How SaLisa Berrien leads the 'Lyft of energy'
This 12-part series highlights women-led ventures in the green economy.
I first met SaLisa Berrien in 2016 at an engineering conference, where her winning attitude and tenacity were infectious. I’ve encountered thousands of high-growth clean energy startups. Listened to a gazillion pitches. Something was different about what Berrien was offering. It wasn’t the latest university commercialization or a spin-off from a national lab. It wasn’t the result of a 24-hour hackathon. It wasn’t, as so many products and services in the cleantech startup space are, a solution looking for a problem.
An electricity industry-veteran, Berrien has spent the past 25-plus years driving engineering and business development for leading companies. The impressive list includes PPL, PECO Energy, Con Edison Solutions, EnerNOC, Enbala, and Wipro EcoEnergy. What Berrien observed — from utilities to big data analytics firms — was that the No. 1 rule in business was being ignored by the electricity sector: it’s all about the customer.
“Electricity providers were asking for a simplified and integrated solution to manage grid assets efficiently,” Berrien explained. And the solutions available in the marketplace either were addressing one aspect of energy efficiency in an isolated manner or offering a very complicated and expensive solution. In addition, electricity providers were not engaging with customers in a serious way — in a way that is expected in today’s world of customer interaction that e-commerce, social media and other internet- or app-based companies offer.
Berrien’s time at EnerNOC pre-IPO gave her a passion to work in a startup environment, so Berrien sought out to solve this customer problem by launching COI Energy.
"COI Energy creates a climate-friendly world by enabling low cost, clean and flexible energy resources with the COI Optimizer platform for utilities and business customers [such as Tampa Electric]," reads a company slide deck. COI Energy is like Lyft for the electricity sector — it's a platform that manages a fleet of renewable energy and energy efficiency assets, allowing for the monetization of each asset when called upon.
The COI Optimizer unlocks the power of energy assets in the building to generate cash. The optimizer is an integrated hardware-software solution that combines the following four modules: OptimizeDR (Demand Response), OptimizeEE (Energy Efficiency), OptimizeRE (Renewable Energy), and OptimizeIN (Incentives and Rebates). Together, these four modules enable clean, low cost and flexible energy resources to improve the performance of the electric grid. The hardware assembly provides two-way communication enabling real-time data collection with manual and automated control functionality.
COI Energy’s secret sauce is its artificial intelligence and machine-learning algorithm that offers usage insights and predictive analytics around the energy assets in the building and allows the monetization of those resources. The energy assets include renewable energy (such as solar coupled with battery storage), energy efficiency (such as LED lights) and demand response (such as production equipment).
“Whatever excess capacity you have in a building, you can sell that capacity back to make the grid more reliable,” Berrien elucidated. Utilities can search by specific geographic area, review available energy assets and turn assets on or off to support the grid. On average, only 5 percent of a utility’s customer base takes advantage of demand response programs; COI Energy’s solution allows for a greater uptake. It is projected that six times more customers could engage in the programs after the solution is implemented. By using the COI Optimizer, customers can enhance the grid by:
- Understanding what energy resources work and at what time
- Drawing upon more clean resources from behind the meter
- Promoting technologies such as battery storage to get customers to manage peak demand
COI Energy’s solution enables better integration of renewable energy on the grid and more efficiency in the energy system; as such, it helps solve climate change. Buildings account for close to 40 percent of energy consumption in the U.S. and remain largely powered by fossil fuels. Customers could save on average 18 to 30 percent in energy consumption by fully engaging with the COI Energy platform, thereby reducing their carbon footprint.
Energy efficiency is also an economic engine, supporting about 2 million jobs nationwide in manufacturing, construction and other fields — most of which cannot be outsourced overseas. COI Energy is one of the growing number of companies offering efficiency services and enabling renewable energy. With five full-time employees and three part-time employees, COI Energy is at the early stages of building out its workforce.
Most positions at COI Energy require at least a bachelor’s degree and five years of experience; however, most staff members have at least a post-graduate degree (MBA, Ph.D) and 10 years of experience. For the software developers, having specific experience in machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) is key. For business developers, COI Energy looks for a technical sales background, preferably with experience selling to utilities. Most of the current staff engineers at COI Energy came to work there from the University of South Florida’s Master of Science in Business Analytics and Information Systems (BAIS) program. Most were hired as interns before beginning full-time work.
COI Energy’s biggest obstacle right now is the need to move faster. "We need to bring resources in-house," said Berrien. COI’s main goal in raising an investment round of around $2 million will be to hire more full-time employees.
Berrien remarked, "Women typically have to break glass ceilings, climb over walls and push open doors to get to the table. We developed our confidence by overcoming each barrier put before us." Berrien believes it is her job to create a seat at the table "because there is no time to wait for someone to pull out the chair." One of the biggest obstacles that women-led startups face is raising funds from venture capital firms, Berrien noted.
"Many say it’s not worth our time of day since very few women get funded," she said. "I believe this is just another barrier that determination, tenacity, optimism and favor are needed to overcome."