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Emergent: How to create a profitable green energy company

   /   Dec 22nd, 2010Business, Environment, Interviews

The Emergent Energy Group was founded in the basement of a Tufts University dorm, and the founders, Jayson Uppal and Jesse Gossett, got their first consulting contract before they got bachelor’s degrees. By 2009 Business Week had named them among the nation’s top young entrepreneurs. Emergent Energy Group helps communities, individuals, and businesses assess their resources so that they can implement cost-effective renewable energy technologies.  Here, Dowser talks with the 25-year-old Uppal about being a young entrepreneur and running a profitable business with a green mission.

Dowser: What are the latest innovations in green energy?
Uppal: The solar energy space is seeing the most innovation right now. The focus has been on both increasing the technology’s efficiency while reducing costs. Thanks to cost reductions on the manufacturing side combined with lower demand during the recession, we have seen a 50 percent price drop over the past two years, making solar energy quite actively sought out.

Are you working on projects dealing with solar energy space?

The lowering cost of solar technology along with a strong incentive program here in Massachusetts has actually led us to focus on solar projects. We have found that municipalities, universities, and businesses can actually reduce their energy costs by producing electricity on site with solar panels. For example, we are working with Anna Maria College in Paxton Massachusetts to implement a solar facility that would power most or all of their campus.

How is Emergent different from other energy-consulting firms?
Most firms work on the side of the financier and construction company to determine what would be the most lucrative financial structure for the financier and construction company. We work on the side of the host town, business, or university, and bid out the project. This creates a competitive landscape in which the financier and construction companies must offer fair pricing to secure the project, ensuring the host is getting the best deal possible.

Has age played a role in your experience as a social entrepreneur?
Age absolutely plays a role. It goes both ways. On one hand, many potential clients are immediately skeptical of our capabilities. We therefore take professionalism very seriously, and we work hard to ensure that our work is of the highest possible quality. On the other hand, many seasoned entrepreneurs are more than willing to help us find our way. We have found a number of amazing mentors and advisers who are willing to help us through the learning curve of being an entrepreneur.

Why did you decide to go into green energy?
I’ve always had a passion for environmentalism. But it goes beyond that. I want to solve one of humanity’s biggest problems right now: limited resources.  We need to get back to a point where we can sustain our economy for thousands of years and not just the next few. Fortunately, we’re in a better position then in the past to do so because of technology.

What were the toughest issues you faced in starting the business?
Being young was for sure the biggest hurdle. Besides having to work especially hard to appeal to funders and clients alike and maintain a high level of professionalism, we also had to realize that nobody on the team had any knowledge of business practices. We improvised as we went along, which had its benefits but was also really tough. It taught us the importance of learning from mistakes, and then being able to rebuild quickly after the inevitable mistakes were made.  One example of that is that Emergent quickly grew to six employees. Frankly, our problem was that we didn’t have a concrete enough business model at the time to sustain those six people.  We had to learn to find a balance between growth and financial limitations.

What would you like Emergent to be known for in 10 years? What’s your strategy for getting there?
Jesse and I are fundamental believers that we have an opportunity to redefine how we produce and consume energy. Rapidly improving renewable energy technology makes it financially lucrative for us to harness our own resources. By keeping control on a community level, we have the opportunity to drive local economic development through cost savings, stability, and a new source of revenue. In ten years, we hope to have realized this vision.

We have been working on the past six months to develop a comprehensive community energy implementation plan for cities and towns in Massachusetts. Through this process, we hope to set a clear path for our communities to reduce their overhead costs, become energy independent, and attract new businesses and industry through the implementation of renewable energy. We already have two pilot communities lined up that we hope to begin work on in the spring.

Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs?

If you have a passion and you think you have a good idea for a business, do it. There’s no better time to start than in or right out of school; you have nothing to lose. Right now is great too because of the job market how it is. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I’ve learned more the last three years than at any other point in my life. Even if I left tomorrow, I’ve learned the most incredible fundamentals that will help me professionally in whatever I do, and I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo: Emergent Energy Group

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