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Winner Spotlight: GridCure Manages Big Data for Electrical Utility Companies

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Making sense of data is a skill set plenty of individuals and businesses lack. Utility companies are an extreme example of this deficiency. Often utility employees don’t know how to use massive amounts of data, yet they desperately want to, says Tagg Jefferson, co-founder of GridCure. The startup launched as a direct response to this desire. Jefferson and his team primarily come from the world of big data and, as he joked during the Challenge Cup, they became bored with using their expertise to analyze Twitter feeds.

GridCure was the Toronto Challenge Cup winner last week in the energy category and will go on to the Challenge Festival in May. Just after the announcement that his company had won, Jefferson spoke about the multibillion dollar market opportunity on which he hopes to capitalize and the unexpected circumstances around GridCure’s pilot project.

First of all, can you more fully explain why there’s a need for GridCure?

Electrical power utilities have run around installing things like smart meters, nest thermostats in your home. And what that means for the homeowner is not a whole lot. The thing on the side of your house, that power meter that measures how much power you use in your house looks a bit different now. But for electrical power utilities, what that means is that suddenly they have somewhere between three and nine times more data coming off of that electrical unit back to their servers. And they simply, in many cases, cannot deal with that volume of data because it’s been such a massive increase in such a short amount of time.

And that’s where we come in. We build a software as a service product that’s able to help them manage that data, process that data and then give it back to them in simple, really easy to understand forms with core operational benefits. So they’re able to understand when an asset is failing and meant to be replaced, able to understand where losses are in their network so they can go and fix it and be able to increase the efficiency of what they’re doing.

Can you expand upon some examples of how they can use the data better?

Sure. One of the great examples we like to talk about is when we can monitor for when someone’s power meter is starting to wear out. It’s bad for the homeowner because maybe it means that their power metering isn’t as accurate and it’s bad for the utility because they don’t know how much to charge the end customer. So it’s bad news on all accounts.

We can understand from the meter and how the meter’s responding and reacting when that meter might need to be replaced. And we can do a similar thing for all assets. A meter will attach to a transformer. A transformer will attach to a substation. And we can monitor between all of those things to check the transformer, the substation and so basically it’s predictive maintenance cycles.

Tell me more about you. How did you arrive at an idea like this?

I built $20 smart meters in India for a while. I was on a big western Canadian utility smart meter rollout. And what I noticed about these areas was, in one case, it was an electrical grid that was poorly maintained. There wasn’t a ton of money to do big infrastructure roll outs. In another case, it was a very wealthy utility by comparison. They had lots of money to do interesting things with the technology. But in both scenarios there were massive problems with just handling the data. Everybody was locked into using Microsoft Excel. And the volumes of data we’re dealing with nowadays you can’t do that. It’s just way beyond these simple applications. So I said, “Gosh, why isn’t there an off-the-shelf solution to mitigate these problems in both really advanced grids as well as grids that are not quite here yet but getting there?”

So, you began your work as a company doing a pilot of your product in Tennessee, of all places. How did that happen?

Yes. This was classic keep following up until something happens. I went to a big conference and — 400 business cards, 300 phone calls and three and a half months of pestering people later — we had a couple of discussions with a utility services provider who said, “Hey we’re really interested in your project. We really like what you’re talking about. But you should come back to us with a successful pilot and, by the way, here’s who you should do it with.” So we got that engagement by getting the blessing of a major services provider in the industry already.

What are the next steps now that you have done that first pilot?

We’re in discussions with another major utility services provider to engage directly with their business units. This provider has hundreds of contracts with existing utilities already. Once we’re in with them we’re able to very quickly expand our product offerings and the number of companies we can provide our services to. We look to lock in four to twenty utilities in North America, but then we will look at overseas opportunities. China, for instance, has allocated about $100 billion toward improving its electrical grid over the next five years. It’s a massive opportunity for us. We really want to make it over there, but we also want to make sure we’re ready to go . Hit the North American market, make sure we’ve got our toe hold locked in here and then start pursuing the Chinese, the Indian, the Brazilian markets, and other  really big opportunities overseas.

What was being part of the Challenge Cup like for you?

My biggest thing was making friends in the utilities space. Again, this industry is all relationship based and I like being able to understand how other groups are tackling their particular problems; how they’re getting into utilities; what utility services are finding most valuable or most interesting. I think that the best part of the pitches was that none of us were directly competing with each other; we were all building slightly different products, which, in my mind, means we can potentially be cooperative with each other. A utility is probably looking for a solution that’s bigger than us and bigger than any individual group, but maybe with our powers combined, we can join forces. I really like seeing opportunities for that.

Lastly, because the Challenge Cup is a global competition and you’re now taking your company well beyond Canada and doing a lot of traveling, I wonder what you make of the startup scene in and around Toronto. What are the unique pluses and minuses for startups?

If you’re doing research, research development — be it software, be it hardware — do it in Canada. There are massive tax incentives. There are massive opportunities. There’s an incredible pool of talent. Canada is the best place to do R&D hands down, whether it’s Toronto, Vancouver or Ottawa. This is the place. We stayed in North America because it has this awesome utility network and with utilities there’s a fuzzy line between who’s in Canada and who’s in the U.S. So we look at North America as one contiguous grid.

And I would say that specifically for opportunities in the United States, you have potentially stronger access to capital. For really big scaling, you go to San Francisco. For really big access to specific data intelligence expertise, you go to New York. For utility type stuff, you go to Texas. But for core R&D we stay in Canada.

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Dena Levitz is traveling to almost all of the Challenge Cup cities to cover the competition and analyze startup ecosystems around the globe. Dena joins 1776 after finishing the first…