The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation certified four Wisconsin companies for Early Stage Business Investment tax credits in late February. EASENET, a sustainable energy start-up venture co-founded by Navy veteran Jeremy Anderson that bases its operations at Bucketworks in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood, was one of the four recipients.
“Our mission as a company is to take down barriers for alternative energy sources for everybody,” said Anderson. The key here, is the word “everybody,” as EASENET is a product that goes right into people’s homes.
EASENET is an acronym, standing for Engineering a Sustainable Earth through Neighborhood Energy Technology.
“Coming from the military, acronyms are kind of second nature,” said Anderson.
Along with co-founder and EASENET chief technical officer, Matthew Traum, a professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), Anderson developed EASENET, a sustainable energy power unit for the residential market.
“Essentially, you can look at it like it’s a furnace that produces electricity as a byproduct,” said Anderson.
EASENET connects through existing natural gas lines and heats that natural gas to create syngas, a fuel gas mixture that is then converted to electricity. This both provides a home’s electricity, and also sends it back into the utility’s power grid, providing additional power during a utility’s high-cost peak times.
So what does this mean for a homeowner using EASENET?
“Your gas bill goes up 20 percent, but your electricity bill goes away completely,” said Anderson.
Since the product itself is quite pricey for the residential market, Anderson, by working with VETransfer, developed a business model based on the “cellphone model” as a way to make EASENET available to the masses. Instead of paying a high price to purchase the product outright, customers would pay EASENET the same way they would pay the utility company.
“EASENET works with the utility so that you pay EASENET and EASENET would pay the utility. If EASENET completely shut down, you would still have everything you already had,” said Anderson. “We aren’t asking (the customer) to pay more. We’re actually giving you an opportunity to pay less.”
Nick Wichert, co-founder of VETransfer, said Anderson came to VETransfer with an end goal for EASENET, and over the course of 12 weeks, they worked with Anderson back to practicality to create innovation within the business model, figuring out who the customers are, talking with customers, testing different hypothesis about the business and determining how to monetize the system.
Wichert said they went from trying to sell a $10,000 unit to giving it away for free through the type of business model they developed, making it possible to monetize the system faster than what other companies in the field have been able to do.
“The return on investment for EASENET is two to four years,” said Anderson. “But [EASENET] becomes another part of your home if you want to sell your home. In a sense, it becomes like a furnace or an air conditioner that is a part of your house.”
Both the product itself as well as the management of the product were modified and developed during Anderson’s 12 weeks working with VETransfer. Developing a “virtual utility,” a website to log into that monitors energy consumption, finds where excess is created and where it can be sold back to the grid, was part of that process.
“If it takes off, it could really change the energy industry for good,” said Wichert.
The biggest potential for change on a larger scale lies in EASENET’s capability to transition to use biomass instead of natural gas to create energy.
“(EASENET) is kind of like the (Back to the Future) idea that you throw your waste into the pot and then it processes it and drives of certain portions.” said Anderson. “And you use those portions to either supplement or completely replace the current unsustainable fossil fuels you’re already using.”
Several MSOE students, including EASENET lead engineer Chris Erickson, have worked with Anderson and Dr. Traum to engineer the technology, and a prototype is now expected to be finished in May.
The business side of the operation is also progressing. EASENET’s certification as a Qualified New Business Venture by the WEDC was announced on Feb. 26. This makes investors in the company eligible for a 25 percent tax credit, now at $85,000, but the potential is there for the tax credit to be up to a $2 million.
Chris Schiffner, the technology and investment manager in the WEDC’s division of entrepreneurship and innovation, said for this type of certification, they’re looking for innovative, high-tech business with the opportunity for rapid job and revenue growth and something with potential for national and global markets, something the WEDC saw in EASENET.
“At this point, there’s nothing on a residential level that compares to this,” said Schiffner.
In addition to being certified as a Qualified New Business Venture by the WEDC and working with VETransfer, Anderson is working with a new California non-profit called Vetstarter, which is a crowd-funding platform – not unlike Kickstarter – for service disabled veterans.
“We really think distributed energy is the future for America and the future for homeowners,” said Anderson. “I think a lot of people are starting to see that now.”