Fall 2017 AFRL Commercialization Academy Series: Good People Energy Technologies
Devin Morgan and Ethan Durham are the cofounders of Good People Energy Technologies. The team’s mission is to make energy savings easy, while championing stewardship of energy, communities, and human potential. Good People Energy’s product, the Phoenix Fan Controller, provides 10–30% energy savings with improved quiet and comfort. It can be added to existing small fan HVAC systems (PTACs, fan coils, split systems, etc.) to extend their useful lives. The Phoenix Fan Controller is well suited to institutions like government buildings, schools, colleges, and hospitals, as well as commercial buildings, office parks, hotels, and multi-tenant residential buildings.
What is your background in the startup world/tech industry?
Devin: I’m a patent attorney by training. I started practice in 1999 during the height of the dotcom boom. Through my day job, I became very interested in entrepreneurship and the startup world. I’ve been involved in the startup world since I started practice, supporting entrepreneurial ventures from the legal and intellectual property side. To some degree, though, I procrastinated about creating my own startup at the same time. I was really looking for the right opportunity to want to make the leap. That has finally come to pass with Good People Energy Technologies.
Ethan: Before my involvement in the tech industry, I was working with people with severe and persistent mental illness. Then I began working with my father, Art Durham — who is the inventor of the technology we’re using to build our products — at his company Opto Generic Devices, Inc. (OGD). I’ve worked with him for over a decade. I really want to see the technology grow, so we’re licensing the product from his company.
I met Devin a few years ago. As he said, we talked about creating a startup for a little bit, but the technology is the reason we finally decided to take the leap.
It seems as if it was a now-or-never moment.
Devin: It was the opportunity to build a startup using cool technology with an interesting market. Ethan is familiar with the entrepreneurial ecosystem because his dad’s company has received venture capital investment in the past.
Ethan and I reached a point where we realized there was a spinoff from what Mr. Durham’s company is doing that could make a great business. There’s also the opportunity for us to make a positive contribution to Upstate New York.
What was your motivation for creating Good People Energy Technologies?
Devin: It’s multi-faceted. There’s the personal angle in which it seemed like the right time and the right fit, as far as being a part of a cofounding team that really likes working together and has very complementary skills. There’s also the opportunity to do something mission-driven. I’ve been heavily involved in economic development for a long time, and have seen the need for more growth businesses in Upstate New York. For me, building Good People Energy is the opportunity to put my time where my thoughts have been.
In September 2016, I gave a talk at TEDx Utica on local innovation. I made the point that entrepreneurship and innovation are not limited to Silicon Valley. It can be done here in Upstate New York. I want to show that entrepreneurs can be successful in the region, so if I’m going to talk the talk, I need to walk the walk.
Ethan: I want to support my dad’s legacy, get his product innovated, and make it big; which will also support the growth of his company. There’s a mission-driven aspect as well. It resonates with me, and my father as well. When my father founded Opto Generic Devices, Inc. in Van Hornesville, New York, one of his main objectives was to provide good paying jobs to our local community, but being in the middle of Upstate New York has had its challenges. And although OGD has recently been issued two new and very broad patents, it has been going through a challenging period over the last few years. At its peak, OGD employed around forty people.
How does the name “Good People Energy” tie in with energy efficiency?
Devin: It’s energy efficiency with the bigger point of what we’re accomplishing, which is doing good with business. Part of the impetus behind this company is our observations of those who have pursued the bottom line, sacrificing valuable time and family to gain material wealth or some idea of success. This imbalance doesn’t seem to make people happier or more successful.
We went through many iterations on ideas for the name. To some degree, I think the name “Good People Energy” was our way of being upfront with people about what we’re all about, which is being good people. It’s about helping our neighbor. It’s about doing business on a human scale. We’re still very much interested in growing, but the idea of growing this company into something big — even a movement, if you will — is entirely possible. But let’s do it the right way. That’s what Good People Energy is about: let’s lead the energy-efficiency movement, but let’s do it the right way.
How did you hear about the AFRL Commercialization Academy?
Devin: The original Commercialization Academy asked me to give a talk on intellectual property to the first cohort, so I was involved with the program from its inception. I’ve been in the wings supporting a couple of the teams with either legal formation or intellectual property issues.
Interestingly, we weren’t even thinking about getting involved with the AFRL Commercialization Academy at first. It wasn’t until Ryan Miller, the director at the thINCubator, mentioned to me that it could work for Good People Energy. So, we talked to Wasabi Ventures Academy Associate Dean Michele Pesula-Kuegler about it and decided to apply.
Why did you apply to participate in the AFRL Commercialization Academy?
Devin: I’m not going to lie. Milestone-based funding is very, very appealing. We’ve had a few sales, but we’re largely pre-revenue. Getting some money in to help with our early engineering and branding costs was very exciting.
I’m also a big fan of the incubation, acceleration, and mentorship model. We have had the opportunity to have structured access to mentorship and insight to learn how to most efficiently and effectively build the company. Basically, our company is founded on licensed technology. So, we might find another valuable technology working with the Air Force Research Laboratory Information Directorate (AFRL/RI), which is entirely aligned with what we’re already doing.
What aspects of the Fall 2017 AFRL Commercialization Academy Demo Day, on November 30, 2017, are you looking forward to?
Devin: We’re excited about pitching to the hometown. We’re very much engaged with the Utica-Rome business initiative, so getting to pitch to a hometown audience is exciting. We started within our own network talking to people about what Good People Energy is, what we’re doing, our partnership with Herkimer Industries, and so forth. There are various things that we’re doing that have local impact. In some sense, this will be our first public unveiling where we’ll be pitching to a broader audience, so that’s exciting.
What kinds of companies and organizations would you like to collaborate with?
Devin: Meeting a local, values-aligned impact investor would be awesome. We’ve started the search for capital in earnest. We’re still in the seed stage, but due to our local focus — in addition to selling an energy-efficient product and being a benefit corporation — we’re a good investment. A values-aligned investor who sees what we’re doing, wants to be a mentor, and would like to be actively involved in our startup is the primary type of person we’d like to meet.
The second type of person we’d like to meet is someone interested in building energy efficiency improvements on a pilot basis with the ability to scale, whether that’s someone at the New York State housing authority, State University of New York System campuses, or the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, to name a few. I can think of a great number of folks like that who would be interesting to meet. Even at the local level, there are people responsible for municipal housing right here in Rome, NY. They would be cool contacts for us, because it’s likely that that is where our initial sales will be.
Do you have pertinent questions regarding energy efficiency and energy-saving technology? Meet Devin and Ethan at the Fall 2017 AFRL Commercialization Academy Demo Day on November 30, 2017. Then watch them pitch to compete for the chance to win either the Judges’ Vote of $15,000 or the live Audience Vote of $5,000 at Griffiss Institute, 725 Daedalian Drive, Rome, New York!