Faced with aging infrastructure, electrical utilities are increasingly looking into smart grid technology to enhance and control their grids, and to get a better handle on load management. Smart grid projects, however, only work efficiently with participation from end customers. Utilities are also spending money on traditional campaigns that often show no significant amount of customer engagement and offer no real way to measure the engagement they do receive.
New Brunswick startup SimpTek Technologies is looking to eliminate these challenges through innovation. The company’s software platform solves those above-noted problems by offering a better communication bridge between the customer and their utility.
With the company having just launched a pilot project with New Brunswick’s primary electric utility NB Power, Opportunities NB (ONB) decided to seek out Asif Hasan, CEO of SimpTek Technologies, to learn more.
ONB: Can you tell us a little more about SimpTek and what you offer?
Hasan: We help electrical utilities and residential home owners better engage, understand, and predict energy usage; that’s the high-level explanation. We offer two types of dashboard; one for the consumer and one for utilities. Consumers get to see — in real-time — how energy is consumed in their homes. This is not just high-level consumption; they see how much energy is consumed by individual appliances.
Our first goal is to reduce the surprises consumers get each month. You get your bill showing X kilowatts used and you owe X amount. If that total is a surprise, you have no clue where that money was spent, at what times, on which dates, etc. Even if you call your utility they have no idea. Being able to see at any time just how energy is being consumed by different appliances in your home; that’s the real value on the consumer side.
ONB: That’s an attractive value proposition to be sure.
Hasan: That’s not all, however. They also get empowerment via rebates and personalized recommendations from us and their utility. For example, if a utility wanted to promote a rebate program for efficient hot water systems, they will know which of their customers are most in need of efficient hot water solutions. This will come from their customers’ energy use profiles. So if they want to find customers in downtown Fredericton with inefficient energy usage on hot water, and want to offer them a rebate program, they’ll be able to do so in a targeted manner.
ONB: And on the utility side?
Hasan: Utilities get a great engagement platform. Previously, they would throw out any number of mass-targeted programs. They weren’t aimed at particular audiences or people that would be likely candidates. It’s also difficult to measure the success of a program after it’s over. With our dashboard for utilities, these companies will be able to identify how many people actually engaged with their programs.
ONB: We like to find the story behind these innovative ideas. How did this idea come about? What was the spark?
Hasan: Our first spark came in university. My co-founders (COO Keelen Gagnon and Product Manager Lionel Fernandes) and I were about to do our final design assignment, and we decided we didn’t want to do a traditional project. You spend a year doing your research and it goes on the shelf. Then later someone else comes along and does something different with it, or tears it apart and starts from scratch.
We decided to do something different; something that could really bring about change in the world. So we started looking into opportunities for how to go about this. That’s how we came to the Technology Management & Entrepreneurship (TME) program who had introduced the Technology Commercialization Program (TCP). We joined that initiative and started it with a different idea — a wearable technology offering — that we ended up not running with.
The point is that before SimpTek, there was a team we’d built. We came to realize through our TCP experience that entrepreneurship is a big journey. It’s not as simple as just coming up with what you think is a cool idea and then pushing it to market. You have to figure out what people want and then create that great idea that solves that problem. That experience is what led us to pivot from our original idea to what became SimpTek.
ONB: What was it that led you toward the SimpTek idea specifically?
Hasan: The story behind this technology is a somewhat funny one. Since my childhood growing up in Bangladesh, my father always shouted at me about energy usage, saying I was the one running up his power bill. Every time he got his end of the month statement, same story.
I never really believed that.
As something of an electricity geek, I knew about things like baseload energy, and that certain pieces of equipment and appliances are always using power. If those aren’t replaced with more energy-efficient appliances they can drive up your bill and you’ll have no clear explanation for it. I never had an easy way of proving this to my father.
When we worked on our first idea, I had developed a pattern recognition algorithm that helped ultimately develop the SimpTek product. We shared the idea with our mentors and advisors and they thought if we pull it off, it could be something incredible. We developed the technology in three months and pitched to NB Power and other utilities and they thought it was great, so here we are. I now have a way to show my father how energy is consumed.
ONB: We love the idea of a new technology born from trying to prove Dad wrong.
Hasan: Exactly. Now I call dad and tell him I’m coming to his home with software to help with his energy problem, and I’ll show him exactly who and what are running up his bill.
ONB: That’s terrific! Can you tell us a bit more about this new NB Power pilot project?
Hasan: Every idea ultimately needs validation. We found a need from utilities; in this case NB Power. They believe in our innovation, so before we move into a commercialized sales cycles, we want to complete this pilot project with them. From there we’ll offer a commitment of one year of our services to them for use in this province.
This will involve 150 pilot users over the course of three months starting this fall. It will be about proving our technology, and our customer support capabilities. This is a good initiative for us to kick off with.
What’s key here for us is that NB Power is really transforming from a generation provider to a service provider. It’s encouraging to work with people who are really keen on adopting new technologies like ours into smart grid sites. Our technology can directly integrate with the smart grid made for it; that’s what we’re really focused on studying with this pilot. Over the coming months we’ll identify a lot of questions that need to be answered and solidify a plan to deploy this on a larger scale.
ONB: You mentioned the TME. Let’s talk about those programs and mentors that have helped SimpTek thus far. We assume you worked with Dr. Dhirendra Shukla at UNB? We’ve spoken to him earlier this year.
Hasan: Yes, and he’s been awesome. He’s Chair of the TME, and he and Erik Scheme, research chair in medical devices and technology, were great mentors. On paper my co-founders and I are engineers, but that doesn’t mean any of us really learned how to do business. Through the TME program we learned about commercialization, financing, and making business plans. It was a great toolkit to start this journey.
From there we moved into the Launch36 program via Planet Hatch. After that we did the Propel ICT Build Program. These gave us a boost towards understanding entrepreneurship at the next level. We were guided by mentors within that ecosystem like Jeff Thompson, Larry Shaw, CEO of Knowledge Park and Ignite Fredericton, and many others.
I should mention the NBIF as well. We were lucky enough to capture second prize in their Breakthru Program. They were the very first investment in our company and we’ve received great financial mentorship from them up to this point. They’ve been there to help us bring our innovation to the next level.
ONB: We often mention the strong entrepreneurial ecosystem in New Brunswick. We like to think the resources are there for people that have that great idea.
Hasan: Absolutely. We realized our initial idea wasn’t marketable yet, and we only managed to realize this and quickly make the necessary pivot thanks to the wonderful mentors we had. Part of being a nimble startup is realizing when your idea isn’t good; that needs to be understood quickly. You can’t get attached to the idea; it’s not about you, it’s about what your customers want. Our mentors helped us gain that insight.
ONB: What has ONB’s role been with SimpTek?
Hasan: We’ve received a lot of guidance from your organization thus far. The biggest validation we received for our idea came from attending the 2015 Energy Thought Summit in Austin. The trip was sponsored by ONB and their Export Development team; it was an amazing journey. We got to listen to industry leaders and experts in the smart grid and utilities markets. Part of being a startup is bootstrapping and not having much cash, so being able to accompany your team there was great. We also got a lot of information on which programs are available for startups. It’s great to have partners in the public sector like that and to know they’re there to help you succeed.
ONB: We enjoy showcasing innovation in the province, and this is certainly a great example.
Hasan: Thank you. I think there are some cool, innovative tech companies in New Brunswick. I really think the next Silicon Valley could be here, I don’t think that’s a huge stretch.
ONB: What brought you to New Brunswick from Bangladesh?
Hasan: I was an Electrical and Electronic Engineering student in Bangladesh. I always wanted to see the world a bit more, so I got involved with AIESEC, the world’s largest student organization. Through that I got to explore some North American universities. I landed a scholarship to UNB and after discussing it with my father I made the move to New Brunswick.
UNB and the TME were crucial for me. I learned there’s much more to the journey than engineering. If you learn about commercialization, and markets, and business, you can really do more; it’s not just about the tech.
ONB: So you’ve come to like living in New Brunswick?
Hasan: I love it actually. In terms of the ecosystem here as we mentioned, and in terms of the university and that support system here I think it’s awesome. It’s a smaller place than say Toronto, but because of this the ecosystem is really tied together. So if anyone is in trouble everyone really seems to share that concern. It’s great to have that interconnectivity.
Learn more at SimpTekTechnologies.ca
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