Faced with aging infrastructure, electrical utilities are increasingly looking into smart grid technology to enhance and control their grids, and to get a better handle on load management. Smart grid projects, however, only work efficiently with participation from end customers. Utilities are also spending money on traditional campaigns that often show no significant amount of customer engagement and offer no real way to measure the engagement they do receive.
Canadian startup SimpTek Technologies is looking to eliminate these challenges through innovation. The company’s platform solves those above-noted problems by offering a better communication bridge between customer and utility.
With the company having launched a pilot project with New Brunswick’s primary electric utility NB Power, Opportunities NB (ONB) decided to seek out Asif Hasan, CEO of SimpTek, to learn more.
ONB: Tell us a bit about SimpTek.
Hasan: We help utilities and homeowners better engage, understand, and predict energy usage. We offer two dashboards; one for consumers, another for utilities. Consumers can see, in real-time, how energy is consumed in their homes. This is not just high-level consumption, they see how much energy is consumed by individual appliances.
Our first goal is to reduce the surprises consumers get each month. You get your bill showing X kilowatts used and you owe X amount. If that total is a surprise, you have no clue where that money was spent, at what times, on which dates, etc. Even if you call the utility they have no idea. Being able to see at any time just how energy is consumed by different appliances in your home; that’s the value on the consumer side.
ONB: That’s an attractive value proposition.
Hasan: They also get empowerment via rebates and personalized recommendations from us and their utility. For example, if a utility wanted to promote a rebate on efficient hot water systems, they will know which of their customers are most in need of efficient hot water solutions. This will come from their customers’ energy use profiles.
ONB: And on the utility side?
Hasan: Utilities get a great engagement platform. Previously, they would throw out any number of mass-targeted programs. They weren’t aimed at particular audiences or people that would be likely candidates. It’s also difficult to measure the success of a program after it’s over. With our utilities dashboard these companies will be able to identify how many people actually engaged their programs.
ONB: How did this idea come about?
Hasan: In university, my co-founders (COO Keelen Gagnon and Product Manager Lionel Fernandes) and I were about to do our final design assignment. We decided we didn’t want to do a traditional project. You spend a year doing research and it goes on the shelf. Then later someone else comes along and does something different with it, or tears it apart and starts from scratch.
We decided to do something different; something that could really bring about change. That’s how we came to the Technology Management & Entrepreneurship (TME) program and their Technology Commercialization Program (TCP). We joined that initiative and started it with a different idea—wearable technology—that we ended up not running with.
The point is that before SimpTek, we built a team. Through our TCP experience, we saw that entrepreneurship is a big journey. It’s not as simple as coming up with what you think is a cool idea and pushing it to market. You have to figure out what people want and create that great idea that solves that problem. That experience is what led us to pivot from our original idea.
ONB: What was it that led you toward the SimpTek idea specifically?
Hasan: Since childhood in Bangladesh, my father always shouted at me about energy usage, saying I was the one running up his power bills. Every time he got his monthly statement, same story.
I never really believed that.
As an electricity geek, I knew about things like baseload energy, and that certain equipment and appliances are always using power. If those aren’t replaced with more energy-efficient appliances they drive up your bill and you’ll have no clear explanation for it. I never had an easy way of proving this to my father.
When we worked on our first idea, I had developed a pattern recognition algorithm that helped ultimately develop the SimpTek solution. We shared the idea with advisors and they thought if we pull it off, it could be something incredible. We developed the tech in three months and pitched to NB Power and other utilities. They thought it was great, so here we are. I now have a way to show my father how energy is consumed.
ONB: Can you tell us a bit about this NB Power pilot project?
Hasan: We found a need from utilities; in this case NB Power. They believe in our innovation, so before we move into a commercialized sales cycles, we want to complete this pilot project. From there we’ll offer a commitment of one year of our service to them for use in this province.
This involves 150 pilot users over three months. It will be about proving our technology, and our support capabilities.
What’s key here is that NB Power is really transforming from a generation provider to a service provider. It’s encouraging to work with people who are keen on adopting new technologies like ours. Our technology can directly integrate with the smart grid made for it; that’s what we’re focused on studying with this pilot.
ONB: Let’s talk about programs and mentors that have helped SimpTek. We assume you worked with Dr Dhirendra Shukla at UNB? We’ve spoken to him earlier this year.
Hasan: Yes, and he’s been awesome. He and Erik Scheme, Research Chair in Medical Devices and Technology, were great mentors. On paper my co-founders and I are engineers, but that doesn’t mean any of us learned how to do business. Through the TME we learned about commercialization, financing, and making business plans. It was a great toolkit to start this journey.
From there did Launch36 via Planet Hatch. After that, it was Propel ICT’s Build Program. These gave us a boost towards understanding entrepreneurship at the next level. We were guided by mentors within that ecosystem like Jeff Thompson, Larry Shaw, CEO of Knowledge Park/Ignite Fredericton, and others.
I should mention the NBIF as well. We were lucky enough to capture second prize in their Breakthru Program. They were the first investment in our company and we’ve received great financial mentorship from them.
ONB: We often mention the strong entrepreneurial ecosystem in New Brunswick. We like to think the resources are there for people that have that great idea.
Hasan: Absolutely. We realized our initial idea wasn’t marketable yet, and we only managed to realize this and quickly make the necessary pivot thanks to our wonderful mentors. Part of being a nimble startup is realizing when your idea isn’t good. You can’t get attached to the idea. But it’s not about you, it’s about what customers want. Our mentors helped us realize that.
ONB: What has ONB’s role been with SimpTek?
Hasan: We’ve received a lot of guidance from ONB. The biggest validation we received for our idea came from attending the 2015 Energy Thought Summit in Austin. The trip was sponsored by ONB and it was an amazing journey. We got to listen to industry leaders and experts in the smart grid and utility markets.
ONB: What brought you here from Bangladesh?
Hasan: I was an Electrical and Electronic Engineering student in Bangladesh. I wanted to see the world so I got involved with AIESEC, the world’s largest student organization. Through that, I got to explore North American universities. I landed a scholarship to UNB and, after discussing it with my father, I made the move to New Brunswick.
ONB: So you’ve come to like living in New Brunswick?
Hasan: I love it. In terms of the ecosystem here as we mentioned, and in terms of the university and that support system here I think it’s awesome. It’s a smaller place than say Toronto, but because of this, the ecosystem is really tied together. If anyone is in trouble everyone really seems to share that concern.
Learn more at SimpTekTechnologies.ca
Written by Jason Boies
Cover image via Wikimedia Commons