Curb solution works and why you offer a hardware solution.
 
EN: We began as a software and data company, and used data from other energy meters.  But we could not get the right data fidelity nor price point.  So, we built our own solution.  We thought the existing offers were just priced too high and missed key functionality.  We ultimately come in at about ⅓ of the price and 3x’s the functionality of our closest competitor.  We accomplished this through hard work and smart people.  We integrated inexpensive hardware parts in smart ways in order to create a high-fidelity system.  We run on very reasonable margins as well.
 
The system has the capability to share information such as whether the user left the lights on or left the oven on.  It can provide alerts when voltage is low or the frequency is off.  This can help protect damage-sensitive equipment.  We are working, too, on the capability to predict, for instance, the pending failure of AC systems.
 
We’re also very proud of our UI.  It’s available on web and mobile and includes weekly reporting and email alerts.  Ultimately, people want to be told what do and when.  Folks are often surprised to find out where energy is being consumed inefficiently.  You can’t always tell by looking at your light bulbs, for instance.  In my home, we found that an old incandescent chandelier was consuming an enormous amount of energy!  Folks are also often really surprised to find out the expense of running a space heater.
 
It’s also cool to see which insights early adopters will find, as they play with our analytics tools.  We’re in touch with them and will ultimately integrate some of these new finds into our automated reporting.
 
Ultimately, though, we know that we can already help people save money, improve safety, and manage appliances better.
 
SA: [At this point, Erik stood up to offer us a demo.  A large screen displayed a series of gently modulating bars.  We were viewing the hourly expense associated with each circuit in Erik’s home.  It was even cooler when he began to remotely flip devices on and off.]

 

SA: So, that’s your home.  Is anyone there while you mess with the circuitry?
 
EN: Yes, my wife has to sit through these demos.  She tells me that we may ultimately have to find another way to demo our product, since it’s pretty annoying to see the lights and fans turn on and off randomly!
 
SA: I see that the information is reported at the circuit level.  Some of your competitors claim that they can read the digital signature of each and every appliance.  Why don’t you use that approach?
 
EN: The digital signature approach is not needed nor that reliable.  The costs of specific end-points can be determined pretty easily, by just turning on and off light fixtures and appliances: the UI responses immediately.  So, I’d say that this level of granularity is just right for the purpose.
 
SA: Can you tell us a bit more about installation?
 
EN: Sensors with transmitters are attached to each household circuit in the control panel.  It’s true that this can be a bit of a challenge for the end-consumer.  This is definitely not a DIY solution.  That’s why we have a nationwide network of electricians and also sell to solar installation partners who can integrate Curb into their systems, thereby improving their own value proposition.  It won’t surprise you that the majority of our installations are sold via solar panel installers.
 
SA: Got it.  This definitely helps me understand the basics of your business and go-to-market model.  And based on what we spoke about earlier, it definitely sounds like it’s showing signs of success.  Can you tell us more about the type of team it takes to make all of that happen?
 
EN:  There are two other senior leaders: Bill Chatterjee, who has expertise in operations and engineering management in semiconductors and microelectronics, and Eric Bear, who has broad expertise in product design, UX, IP protection, and more.  
 
Most of our 12 resources are focused on product.  We have one hardware-focused employee, who has a background from TI, Dell, Freescale/NXP, and Silicon Labs.  At the moment, only one employee focuses on sales.  I support sales and business development, as well.  We have plans to grow in sales, business development, software development (in order to continue to improve the UI), and data science capabilities.
 
SA: Great overview.  I feel like I’ve gotten to know your company.  Before we end, I have to ask you your thoughts about Austin.  What are its strengths and weaknesses for startups?
 
EN: I love Austin.  I love the quality of life and the cost of living!  It’s a really good place to incubate and grow out a company.  The Capital Factory, in particular, is fantastic.  Also, we’ve found the green culture in Austin to be fantastic.  The altruistic sentiment here helps to make Austin a good beachhead market for a product like Curb.  And, of course, we can get the right technical talent.
 
Austin is also able to support us with an enormous amount of outsourcing support for hardware design and, perhaps surprisingly, manufacture.  There are about 8-10 manufacturing choices for our firm that are local, and of the right scale!  In fact, it only takes us 15 minutes to go to the manufacturing site if we want to make changes, which is a huge asset to us.
 
I admit that our next round of expansion will take us into Northern California.  Most of those positions will be for business development, sales, and fundraising.  The serendipity of running into people at Starbucks there really can’t be beat.  And the solar industry there is huge!  But product development will definitely stay in Austin.
 
SA: Thank you!  We look forward to seeing where you go.