INTERVIEW WITH ÜBERENERGY FOUNDERS Rolf Behrsing and Dominika Bienkowska
by Chloë Daniel – 24 February 2016
Rolf Behrsing and Dr. Dominika Bienkowska are the founders of ÜberEnergy, a startup determined to enable us to consume energy more efficiently. Using cloud-connected hardware, they are developing an energy prediction engine which predicts and adjusts to how much energy is needed in a given room based on the actual human occupancy and thermal behaviour. Founded in 2015, ÜberEnergy has just received EXIST funding, as well as moved into the GTEC Lab, where it will take part in a 12-month support program (0% equity, EUR0 rent, free prototyping facilities). Check out our other GTEC Lab startups here.
We talked to Dominika and Rolf about the origins of their idea, why Berlin may be a better place than Silicon Valley to found an energy startup, and how getting potential customers to define your product will ultimately lead to more sales.
You’ve just got back from E-world in Essen. What was that like?
Dominika: We were part of the Dena [German Energy Agency] Startup Bus, organised by Andreas Kuhlmann (CEO of Dena). That was really informative and great networking. When you’re sitting on a bus for seven hours, you start to connect in a different way.
Rolf: What’s neat about Germany is that the conferences are really productive. Unlike in the US, where conventions are about giving a sales guy a business card to arrange a call later, in Germany it’s a chance to meet decision-makers – people are there to network and do deals. This time, we got talking to a representative from GASAG – one of Europe’s biggest gas companies – who was interested in approaches to predicting customer energy usage including how we apply our machine learning prediction system and how it could apply to their customers to better predict spikes in energy usage.
That’s exactly what you’re working on?
Rolf: Right. Our system knows what the customers are doing from day to day and not just at the end of the year. Our prototypical demonstration of the product is a heating system – for a house or an office. We can measure when you are home, when you are not, and figure out exactly when to turn the heater off and on – without you coming into a cold house or leaving a cold house.
How is that different from a standard timed thermostat?
Rolf: Here’s the thing. We did some market research. 20 – 30% of the people that buy these thermostats will sit down and spend an hour or two figuring out a general program. Most people either don’t program it or do it incorrectly.
Dominika: Your life is not a fixed schedule. There are things that come up which you can’t predict. There is still more energy you could save.
Rolf: With the ÜberEnergy system, using sensors and your smart phone, we can track and internally map your actual movements – anonymously and encrypted so there’s no privacy issues. That was important to us.
So what’s the actual user experience?
Rolf: We’re hitting this B2B. You won’t be able to go to Media Markt and buy an ÜberEnergy system – well maybe in the future but not now. Let’s say you’re looking for a new heating system. One of the options from your provider will be the ÜberEnergy package. Choose that and you’ll get a simple device that kind of looks like a thermostat with a beautiful little touchscreen, which your installer helps you hook up and connect to the internet. You’ll download the app for your smartphone and answer a couple of simple questions on the initialisation on the app. Then it starts tracking. As the days go by, it finds your patterns to program the thermostat.
Dominika: The system is constantly learning more about your schedule to predict your moves, and accommodates changes in real time. If there is some sort of anomaly – it sees via GPS you’re on your standard way home earlier than usual – it may give a little push “are you coming home?” It’s about minimising interaction that’s not pleasant interaction.
Where did the idea come from and how did you both get involved in it?
Rolf: The seed for the idea came from building my house in California – not something Americans typically do. But I had an opportunity. Making the house energy efficient was really important to me. I hired guys who really know what they were doing, but even they would skip insulating hard-to-get areas. Based on this, it would be impossible to work out how energy efficient any house really is. I’m a Silicon Valley professional – first in software engineering and later in business development for a range of tech companies – and I wanted to apply that kind of process to the problem. So I learned about sizing heating systems in US homes from a professor who had written a book about assessing them. Right off, he said that you can add 50%, if not 100% to a heating system, because of the way construction is done in California. Totally wasteful. Then I had the idea that if I can measure the actual thermal resistance, I would know exactly how energy efficient a house is. I developed the hardware and software to do that but then realised there is no thermostat smart enough to figure this stuff out and nobody else crazy enough to go through all of this themselves. From there, I started looking at machine learning.
Dominika: At that time, I was living in Berkeley, working on Computational Biology UC Berkeley, and knew Rolf. I was looking for ways out of academia and back to Europe – I’m originally from Poland – so I decided to apply to ESMT for an MBA. I started that in 2014 and focused on energy and entrepreneurship. Rolf and I were already talking about how to make this great idea into a business. In Berlin, I saw just how strong the startup community is and the extent of public funding available. This seemed to me to be the right country to develop the kind of technology Rolf and I were talking about.
Do you think Berlin is more receptive to a startup in energy efficiency that Silicon Valley?
Dominika: Germany is leading in the world for energy efficiency.
Rolf: “ Definitely. You have a lot of companies talking seriously about new technologies that can help with saving energy. Plus you have a competitive energy market and sophisticated consumers. That makes it a great place for us to start.”
Getting the EXIST funding must have been a great step. How did you go about that?
Dominika: It was a long process, but so worth it. There was also a lot of help on the ESMT side. This is first time anyone from ESMT has applied for EXIST funding. Professor Stefan Wagner was instrumental in guiding us through what to do and helping us connect to the right people through his network in the energy and startup field in Germany.
Rolf: Applying for EXIST funding [it totals around EUR 200K for 12 months] was a great vetting process for us. It validated our idea, but it was a slog. A crucial step was getting a pilot customer. Through our networks, we managed to get in touch with a solar installation company near Stuttgart. They were interested not just in running a heating system, but also in how we could give them greater insight into people’s occupancy to better manage solar panels. That’s exactly what our system can do – they signed the agreement. Second step was getting an academic mentor, specifically in the field of machine learning. That came through Marius Kloft, a professor at Humboldt University, but with lots of additional support from Stefan Wagner.
Will you get help from Professor Marius Kloft’s team at the HU?
Rolf: There is no obligation, but the team has already helped us in interviewing people and putting us in touch with potential people to hire. But we see it working both ways. We don’t just want to go out there and apply technology that already exists. We’re trying to advance the research in the prediction of people.”
So what’s next?
Rolf: We’re leading with the marketing – it’s a Silicon Valley model. What we want now are more pilot customers so we can scope out their technical requests. We’re hoping to get a couple more customers in these six months – tangible agreements which set out how we can get somehow into their catalogue for selling to customers – and then using that to further define the product. It’s the opposite of simply building something we think is really cool and then trying to sell it, only to discover no one actually wants it.
And why GTEC?
Dominika: I really know the value of ESMT and the network and knowledge of ESMT. I perceive GTEC as an extension and addition to that value of ESMT – it was an easy decision.
Rolf: There are also business opportunities here. HU also have an innovation center but they’re more academic, more product orientated. GTEC’s environment is about business – meeting people who have done business and grown business before. And it’s a great network. Using Fab Lab Berlin is going to be important to us – and RWE [GTEC founding partner] would be great to collaborate with on some level.
Thanks Dominika and Rolf – it’s a pleasure having you in the GTEC Lab.
To find out more about ÜberEnergy, check out their website here.