Ivy Exec spoke with BlocPower Co-Founder Morris Cox, and Chief Engineering Officer Tooraj Arvajeh, to learn about the company’s business expansion plans.
BlocPower’s programs support and improve the lives of residents, building owners, and workers in underserved communities and are working to reduce and eventually eradicate poverty in the country’s biggest cities. In New York City, a city of almost 8.5 million people, roughly 20% of the population is living in poverty – a staggering statistic that isn’t even considered among the worst (Detroit at 39% and Cleveland at 32%).
Even so, supporting these communities is a difficult and sometimes grueling task, and initiatives need to be concerned with the combined onslaught of social, environmental, and economic factors that contribute to inequality and poverty. All three factors are important and one – sustainability – is emerging as a major focus of the city’s administration as they vow to lessen poverty drastically within the next few years. BlocPower, a Brooklyn based startup, is up for the challenge.
The company “markets and finances portfolios of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies to churches, schools, small businesses, nonprofits, and multifamily buildings in underserved American inner cities.” BlocPower connects pools of institutional, impact, and individual capital (investors etc.) to sustainability projects found in these communities and trains unemployed locals to install and support the resulting projects.
How Was BlocPower Founded?
Morris: Donnel Baird, our CEO, had the initial idea for the company from his experiences as a Community Organizer in neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, Crowne Heights, and Brownsville etc. and from relationships that he built during his tenure with Obama for America. He was consulting with the U.S. Department of Energy – more specifically on a 6 billion dollar stimulus directed to improve the energy efficiency in commercial buildings.
During this time, Donnel received a call from a pastor asking him how he could apply to receive some of this stimulus capital for a church in a low income community within NYC. From this conversation, and resulting work, he was able to secure funding for the church to receive a retrofit but uncovered a bigger problem – social impact sustainability programs had a difficult time staying afloat because of the amount that inefficient energy systems strain budgets. He saw a business idea and brought me on as Co-Founder for this new business.
That said, we knew the simple ROI. If we could support these individuals with a $15,000 upfront investment, they could save $30,000+ down the line by avoiding larger maintenance bills for faulty insulation, lights, etc. Simple changes could make a big difference.
We worked to land a contract with the Department of Energy to jumpstart our business. We’ve effectively marketed and financed an online portfolio of renewable energy and technology projects, sourced engineering needs from within the community, and connected these with investors looking for social, environmental, and financial returns. We found that there is plenty of capital for these projects out there. The issue is that upfront engineering costs were too high and we needed to ensure that costs were kept low to support the viability of the projects.
How Does BlocPower’s Business Process Work?
Morris: Let’s say you’re a church in the Bronx and you understand that your boiler is old and needs to be changed. You have two worries – 1. How do you pay for the new boiler and 2. How do you avoid overpaying? Typically, one of the first steps is to hire an engineering firm to do an assessment on your property. This firm can figure out how much money you would save and potentially service a loan with the savings.
Very few entities in low income communities can afford hiring an engineering firm. We feel that, that instead of sending an expensive engineer on-site to collect information on environmental systems, that we can instead use publicly available data (building dimensions, equipment data, etc.) combined with energy bill data and sensor data to calculate the cost and savings. We’ve developed a proprietary algorithm using this public data and we recommend engineering upgrades, the finances involved, and then we are able to match the client with the most relevant/cost effective partner to implement.
More simply, we exist to broker the deal between engineering services and customers that have no way to pay for these services. We also use some of our market power to create local jobs as well. We try to hire local members of the community to do some of our work – we try to create financial, environmental, and social returns.
Tooraj: The mission here is for us to provide engineering services and clean energy solutions to a market that typically doesn’t have access. We’re not trying to “disrupt” an industry – more like create a new market opportunity. We want to help people that have not had the chance to leverage the new clean tech innovation and clean energy.
Tell Us About BlocPower’s Growth as a Company
Morris: We are growing quite a lot right now – just won a multiyear contract with the New York Mayor’s Office of Sustainability to retrofit small multifamily buildings in Brooklyn and Queens. Our goal is to source and complete up to 500 – 2,000 multifamily building retrofit projects in an area where the local utility needs to reduce electricity consumption to support aging grid infrastructure. We will hire mechanical and computer engineers to support our algorithm with the ultimate goal of driving the cost of energy down to nearly zero. Eventually, the goal is to create a process where our engineers can predict these numbers remotely. We recently brought on a CTO to help with this work, and he’s been instrumental in transitioning our proprietary algorithm and analytics from excel to python and an accompanying SQL database. We have capital coming in to access projects and get them to market – we’ll be hiring sales, operations, and finance personnel as well.
Our long term plan is to expand to other cities beyond New York like Chicago, Boston, and D.C.
What are the Growth Challenges for Your Company?
Morris: Our biggest challenge will be developing these upcoming projects and expanding our tech enabled service platform to other cities – without investing in boots on the ground. Building local relationships in those cities will also be a challenge.
What Factors are Top of Mind When you Hire Leaders?
Morris: I think it depends on the department here – but really important is having the ability to work with a diverse team. Also, one of the things that we look for, is a willingness to use skills sets to break through barriers and solve problems for customers. One example is our new CTO. Jamil previously worked at HBO, focusing on the HBO Go/HBO Now apps. He worked specifically on the capability of different sets of hardware like the Amazon Fire Stick to support HBO’s software and the video streaming coming to/from the app. In our business, we use have to ensure the different sets of hardware like the sensors we install can support data transmission from the customer’s building to our database and into our proprietary algorithm. Because of the work Jamil and Tooraj have done, we also have a great new partnership with IBM Spark. It’s very hard to find people as talented as Jamil and Tooraj who can apply their skills across multiple disciplines (hardware, software, mechanical engineering) to do things like this. It took us a long time to find the right CTO because we needed to go beyond the raw technical skills and focus just as much on their commitment to do whatever it takes to make sure the customers are served and that the product works.
Tooraj: For me, the biggest factor is really whether or not they can build their own teams. Because, for innovation to occur, we need to think laterally across different disciplines. Given BlocPower’s diversity, leaders should not expect to be in their own silos but must think about how they can integrate into other disciplines.
What Makes BlocPower a Great Place to Work For?
Tooraj: It’s such a huge list for me and difficult to narrow. I would say that the people that I work with would be a big part. That said – In any organization, when you look at job satisfaction, a big part of being satisfied comes from three things: 1. The people that you work with, 2. The type of tasks that you deliver and 3. The type of purpose the organization has. I feel that BlocPower hits all three of these elements.