Turn off the lights: Helping local sports clubs save energy

We sit down with the Brisbane based startup eSwitch founder Glenn Van Duikeren and talk about how he’s helping the Queensland Government to encourage physical activity and how his remote field lights switching system is helping sports clubs save money.

Glenn Van Duikeren

Glenn has been involved in Advance Queensland’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, working on a challenge put forward by the Department of National Parks, Sport and Racing to identify flexible, sustainable and cost efficient next-generation lighting solutions for community field-based sports venues. He’s been working with the Department to develop Bright Sport which will enable emerging sport organisations to search and pay for available floodlit green space with their smartphones.

How did eSwitch start? 
I’ve been in sports lighting installations for almost a decade now. So in doing that, I’ve worked closely with the committee members of local clubs, from a project management perspective, and I quickly got to know the challenges they face trying to manage their lighting systems. 
 
Energy bills are a club’s single biggest expense. Basically the lights get used too much. Clubs find that lights accidentally get left on overnight, maybe coaches and players head to the carpark and talk strategy for Saturday’s game and then drive off without turning the lights off. Or a lot of people turn the lights on too early, they get to practice at 4.00pm and turn the lights on so they don’t have to go back to the switch board when it gets dark.
 
How did you think your eSwitch control system?
It was a slow process developing this system — but it was a bit of a lightbulb moment when I decided, ‘hey you know what? I am going to give this a go’.

Who has been crucial in getting you this far? 
Probably one of the biggest drivers has been my father, who is an electronic specialist. He’s retired now but he worked for Telstra for 40 odd years. To have access to someone like that, who is so experienced in electronics, is a godsend because I didn’t have the capital there to be able to invest, to pay a separate company to go over my ideas and assess the feasibility.

Finding my software developer also helped me land on my feet, the guys who can write code like he can are very hard to come across at a decent price. My wife Sarah, who is in public relations, has also helped me to commercialise the business and get it out there. So while eSwitch is a very small outfit, I have a lot of support.
 
What challenges have you faced?
When you’re trying to market a product that is extremely high tech and not very well understood, and you’re trying to market it to a not-for-profit organisation that’s run by a committee that is very tight on money, it can be difficult to convince them that they need this product.
 
The main driver for our product is to help sports clubs and associations save money on their power bills, while generating an additional income by sharing their lit facilities, but obviously they have got to spend money to make it.

It’s not just one person who makes this decision like perhaps it would be in the private sector; it’s a very hard target market to try and make a sale to. We’re building relationships with clubs, it’s a slow process that we’re putting a lot of effort into at this stage. Having said that, we are slowly getting referrals from club-to-club, they’ve had eSwitch installed and they’re saving a considerable amount of money, so word gets around.
 
We’re making it possible for clubs to save money. If you understand the way some of these clubs work, they’re running on hot-dog and canned drinks sales from the canteen on a Saturday to be able to afford new goal posts. So we’re creating the opportunity for them to save money and prosper, and that will ultimately create more opportunities for Queenslanders to participate in sport.

What excites you about working in Queensland?
Lately, the innovation coming out of Queensland, with things like Advance Queensland and SBIR, you can clearly see the dedication to innovation, and I think it is really encouraging people and businesses to think differently and take a different direction.
 
Technology is moving so fast worldwide and it’s great to see that some really great work is being done in Queensland, whether it be medical research, software, robotics, the stuff that we’re doing — it’s a good place to be at the moment. 
 
Can you tell me about the Queensland Government’s problem you have been working to solve?
It’s got a pretty long title: identify flexible, sustainable, cost efficient, next generation sports lighting solutions. It’s all about looking at the end goal, which is to get more Queenslanders to participate in physical activity when it suits them. There are numerous constraints, not the least of which is our geographical location — despite being the Sunshine State, we’ve got less hours of daylight in Queensland than other states. This, combined with population growth and a growing number of new team sports, is placing more pressure on lit sporting venues. 
 
What we are aiming to do with Bright Sport is assist the Queensland Government in achieving the end goal, by developing a web-based platform that allows people to identify play and training opportunities, and our system will take care of the administrative side of things. 
 
While the Queensland Government is committed to activating new spaces and developing new facilities to meet increasing demand, the Bright Sport program will work hand in hand with this objective to enable better use of the existing facilities as well.

How is the project going?
It’s going really well, our contract is a feasibility study, but it’s a little bit unique. We are actually developing a software program and delivering a small pilot at selected venues. This involves installing our eSwitch hardware and software, and interfacing this with Bright Sport.
 
We’re almost finished the first revision of the software for the Bright Sport platform, and we’ll be testing that soon. So far we have installed the eSwitch hardware at two of the four pilot sites — Townsville Sports Reserve and Gold Park in Toowoomba. We hope to finalise the remaining two pilot venues and have them up and running in the next month or so.
 
 It’s a little bit unique what we are doing, but that’s the beauty of the SBIR concept — the challenge owner casts out the bait and they never really know exactly what solutions they’ll receive, and ours is just a little bit different.
 
How have you found working with the Queensland Government? 
It’s been different, but in a good way though. Being a small startup you tend to be very nimble and you can make decisions really fast and there is less impact; whereas the Government has a much more structured approach to decision making. Although it has required patience, it is also very thorough and strategic and this has taught me a lot.
 
Working with government has changed the way I do things, I take more time to look at strategy and it’s enabled my decisions to have a greater effect, rather than just being a little bit crazy all the time.

What advice would you give other companies considering applying for SBIR? 
Really educate yourself on all aspects of the challenge, look past the challenge to the end goal and base your application on that. Treat the whole exercise as an opportunity to showcase your ideas to a panel of important people within the industry.
 
As much as it may be time consuming, and you do tend to put a lot of time into your application, because of how the SBIR application is structured it’s a really valuable exercise in creating a bit of a framework in how you will transition from a pilot to commercialisation.
 
Even if our application had not been successful, through the application process we effectively underwent an advanced form of business planning, so it’s been an educational process for us and I think most companies would get a lot out of that.

Do you have a message for Queenslanders who might have an idea or a passion?
If you think you’ve got something that you think can make a difference, and you truly believe in it, back yourself and find the best people to present your idea to, research funding opportunities, and try to stick it out for the long run rather than just throwing in the towel and moving on to something else.
 
Be patient, learn patience. The media would honestly have us believe that Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk are overnight billionaires, they are not, they have been working on what they have created for years, decades even; and it’s not overnight success it’s about years of effort.
 
What is next for eSwitch?
I think we’ve only just scratched the surface with what we’ve developed as part of this project. I’d truly love to develop Bright Sport into an opportunity maker for physical activity, a network of facilities so individuals can find a court to play tennis, or a field for footy, or a flood lit park for training. I’ve also got a couple of other ideas that I’ll keep close to my chest for now.

Applications for the Small Business Innovation Research program 
Round 2
are open until 25 September 2017!

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