EcoFactor has emerged -- at least at this early stage of the game -- as one of the more noteworthy companies in home energy management. And in the relatively near future, you could more see companies with similar technologies tackling other markets.
"In terms of efficiency, there is a tremendous amount of opportunity," said Nat Goldhaber, the managing director of Claremont Creek Ventures, during a phone interview. "You could see an EcoFactor for factories or commercial buildings."
EcoFactor combines a live weather feed with a computerized simulation of a home and automated controls to fine-tune a person's thermostat for unobtrusive energy efficiency. A heat wave is due to hit in the middle of the afternoon? The system might pre-cool the house with relatively cheap power until 1 p.m. and then let the air conditioner coast during the peak period from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Conversely, if motion detectors are linked into the system and no one's home, the whole system can be run on low until the front door cracks open. (Building management will be one of the primary topics at The Networked Grid next week in Palm Springs.)
Similar systems could be employed in office buildings and at industrial sites. In fact, they already are. BuildingIQ has a management system for commercial buildings linked into the weather system, while EPS, which raised $30 million a year ago, controls power at food processing plants.
The interesting part about this tidbit is that it was Goldhaber, an investor in EcoFactor, who mentioned it, which hints toward an eventual consolidation or closer cross-collaboration among the growing plethora of building management startups. Claremont also invested in Adura Technologies, which develops technology for controlling lights and soon other appliances in commercial buildings, as well as Sentilla, which controls power consumption in data centers. That makes three somewhat conceptually similar services with two companies that could complement each other in the same building. If you added a company that can control HVAC systems in large buildings (such as Optimum Energy, for argument's sake) and a company for controlling industrial equipment, you'd be looking at a federation of energy management services. Collectively, they could then link into a software-based demand response system that utilities could exploit for negawatts for the appropriate fees.
Other firms, such as VantagePoint Venture Partners (Adura, Tendril Networks), are developing a similarly expansive portfolio. It's just a thought, but it could happen.
Other things Goldhaber had to say:
--Residential solar installation, as a business, seems be getting decentralized. A larger percentage of solar deals are going toward independent contractors than the centralized, branded installers, he said. Thus, those companies trying to build a national brand may encounter some hiccups along the way. Claremont, however, is an investor in Clean Power Finance, which provides software, billing and back-end support to local solar installers so take the comment with a grain of salt.
--Utilities need to get a grip on electric vehicle charging soon, particularly in places like Berkeley or Marin, where a large number of future Leaf buyers likely live. This could be an interesting niche for a startup.
--Investing in companies that sell to utilities can be difficult. "It is a long process where you can put in years of work and still don't get success," he said. Still, a lot of utilities (such as SMUD in central California) are becoming more adventurous.
--Claremont likes to invest in companies at the early stage. To make sure it's a good fit, the firm will actually work with a company prior to investing in it. That way, the startup gets free advice without having to give up equity and the firm gets to examine the company in depth.
--To keep the pipeline of potential deals flowing, the firm holds office hours at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley and the Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology at the school. Two of its companies -- Adura and Alphabet Energy -- came out of Cal, while EcoFactor conducted early testing at Lawrence Berkeley Labs.