From Classroom to Concept: MBA Grads Navigate the Green Economy

powerzoaThe silver lining of this economic crisis is the hope that a new, green economy will emerge. A revitalized mindset focused on open source, social innovation, clean tech and green jobs marked by shifts towards cleaner transportation, energy independence and a renewed focus on sustainability and energy efficiency. Sandra Kwak, like many Americans and businesses, is banking on this notion. Near the end of her Sustainable MBA program at the Presidio Graduate School in San Francisco, Sandra struggled with the decision of whether or not to take a job or the proverbial “plunge” and start her own business. For now, she is committed to making her dreams of forming a socially responsible business a reality. She pulls inspiration from her studies at Presidio. There, Sandra got more than an education, she found her calling.

Sandra and three of her classmates realized that they not only shared a classroom, but a passion to change the world. Sandra and her classmates-turned-business partners found Professor Nathan Shedroff’s “Sustainable Products and Services” course to be the launching pad they needed. The class forced students to immerse themselves in understanding the user experience. Students were encouraged to go out into the marketplace, observe people’s day-to-day habits, and try to create easy-to-use products that solve every day problems, while maintaining a focus on sustainability.

Sandra observed and interviewed restaurant and cafe owners, asking them about their behaviors with respect to energy consumption. Many of the people she interviewed spoke little English and are primarily first generation business owners. They are clearly using energy inefficiently, some leaving their equipment on all night in fact. Though they know about the costs of energy and waste, many are unsure about the payback of investing in energy saving technologies. Like many individuals, they want to change, but don’t know where to begin.

Enter Powerzoa, an innovative company formed by Sandra and three of her classmates that developed a plug and play, energy efficiency solution to be deployed in buildings, yet controlled by individuals. Ideally suited for business owners like the ones they observed and interviewed, the Powerzoa product, now a working prototype, is a smart plug that sits between a device and the electrical socket. The smart plugs are very user friendly, consisting of color combinations and symbols on top of each device which correspond to difference types of appliances and equipment.

Powerzoa smart plugs have the ability to push data, via a WiFi connection, to a user-oriented, visually stimulating, graphical interface. Almost immediately after being plugged in, the device begins transmitting data about its energy consumption for the user to view and control. The interface provides reporting on a monthly basis including data on energy saved, costs averted and green house gas emissions avoided. The user can turn on and off the smart plugs remotely and the system will even identify devices like a refrigerator that is consuming too much energy. The system will provide a recommendation for a replacement including available rebates and incentives.

Sandra told me: “The goal is to move from information to action.” The Powerzoa team hopes to partner with utilities to offer a solution that further engages their customers, allowing for rollouts of innovative pricing programs and reducing loads at peak times. Though the Powerzoa product doesn’t rely on utility partnerships, a relationship with utilities would connect the Powerzoa smart plugs and interface to the existing utility back office in order to establish a dialog between consumers and their energy providers. Powerzoa’s mission is to help business owners and homeowners alike understand what it is that affects their energy consumption and gives them the ability to control it. The knowledge that comes with the Powerzoa product is power and that empowerment drives awareness around energy efficiency.

Sandra, who currently serves as the interim CEO and Chief Marketing Officer for Powerzoa (they are looking for a CEO with domain expertise), realizes that trying to get a bootstrap company with limited financial resources (they are looking for early stage funding) off the ground in a down economy is a challenge. But she is focused on the opportunities, availability of talent, and the chance to create green jobs and be a part of making the new, green economy a success.

For 6 smart plugs, 1 bridge and the software, Powerzoa costs $169.95.

Cory Vanderpool joined EnOcean Alliance as the Business Development Director for North America. Prior to this role, she was Executive Director of GreenLink Alliance, a non profit organization dedicated to promoting energy conservation in buildings and tax incentives for building owners. Before establishing GreenLink, Cory worked in business development supporting a government contracting firm focused on civilian and defense markets. In addition to her work at EnOcean, Cory is also pursuing her PhD in Environmental Policy at George Mason University and is a part-time contributing writer at Triple Pundit.

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