Published on Nov. 27, 2014.
In an effort to address the state’s need for energy efficiency, a team of engineering students is developing software that monitors and analyzes the energy usage of household appliances.
“I think there’s a big growing industry for energy efficiency,” electrical engineering graduate student Andy Pham said. “Especially in Hawai‘i. You pay electricity bill, but it’s really high price right now. We feel there’s a need for it.”
The team, called LoadX, participated in the Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship’s (PACE) Breakthrough Innovation Challenge (BIC) and received a $250 prize. The three-member team had been mentored by two sustainability-related companies – Energy Excelerator, which works with select startup companies looking to solve energy challenges in the state, and Ulupono initiative, an investing firm that uses investments to improve the quality of sustainable life – to help them with their business pitch.
LoadX’s energy efficiency software
The team’s software uses the data that’s already available on an energy monitoring system to save energy.
“There’s smart plugs commercially available that monitor and can shut off your circuits for appliances, and the idea is our company would suggest smart plugs and then we would interface our possibly, well, ideally, our free software, to their device,” electrical engineering graduate student Nick Fisher said.
The software, which integrates into a mobile app, will help homeowners save energy.
“We wanted to make it easier for people to see what kind of energy loads their appliances and stuff,” electrical engineering senior Kenny Luong said.
According to Pham, the software makes “the dumb home appliance smart.”
“For example, if your fridge is not fully closed, the software would track based on the pattern of your usage, and notify you, ‘Hey, your fridge is open,’” he said.
The software can also monitor the energy usage of a water heater.
“The program will watch your energy usage and notify you that the hot ready is ready for shower instead of you waiting randomly,” Pham said. “Of course water heater have reheat cycle so LoadX will, based on learning your behavior, cut off those reheat time, which mean you save energy.”
He added that the team is trying to provide a low-cost alternative solution to save energy. In the future, they hope to give away their software for free.
Murray Clay, managing partner for Ulupono Intiative and one of the team’s mentors, thinks this idea’s time has come.
“It is starting to be applied at the commercial and industrial level but there doesn’t yet seem to be a cost-effective home solution,” he said in an email interview. “If they can crack that problem, they could have a compelling business offering.”
The goal of the BIC is to showcase the innovation that’s happening at the university, according to Krystal Lee, PACE program manager.
“This is a way to showcase those type of innovations and ideas that are happening on campus and the ideas that students have while giving them an opportunity to do something about it, to commercialize their innovation and meet people in the business community, as well as people here on campus that can help further their technology along,” she said.
The competition gives students a chance to win prize money to move their business forward.
“Personally, for BIC, for me, it’s just a good way to like practice a pitch or even test if your idea is actually valuable based on a few business representatives locally,” Fisher said.
According to Lee, two coaches, who came from the business community and volunteered their time, were assigned to each team to mentor the students.
Receiving advice from sustainability organizations
Lauren Tonokawa, who handles communications for Energy Excelerator, was the team’s second mentor.
“The university is actually a really great place to … make the jump from the idea to actually developing something like a product or whatever your innovation is,” Tonokawa said. “It’s important for programs like PACE to support those programs that can eventually lead into ours.”
She began working with LoadX earlier this month. The team was able to see Energy Excelerator’s nine startup companies pitch to and meet one-on-one with representatives from various companies such as Hawaiian Electric Companies, UH, the Hawai‘i State Energy Office and Hawai‘i Energy.
“She has experience in this field that we’re trying to go into so she can give us tips … and ideas to help us in that market and in that sector,” Fisher said. “Just meeting her is nice to know because Energy Excelerator funds future energy-type companies. So just allowing PACE and introducing us to them could be a future business venture to enter into Energy Excelerator in the future.”
Clay said he enjoyed working with the team.
“They’re motivated and open to new ideas and approaches,” he said. “I haven’t had the chance to work with engineers in a while [usually finance folks and lawyers] so that was refreshing. I hope they were able to get some useful business insights from our session.”
The best advice the team received, according to Fisher, was to find a niche that its software can address in the market.
“We come from engineering background, and we think we have to have these amazing ideas, but sometimes amazing ideas fail in the market,” he said. “We hope to continue to work on it.”