“Noisy.” That's how many analysts, investors and other onlookers have described the cleantech sector in recent years.

“Too many firms with identical value propositions chasing an indifferent market,” or simply “too noisy for us,” were the frequent claims.

For some firms, of course, they were right. Many startups failed to meet expectations once the easy cash of 2006-2009 from investors and public sources slowed down. It was reasonable for shareholders to step back and ask whether their partners would deliver on their promises. Would they fall back on the ropes or hit the mat? Would they be SolarCity or Solyndra, Tesla or Fisker?

However, the challenges cleantech set out to solve -- improving resource efficiency, protecting the environment and cutting pollution -- have only accelerated. A handful of firms have developed meaningful customer relationships and defensible business models to attack these challenges at scale. 

Whether it's Nest’s recent $3.2 billion acquisition by Google or Opower’s expected IPO, smart teams are delivering healthy returns while meaningfully improving the world around us. Here at Pulse Energy, we have started new projects with three of the top five U.S. utilities, as well as leading utilities overseas in 2013. These companies have turned to the Pulse platform to better understand and better engage with their entire commercial customer base. This is becoming a key part of utilities' strategies for remaining viable in a fast-changing market.

Why did Nest succeed in a way that innumerable smart thermostats did not? Why did Opower rise above the pack for residential energy efficiency? Many factors played a role, but the fundamental differentiator is this: isolating a need and applying just enough technology to solve it, rather than inventing something impressive and then trying to find a market.

Nest intentionally delayed functionality, such as utility integration and manual fan control, in order to streamline initial setup, choosing to surface advanced features once users were comfortable with the system.

Opower, similarly to what Pulse Energy is doing in the commercial customer segment, applies complex algorithms and energy modeling below the surface. But its primary offering is a mailed report, which explains in simple terms how the home is performing and suggests improvements. Engaged customers can explore their usage online, set up email alerts and make advanced configuration changes, but the standard user experience remains utterly intuitive.

I could also mention expanding market demand, or the availability of big data, or progressive regulation, but the fundamentals remain: Nest and Opower rose above the noise because they understood their customers’ pain and solved it with a sublime customer experience.

This is a simple strategy to describe. But it's difficult to consistently execute. Thankfully, we’re seeing a crop of companies following Nest and Opower, which took hard roads over the past few years but have emerged with devoted customers and sustainable results.

Here at Pulse Energy, we’re taking those lessons and applying energy intelligence, behavioral science and a deep understanding of building operation to deliver only the energy intelligence each of our audiences need -- from straightforward tips in a small business owner’s inbox to targeted customer analytics for our utility partners.  

We congratulate both Nest and Opower on their recent developments. And we’re excited about continued progress in the industry as more companies develop a similarly targeted strategy.


David Helliwell is CEO of Pulse Energy, a company founded in 2006 with the goal of leveraging energy intelligence to reduce waste and improve operational efficiency in the world’s commercial and institutional buildings.