In anticipation of the Techonomy Detroit conference on September 12, we profiled six Detroit tech startups that are driving the city’s re-emergence as a center of innovation.
Detroit has become notorious as a symbol of the decline of American manufacturing, but in recent years the city’s tech start-up scene has quietly started to attract attention and generate renewed optimism. Investors like Detroit Venture Partners have sought to rebuild the city through entrepreneurship, financing successful tech-focused efforts, including web, iOS, and Android applications from a company called Detroit Labs. Detroit is now home to an outpost of TechShop, the Silicon Valley innovation incubator where people of all skill levels can use industrial tools and equipment to build their own products. Meanwhile, entrepreneurship accelerator Bizdom offers seed funding to help grow tech-based local startups.
GreenLancer Energy connects freelance renewable energy engineers with companies and contractors looking for green expertise. Since 2011, GreenLancer’s clients have included the U.S. Department of Defense, Occidental Oil, General Motors, and the U.S. Armed Forces. I spoke with co-founder and CTO Patrick McCabe about freelancing renewable energy, the Midwest’s lack of green energy experts, and Detroit’s tech scene.
What was the genesis of GreenLancer?
We’d been doing web-based design for solar electricity for several years, and by web-based I mean we were working from our computers remotely on projects all over the country. We had come up with this systematic approach, so what we did was productize our engineering services and make them available e-retail style online. The whole inspiration was that we wanted to do engineering remotely for clients on all sides of the renewable energy industry.
Talk about some of the projects you’ve worked on.
We’ve been involved in big projects all over the country, mainly in solar. We’ve also done small-scale wind projects and lighting retrofits. We’ve done solar-thermal projects, and we’re doing EV [electric vehicle] charging stations right now—solar carports. We’ve done projects in six different countries and all over the US—I think it’s 25 different states now. We provide technical sales tools for project developers, and then we also do the hard-core engineering so that installers can get the necessary permits for the build out.
What does your client base look like?
It’s typically prime contractors, meaning electrical contractors, roofing contractors, and general contractors. These are basically businesses that have the tools and the resources to do clean-tech projects, but don’t have the expertise. GreenLancer provides expertise so these clients can develop and install clean-tech projects.
Did you start GreenLancer with the intent to go national?
From our first foray into doing this web-based design, we realized that we had to diversify our market offerings, so we had to be national as opposed to local. We also knew we had to diversify the technology markets that we were in, so instead of just doing solar, we applied our engineering system to wind, geothermal, lighting retrofits, and EV charging stations. We set out with a national, scalable, kind of business model.
Are there particular regions with a more acute need for green energy expertise?
There is a vacuum right now in clean technology here in the Midwest, and nationally as well. The East and West Coasts are leading the industry, and everybody else is kind of falling behind. What GreenLancer aims to do is bridge the experts that are on the coasts—the GreenLancers, essentially—with contractors in the middle of the country that need that expertise. GreenLancer is the one site where they both can come—people can find work, and the contractors can get work done.
What about your international projects?
GreenLancer has been fortunate to bid and design projects all over the world, from a microgrid in Honduras and solar farms in Mexico to advanced military bases in Afghanistan and solar street lighting in Lebanon. The best thing about being a web-based business is the ability to attract experts from around the country to work on projects all over the world. Our GreenLancers love being able to work on big international projects from the comfort of their home offices. Being web-based has also given us the cost-competitiveness and ability to team up with these clean-tech experts to subcontract on projects for end-users like the US Department of Defense and GM, without incurring large ramp-up costs like traditional A/E firms.
What has the atmosphere been like for tech start-ups in the Detroit area?
It’s heating up right now. It’s an exciting time to be in Detroit, because it’s receiving national attention for what’s going on in the startup culture. This place has never seen this kind of activity and this kind of start-up industry. Everybody is very aware of the opportunities that are here in Detroit. It’s very cost-effective to live here, it’s very cost-effective to start a business, there’s plenty of space for people, and it’s kind of this wide-open, post-industrial city. Detroit Venture Partners and Bizdom Detroit are two of the organizations that are linchpins making this whole thing happen. This excitement, I would say, is based on those two firms setting up camp in the heart of Detroit.
Have you seen any other new companies in Detroit working on renewable energy?
Yeah we’ve got a couple clients in the Detroit area that have been doing quite well. One of them is called ZeroBase; they’ve been supplying the military with clean technology. We have another client in manufacturing that is building solar thermal panels—solar hot water—called PowerPanel. With these clients we’re helping do projects not just in Michigan, but all over the world. But Detroit’s clean tech market isn’t very healthy right now, because there’s a lack of incentive. So a company like GreenLancer, or a manufacturer, has to export its services, because there’s not a local market to sustain them. We’ve been very fortunate to be able to have a service that we can export.
For complete coverage of the September 12, 2012, Techonomy Detroit conference, click here.