Assessing the microgrid market: Fuqua students get “out of the building”

by:  Nancy Fechnay, MEM/MBA ’14; Aaron Gress MBA ’14; Lisa Huber, MEM/MBA ’14, and Mark McDonald, MBA ’14

There is no substitute for the real world as a learning laboratory. For the second consecutive year, Duke’s Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment (EDGE) partnered with ’05 Fuqua alumnus Paul Straub of Claremont Creek Ventures (CCV) to provide Fuqua students with a unique mentored study opportunity to work in the cleantech venture industry.  The focus of the project was to investigate the microgrid market, and to propose a growth strategy for one of Claremont Creek’s startup portfolio companies.  This company, called Blue Pillar, offers an IT solution to help clients manage their critical distributed energy assets.  The Fuqua team of Nancy Fechnay, Mark McDonald, Lisa Huber, and Aaron Gress assessed Blue Pillar’s current offering and provided recommendations on other industry verticals where their product may meet an urgent customer need.

Straub, employing Steve Blank’s Lean Launchpad mantra, encouraged the team to “get out of the building” to test its hypothesis about attractive industry verticals.  The team took his advice by traveling to CCV’s headquarters to meet with the venture firm’s partners, and then connecting with Blue Pillar’s entrepreneurs, current clients, and industry experts.  These experiences were instrumental in understanding CCV’s vision, comprehending Blue Pillar’s value proposition, gathering and assessing client feedback, and ultimately providing a rigorous recommendation for Blue Pillar.

Project Launch in Oakland

Visiting CCV’s offices helped the team understand how the firm evaluates its investment in Blue Pillar.  Paul explained that for Blue Pillar to generate the returns necessary for venture capital investors it would have to achieve repeatable, scalable sales in multiple industries.  So while the start-up was thinking about meeting the needs of the next customer, CCV was looking towards the needs of the next industry; the perfect task for a Fuqua mentored study project.

Understanding Blue Pillar’s Core Competency in Indianapolis

A visit with entrepreneur Brad Witter and CEO Kevin Kushman in Indianapolis helped the team appreciate Blue Pillar’s core competency.  The company differentiated itself through asset agnostic connections, quick installations, and the incorporation of new assets to reduce current and future administrative costs for the client.  This was a disruptive offering to an industry accustomed to waiting up to 10 months for a customized enterprise system that matched purchasers to diesel generator manufacturers and required additional maintenance, and billing, for each new asset addition.  The Blue Pillar team was passionate about their work as “duct tape programmers” listening closely to the client and adapting their energy management solution to meet the client’s needs.

Current Customer Feedback at Duke Med

Blue Pillar’s IT solution for connecting distributed energy assets to a single dashboard for easy monitoring and compliance reporting was already extremely successful at several hospitals around the country, including Duke University Medical Center, a short walk from the Fuqua School of Business.  The team was fortunate enough to visit Monte Brown, the CIO of Duke University Medical Center, for a conversation and tour of the medical campus facilities.  Dr. Brown noted that Blue Pillar’s consolidated reports functionality helped him comply with Joint Commission Standards with just one click.  This feedback helped us understand the value realized by customers and allowed us to hypothesize about Blue Pillar’s transition from a niche start-up to an fast-growth company.

Engaging Industry Practitioners

After understanding CCV’s investment thesis, Blue Pillar’s competency, and client feedback we hit the phones to test our hypothesis with industry experts, business development managers, facilities managers, CIOs and COOs.  Getting a Fortune 500 manager on the phone can be a daunting task, but the Fuqua alumni network is remarkably expansive and responsive.  The majority of our emails led to phone calls within a week!  After discussing the latest Duke news, we explored how they currently managed their energy assets, and what challenges they faced.  Based on this assessment, we prioritized industry verticals where demand for new energy asset management solutions was most likely.

An insight often referenced by entrepreneurs is Mike Tyson’s quote, “everyone has a plan against me, until they get punched.”  With CCV and Blue Pillar’s guidance, the team was immersed in the marketplace and gained valuable insights into Blue Pillar’s potential growth opportunities.  Getting “out of the building” and working with other professionals on real world opportunities was a unique – and uniquely satisfying – learning experience.


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One Response to Assessing the microgrid market: Fuqua students get “out of the building”

  1. Pingback: The importance of getting out of the classroom « Claremont Creek Ventures

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