Not all technology companies grow from scientific genius. Some come simply from finding new applications for existing technologies -- just ask Joseph Sloan.

His inspiration? Those debit fare cards used in subways in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., which are sold in flexible denominations for flexible numbers of trips. Why not, Sloan wondered, use the pay-ahead-of-time concept for electric meters and have people buy their electricity before they use it, the same way they buy gasoline and food?

As general manager of an electricity cooperative in Minnesota, Sloan's incentive was the prospect of up-front cash and the elimination of bad debt. Consumers would get more information on their electricity use -- and have increased incentive to conserve.

The debit-card devices, called PowerStats, were developed for CIC Systems, in Brentwood, Tenn., by staff members of Sloan's co-op and financial partner Kansas Gas & Electric. Fifty-three utilities nationwide and about a half dozen foreign countries to date have participated in the development and the testing of the devices.

-- Leslie Brokaw