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The Small Minnesota Company Behind India's Huge Cloud Project

How a 55-person business in Minnetonka developed the software solution India needed to tackle its energy problems.
The Small Minnesota Company Behind India's Huge Energy Cloud Project

Tangled power lines in Delhi.

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Pull out your world map and smack in the middle of the eastern hemisphere lies India, that colossal diamond-shaped country brimming with more than 1.2 billion people—the majority of whom are under the age of 35. Its economy is growing like gangbusters, it is now an influential member of the G20, and foreign firms have made significant investments there.

So how on earth did a little company from Minnesota land a contract there to create a cloud-based energy modeling platform that is being used as part of India’s new mandatory energy code?

“It was a perfect storm,” says John Melchert, VP of software for The Weidt Group, a 55-person software development and energy consulting company headquartered in Minnetonka, Minn.

Here’s how it happened.

Perfect timing
For one thing, The Weidt Group got its start in the 70s—and the era had much to do with the direction the company took. “The energy efficiency world took root right about the time we were founded,” says Tom McDougall, the company’s president. “The oil embargo and depletion of natural resources were concerns.”

Seeing the widespread need for energy conservation, The Weidt Group learned how to do energy modeling, which is a way of predicting how much money and energy a building can save depending on things like what kinds of lights it uses or which kind of HVAC system it installs. While it used to take weeks to do just one predictive analysis, over time the company figured out how to make its unique marriage of energy and software work to its benefit—in ways others weren’t able to do.

Using proprietary software, The Weidt Group is able to do hundreds of energy modeling predictions simultaneously in mere seconds. 

Taking advantage of government programs
The company also started helping its clients take advantage of local, state, and federal utility programs that incentivize firms to build energy-efficient buildings. As a result, The Weidt Group now does 230-250 commercial new construction projects a year in the U.S., with roughly half of those done through utility programs.

“That’s pretty big for a little company in the Midwest,” says David Eijadi, VP of energy.

The company also takes advantage of government programs itself.

For instance, it participated in an energy efficiency mission in 2009 in which the U.S. Department of Commerce took small and large businesses to India to meet with potential clients and government entities. “They opened doors that you or I would not be able to normally open,” says Prasad Vaidya, who joined the company as an energy modeler but now is part owner. “They do these missions for various different business sectors so they’re actually a great source if businesses want to look at going abroad and doing work in India or elsewhere.”

India’s energy shortage
Even before India’s economy started growing in the 90s, the country suffered from regular brownouts and blackouts. Now that business is booming, the energy shortage has been exacerbated.

“You wouldn’t believe it, but almost every commercial building in most parts of India has a backup electrical generation system because they just can’t rely on power,” says Vaidya.

The problem with all those generators, though, is they pollute the air. While India is working on improving the supply of electricity by using nuclear, renewable, and clean coal sources, it’s also trying to increase the efficiency of buildings so less energy is needed in the first place. 

How the little company delivered
Melchert explained to me that in the entire world there are probably only 3,000 to 5,000 people who do energy modeling but most of them are using legacy engines developed by the U.S. Department of Energy that are free off the Internet but also incredibly difficult to use.

India, however, in pushing through a mandatory new energy code, wanted a tool even a fifth-year architectural student could use to see if a building’s design was energy efficient before it was built.

But it’s tricky stuff.

“There is a lot of interplay between the systems of a building,” Melchert says. For example, low-energy-use lighting gives off less heat than conventional lights, so an engineer would have to compensate by adding heat, which might negate the rationale for using efficient lights. “[You can’t] just put in the best of everything and call it good. [That] can actually [result in] a poorly performing building,” he says. 

India wanted the new system to deliver complicated energy efficiency simulations via an intuitive and simple online interface.

In February The Weidt Group promised India’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency it could deliver exactly that. And in July the company followed through on its promise with ECOnirman—the whole building performance tool, a rich internet application that users can access through a browser.

The new energy modeling tool features simple tabs and fields where users can plug in data such as the dimensions of a building, the amount of windows or where the restrooms are located. If users don’t have information for a field the system uses default data so simulations can still be run.

And it can run hundreds of simulations at the same time showing users how costs and energy usage fluctuate depending on the smallest changes in design or equipment. It also lets a user save multiple building projects for review or editing at another time.

Experience was key
In a country reputed to be filled with bright minds, one might wonder why it had to outsource to a U.S. company.

Eijadi says genius isn’t enough. “You need experience as well,” he says.

In creating the ECOnirman tool for India The Weidt Group leveraged similar work it had already done for the State of Minnesota and a manufacturer of HVAC systems.

“We happen to be in the fortunate place of also having a huge amount of subject matter expertise related to energy and building and energy codes, and knowing some of the context of India,” says Vaidya.

There’s more where that came from
For other businesses looking to score business in India, Vaidya has this advice: “Generally the [businesses] that tend to be successful over there are not the ones that go and replicate their products or services for India but are able to adapt them appropriately to that context.”

“The market is huge, but it also tends to work with smaller margins and the people over there spend less money,” he adds. “But if you can make a small profit with each sale there’s a huge market over there.”

 

Last updated: Nov 11, 2011

CHRISTINA DESMARAIS

Christina DesMarais is an Inc.com contributor who writes about the tech start-up community, covering innovative ideas, news, and trends. On Google+, add her to one of your circles. Have a tip? Email her at christinadesmarais (at) live (dot) com.




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