Travelling the world often gives people the opportunity to realise the universality of the human condition, but when Joe Borza was journeying along the Mekong river in Vietnam, he noticed something else that was surprisingly similar to home.
After spotting lots of boxes arranged on poles outside houses on the river bank, he asked what they were. It turned out that they were electricity meters, but the locals were never quite sure if their estimated bills were entirely accurate or not. The lack of transparency about energy usage and bills, it seemed, was also a universal problem.
This confirmed something Borza already suspected: as an energy consultant and civil engineer, he was all too aware of how little people really understood about their energy consumption.
“Being an engineer, you’re always inquisitive as to how things work in different areas, and I would have done a lot of travelling with my wife,” Borza says. “The meter thing has been bugging me for quite a while, because every country I’ve been to has the same basic system, with a meter stuck outside a house or business, which has a number on it, and that number can be read once a year or once a month. But despite that, people often don’t have a good grasp of their usage.”
Last year, he teamed up with computer scientist Eoin Ó Fearghail to tackle the problem. In his consultancy work, Borza would input a client’s energy usage data into spreadsheets, with formulas for optimising usage and highlighting inefficiencies.
“I had previously built a system recommending phone plans for people, where you could drop your phone bill into the website and it figures out your usage patterns and recommends the cheapest plan,” says Ó Fearghail. “We figured we could combine those models, extract energy usage patterns from a customer’s bill and automate Joe’s calculations.”
The result is EnergyElephant, which grew out of Enterprise Ireland's New Frontiers programme and launched last December. The service focuses on businesses and charges an annual subscription, with clients signing up online to be given detailed feedback on energy consumption.
EnergyElephant also has a free app for monitoring energy meters. By extracting and analysing the useful information contained in energy bills, the service offers immediate insights into electricity and gas consumption, as well as recommendations about more appropriate tariffs from the various providers.
Earlier this month, Borza and Ó Fearghail won the Public Award and came overall runner-up in the Innopitch European Young Innovator of the Year competition at the the annual Unconvention event, organised by the European Young Innovators Forum, in Brussels.
“It was a surprise for us. We were absolutely delighted, especially given the level of competition,” says Borza.
As a result of that success, Borza and Ó Fearghail have been invited to join the Innotour USA exchange programme, an opportunity to explore funding options and visit accelerator programmes. Not only does the award provide a timely boost to the company, but it also suggests the time is ripe for a startup focusing on energy efficiency.
"Energy is an unsexy area to talk to people about, for sure, but it's a burgeoning area in terms of awareness of the savings and our carbon footprint," says Borza. "Recently, the Financial Times reported that about £2 billion (€2.87 billion) a year gets wasted in the UK through market apathy, basically.
“People don’t shop around for better prices. It’s the same everywhere: about 90 per cent of businesses we speak to, they’ve shopped around once, maybe three years ago, say, and then stick with the same supplier. And to be honest, it’s a confusing process, it’s never as straightforward as hearing what the price is.
“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is make the whole process much more transparent; it’s something that’s quite easy to mechanise and automate. We have the data, we know what the market prices are, and we can direct you to where you need to go.”
Currently entering the third phase of the New Frontiers programme, the company will be looking at funding opportunities to support expansion into British and European markets in the medium term, but with awareness of energy efficiency growing around the world, it is already setting its sights on territory further afield.
“Explaining energy usage to people is actually quite difficult, but the underlying model can be used anywhere in the world. The fundamentals of energy use and payment is basically the same,” Ó Fearghail says.
“There are quite a few companies addressing this problem, but an awful lot of companies are taking hardware approaches to it, getting you to install a device in your house to keep track of your energy use.
“Google had one for a while, but stopped when it didn’t get much traction. We’re trying to avoid that approach, because the hardware goes out of date so quickly, whereas if you just use software, getting people to supply the data they have access to, you can scale a lot more quickly and you can be much cheaper for the user, and much easier to set up.”
As Borza’s Vietnam anecdote reveals, offering transparency about energy use is a global commercial opportunity, with considerable room for further growth.