Incubating an Eco-Business
December 14, 2012
Residents in Upstate New York spend a higher percentage of their income on heating costs than any other region in the United States. Most can't afford to or just won't invest a mere $50 in small electrical upgrades that will improve efficiency, even if the LED light bulbs, power strips, or space heaters would pay for themselves in savings within just five months. Tristan Morris M.E.M.'13 went searching for a solution to this problem for his undergraduate engineering thesis at Cornell University and found what later became the basis for a startup, Cirquility, that he launched through the Tuck School of Business' Barris Incubator Program over the summer.
"It is impossible to get financing for an individual for this sort of cheap project, let alone a town," says Morris. "It occurred to me if I had a bank I could give these people a $50-dollar loan and charge interest, billing them over an extended period of time."
Incidentally, that venture led to an unexpected twist, a new company called EcoLight, that last month landed him an account with the Thayer School to upgrade the incandescent bulbs in Cummings Hall.
Morris first incorporated his business plan for homeowners and small business owners in the Upper Valley region as part of his ENGG 390 M.E.M. Project with Director of the M.E.M. Program Robert Graves and further developed Cirquility from the basement of the Whittemore Building.
With funds from Peter Barris T'77, the Barris Incubator program supports and facilitates startups at Tuck and throughout Dartmouth for a semester, and longer when granted. Each semester three teams of students receive financial support, an office space, entrepreneurial guidance from the school's professors, experts and regional investors, as well as the opportunity to regularly present their progress to professors. Additionally, they are required to participate in a business plan competition.
With two undergraduate economics students, Ben Townsend '13 and Miles Gay '13, Morris placed first in the categories of Best Business Pitch and Best Elevator Pitch at the prestigious Rice Business Plan Competition, earning $2,500.
Cirquility went on to replace the incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs at two area homes and four businesses, including the Canoe Club on Main Street in Hanover. "Just from upgrading to LED bulbs, a typical mid sized upscale restaurant could save $50,000 a year, while a pizzeria upgrading from fluorescent tubes might save $10,000," says Morris.
But the most important thing he took from the Barris Incubator Program he heard over and over again from Tuck professors.
"They all told me that homeowners and small businesses are different customer types so you should specialize in one or the other," says Morris. "They said you have to specialize in doing something—you can't be everything to everyone."
By the end of the summer Morris realized there was more money in updating LED light bulbs, power strips, or space heaters at larger institutions and factories. He left Cirquility, which Townsend took over, and instead took a semester off to start EcoLight, which much like Cirquility, helps avoid upfront costs and risks by providing and warranting energy efficient upgrades, only for large firms instead of small businesses and homeowners. Last month EcoLight's first client became Thayer School. Morris, who has an office on Oak Ridge Road in Lebanon, will upgrade all the lighting on the first, second, and third floors of Cummings Hall from incandescent to LED bulbs. He plans to run EcoLight for at least four years, at which time federal regulations will ban old inefficient systems and all upgrades will be complete.
"The Barris Incubator taught me the only way to learn is to do," says Morris. "Just knowing that I had to present my progress in a week was the best incentive to knuckle down and get my business running."