Iowa smart building business aims to be Trojan horse for energy efficiency

Welcome back from the weekend, readers. The director of marketing for Igor, a Des Moines, Iowa-based smart building business, has been named a rising leader by an industry trade publication. I spoke with Kim Johnson about the honor. “When you have a job you love and a team that is supportive and open to your ideas, it's really quite easy to be successful,” she said.  I’ll have more from Johnson and Igor Founder and CTO Dwight Stewart — including their new product funded by a COVID-19 assistance investment — after today’s tech headlines.

🤖 ROBOTS: A rechargeable electric autonomous disinfecting vehicle underwent testing at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as a way to combat the novel coronavirus. Connected technology allows the robot to navigate, and it uses sensors and electrostatic technology to spray disinfectant into the air; the disinfectant then sticks to surfaces it lands upon. New Hudson, Michigan-based Pratt Miller developed the robot through a partnership with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and PlanetM.

Autonomous disinfecting vehicle image via Pratt Miller.

💰 FUNDING: Ag tech platform Farmer’s Business Network closed a $250 million Series F funding round, which it will use to further invest in technologies that improve farmers’ profitability and sustainability. The business headquarters is in California and its Farmer Experience arm is located in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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👩‍💻 TRAINING: Mars Solutions Group launched in Waukesha, Wisconsin, to provide training and resources for women who want to restart their careers in technology, reports the Milwaukee Business Journal. The first cohort begins September 1.

💻 VIRTUAL EVENTS: The U.S. Department of Energy has transitioned its in-person event about research and development partnership opportunities to a series of webinars. Thursday’s session is about additive manufacturing and next week’s session focuses on the DOE Technology Commercialization Fund.

Now back to Igor, an Internet of Things business that works to make buildings smarter and more energy efficient. The platform “brings all pieces together” for designing and controlling systems that “work well for people and the planet,” said Kim Johnson, director of marketing, recently named to the LEDs Magazine 40 Under 40 list.

GOALS: Building owners often investigate energy efficiency solutions for cost savings rather than for environmental reasons. In addition, some building owners who are trying to increase sustainability opt for the cheapest solutions, which aren’t necessarily the ones that provide the best quality. Igor tries to meld those factors. “When you sell energy efficiency directly, only so many people care… We focus on energy efficiency as more of a Trojan horse: We create value by driving the digital transformation of the [customer’s] business,” said CTO Dwight Stewart.

KEY CHALLENGE: Although lighting controls are at the heart of Igor’s business, lighting also has significant life safety implications and must function in emergencies, Johnson said. Therefore, an installed system and all of its elements — the platform and sensors, for example — need to be high quality and function properly at all times. “It needs to be extremely robust, certified, and tested. People cannot take risks on whether it works or not,” she said.

ON BEING MIDWEST BASED: “It takes more effort to raise funding being a Midwestern-based company,” Johnson said. While Chicago’s size helps it stand out among Midwest cities, startups in other Midwest cities find more barriers to getting comparable funding and traction to those on the coasts. “It’s difficult to get eyes and attention to an Iowa company,” Stewart said. “We were fortunate and raised quite a bit of money in Iowa, but it is a lot of work compared to the story I hear from other places.”

SUPPORT NETWORK: Part of the assistance came from an investment from the Clean Energy Trust. CET received funding from the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2) to help cleantech startups affected by COVID-19. Igor received some of that funding to develop and launch a new product that automatically disinfects rooms without human assistance. Stewart says the CET support was especially helpful for networking and mentorship opportunities.

“I think mentorship is incredibly important. I underutilized that in the past and today I value a lot more. I advocate highly for others to find a way to get a mentor,” he said.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE: Stewart sees big potential in connecting building systems to renewable-powered microgrids to create net-zero buildings and have buildings generate power.

“People aren't there yet, but our technology is a path to get your building there. Even if you’re not ready to invest in renewable generation on site, if you invest with us you can add renewables later. You’ll get a lot of data manageability with energy loads and curtailing energy use based on energy grid demand and peak hours. There is a tremendous amount of flexibility in the platform, not only today but also for future microgrids,” Stewart said.

Igor recently launched a data center platform solution, is launching a healthcare solution focused on senior living facilities, and continues to devise bundles for specific industries.

Let me know Midwest tech entrepreneurs or thought leaders I should feature in Centered. Reach out with news tips, press releases, and feedback via email to katie@centered.tech or connect on LinkedIn and Twitter @centereddottech.


Centered is a publication of the Energy News Network, in partnership with the Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation and mHUB.