Energy Startup Series: Gridium

Via Gridium:


Adam Stein (left) and Tom Arnold (right) became friends at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and together co-founded TerraPass, a pioneering greenhouse gas management company. This business partnership continues today at Gridium, where Adam is President and VP of Product, and Tom is CEO. Buildings use Gridium software to operate more efficiently, and electric utilities use Gridium smart meter data analytics to better engage with their customers.

1-      What is the greatest challenge facing the energy industry over the next 5 years?

Adam: I’ll take the supply side of this coin. Certainly the growth of distributed generation coupled with the questions around how it will connect to the utility grid are, together, a set of challenges and also opportunities for the energy industry. What role will energy storage play, and to what degree will the Internet of Things enable devices to respond dynamically to changing grid conditions and energy prices? Of course, anthropogenic climate change is the biggest issue here, though it’s an issue for all of us and for more than just the next 5 years.

Tom: It’s important to echo Adam’s last point on climate change… it’s a little easier to focus on incremental steps and progress, but also critical not to lose sight of the bigger challenge at hand. On the demand side of things, one major challenge will be fully capturing the value embedded in all of the data streaming off of the increasingly interconnected energy system. Data from across the grid, at the whole building level, behind the meter at the system level, at the occupant level. There are near-term challenges in data availability, quality, and accessibility. And once analyzed, there are challenges in translating the data into something useful for the customer. But the industry is making progress.

2-      What has been the biggest positive energy industry change since the start of your career?

Tom: There have been a few major changes in this space since my work here began. Data availability – in part driven by the growth of smart meter installments – has enabled buildings to take advantage of Gridium analytics without the costly dollar and time investments of on-premise hardware deployments. Just as importantly, cloud computing technology has enabled Gridium to build software that can spin up server instances on demand and run analytics across tens of thousands of utility meters, and to be able to do this cheaply so that our customer ROI remains very attractive. Take this example: for Walmart to acquire 10,000 new customers, it needs a new warehouse, whereas all Alibaba needs is two more servers. To successfully combat climate change we need more solutions that scale like Alibaba, not Walmart.

Adam: I think it’s been the successful diffusion of the latest generation of IT products into the energy industry, which is in real need of more powerful, more usable tools. This means coupling consumer-quality usability with enterprise-grade analytical power. It’s my belief that only user-friendly software delivering truly powerful insights will be able to unseat the spreadsheet, clipboard, and pen trifecta currently representing the state of nature in buildings today.

3-      What has been the biggest negative energy industry change since the start of your career?

Tom: Energy efficiency makes so much sense. A lot of real momentum, in Massachusetts, California, and many other places, was building on the climate change front before the industry got turned into a political football.

Adam: I’m using the word “coupling” too much… but many folks still have coupled in their minds a certain point of view about the energy space with a certain point of view about politics. Running buildings more efficiently isn’t just about eco-friendliness. It’s the smart business decision. Contributing factors here include overhyped, and failed, companies on the energy supply side, and early-adopter-eco-centric branding on the product side.

4-      What is the greatest satisfaction of working in an energy-related field?

Adam: It’s meaningful work. Climate change is a pressing issue, but access to energy services is also an incredibly pressing issue, particularly in the developing world. We do need to use energy more efficiently, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that on a global basis we’re going to be using any less of it. Which in turn means we need to get the carbon out of our energy supply.

Additionally, I find it fun to introduce consumer-quality software products into a space that isn’t accustomed to really usable tools.

Tom: Honestly the most satisfaction is seeing our customers use our software to save money. Energy is complex, and easy-to-use tools make it simple for our customers to immediately show benefit to their building. That’s an “aha” moment that is immensely rewarding and gives me great optimism about the future of energy management.

5-      What is the greatest frustration of working in an energy-related field?

Tom: Well this is sort of a hard question, in part because I’m pretty thrilled to be working here. One issue is that, within the built environment, the status quo is a little dug in. Fortunately, compelling software is the best antidote here, so we’re making progress.

Adam: It’s really hard to describe to my family over the holidays what it is I do at work…

6-      What is your firm’s greatest strength?

Tom: Our people. Our team has committed themselves to working with customers to understand their needs and developing software tools buildings and utilities find so valuable.

Adam: Yes, it’s our people. One of our software engineers recently mentioned that the team at Gridium is made up of folks among the least selfish and most generous people he has ever worked with, and I agree with that.

7-      What do you think the future holds for energy technology?

Tom: Greater interconnectivity, widespread adoption of predictive analytics, and automated, dynamic operations are in the cards. Buildings will also be getting much more out of much less, and building occupants will be more involved.

Adam: I really have no idea, but hopefully robots like R2D2 from Star Wars, or TARS from Interstellar are involved. That would be cool.

8-      What is your favorite energy-themed film or television show?

Adam: How about There Will Be Blood? Maybe it’s not really about energy, per se, but there sure is a lot of oil in it, and it’s a pretty fantastic depiction of the early fossil fuel era. It’s also pretty weird that we squeeze this stuff out of rocks.

Tom: My daughters watch Wild Kratts on PBS, and it’s fantastic. Really, the show rocks. It hasn’t covered a lot of energy issues (yet) but it instills great respect for the environment in my kids.

9-      What is your favorite energy-themed book (fiction or non-fiction)?

Tom: I enjoyed Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise. It distills many essential concepts for a world drowning in data and looking for information.

Adam: Climate change books tend to be depressing, so I’m not sure the word “favorite” applies here. I read anything Elizabeth Kolbert writes, and her recent book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History was characteristically great.

10-   What would you have been if you didn’t work in energy?

Adam: At this point I think I’m a software startup lifer. That, or a contributor to Frommer’s!

Tom: My other passion, aside from my family, is cycling. So, I guess a cycling startup would be next?