Smart grid company Trilliant has landed a new CEO – Andrew White, a 30-year veteran of General Electric who most recently headed GE's New Energy Ventures.
But that doesn't mean GE has any plans to invest in the Redwood City, Calif.-based startup, White said Friday.
Trilliant announced Friday that White was taking over the top job from former CEO Bill Vogel, who founded the company and will remain as a senior vice president of strategic development.
"He's going to be a key member of my team, and a mentor to educate me in this space," White said of Vogel in a Friday interview. But "It's a board of directors' decision that we'd like a big business leader running a $100 million-plus business."
That's a rough estimate of Trilliant's revenues last year – double those of the year before. It's also a measure of how much money the company has raised since 2004, most recently with a $40 million investment from Mission Point Capital Partners and Zouk Ventures (see Green Light post).
As a provider of communications gear for about 200 utilities including Ontario, Canada's Hydro One, Trilliant is among a number of companies helping utilities network millions of smart meters being deployed across the continent (see Smart Meter Installations Grow Nearly Fivefold).
Trilliant also makes hardware and software for managing in-home energy usage, a business that could see a lot of competition from startups including Tendril Networks, Energate and Onzo, as well as potential competition from major appliance and building automation control giants (see Tendril Targets Meter Makers and Tendril Expands its Reach in Smart Homes).
White said Friday that he didn't plan to change Trilliant's business model. He also said that GE New Energy Ventures had "no plan on the horizon" to invest in Trilliant up until his departure earlier this week.
Trilliant makes communications gear that goes inside smart meters made by other companies – which means that it has a business relationship with GE, as well as other smart meter makers like Itron, Landis+Gyr and Sensus.
One notable competitor in that line of business is Silver Spring Networks, another Redwood City, Calif.-based startup that has raised more than $140 million to date, most recently in a $75 million round led by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (see Silver Spring Grabs $75M).
White, whose background spans time spent with GE managing power grid construction, energy services, nuclear energy and most recently venture capital investment, said he chose to lead Trilliant because of its "longer-term" technology to manage smart meter communications.
"In my analysis in this space, Trilliant is best in class, from a technology perspective," he said – a view that isn't shared by Silver Spring and many smart meter makers using a different technology.
Trilliant has shipped more than a million smart meters and other devices with its communications equipment, which uses a beefed-up version of the 802.15.4 wireless standard. That standard is noted for being the basis of the ZigBee protocol that has gained momentum as the wireless communications technology of choice for allowing smart meters to talk to in-home energy monitoring and control devices.
But Trilliant takes the 802.15.4 standard further for use in the so-called "neighborhood area network" that links smart meters with each other and with collection points on power poles and other locations that then send data to a utility.
That differentiates Trilliant from many of its competitors, including Silver Spring, which use frequency-hopping radios that mesh together in a 900-megahertz frequency range to allow smart meters to communicate with each other and with collection devices. Which technology will be more effective remains a point of contention between their various supporters.
Also at issue is to what extent both systems are based on open standards. Silver Spring has championed its use of Internet protocol in its networking, compared to the proprietary networks of many smart meter makers. Trilliant says its networking is based on IP as well, but says Silver Spring and other RF mesh providers use proprietary radio communications (see Smart Grid: A Matter of Standards).
That argument may come to the fore as companies apply for up to $4.5 billion in matching grants to build smart grid projects contained in the stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama last month, since the use of open standards is set out as a criteria for getting grand funding (see Obama Signs Stimulus Package and this Green Light post).
Both Trilliant and Silver Spring could "benefit from the way the stimulus plan was structured to require open standards," said Stuart Bush, an alternative energy analyst for RBC Capital Markets. "Clearly the West Coast VC guys had a lot of lobby pull getting that in there."
White, by the way, has another role that might not sit well with some backers of smart grid efforts on environmental grounds – he is chairman of the World Nuclear Association.
"I think nuclear makes a lot of sense" as a major source of electricity that doesn't generate greenhouse-gas emissions, White said Friday.
But the public opposition to nuclear power plant construction – plus the falling price of natural gas, which could encourage utilities to build gas-fired power plants instead – could hold back nuclear power's growth in the short term, he said.