Langone MBAs fight to win $300K Challenge with energy startup GridSpire

On May 4 the winners of the $300K Entrepreneur’s Challenge will be crowned. Held annually by NYU Stern’s W.R. Berkley Innovation Labs, this year’s Challenge involves over 600 members of the global NYU community. The Challenge is composed of three separate tracks: The New Venture, the Social Venture, and the Technology Venture Competitions. The New Venture Competition aims to help NYU-based entrepreneurs take a business from idea to market, with winners sharing a $100,00 prize. The second competition, the Social Venture Competition, is focused on start-ups aimed at solving pressing social issues. Winners of the Social Venture Competition receive a $75,000 prize to help launch their venture.  The final competition is the Technology Venture Competition, where teams compete for a $100,00 prize to fund their venture in cutting-edge technology start-ups. 12 winning teams from the three tracks are heading into the finals for the ultimate win.

GridSpire, founded last fall by first-year Langone MBA candidates Edward Hill and Cameron Yeh, has advanced to the final round of the Social Venture Competition. GridSpire aims to revolutionize the world of clean energy finance, allowing investors to deploy their capital across clean energy and energy efficiency projects that may be locked out of traditional financing venues.

GridSpire was an idea that Hill had in mind prior to his admission to Stern. He was drawn to NYU in part because of the plethora of resources it offers budding entrepreneurs, especially the W.R. Berkley Innovation Center and their Entrepreneurship Challenge.

Hill has had a longstanding interest and professional background in clean energy innovation.

“When I first moved to New York City, I attended a number of events hosted by the Urban Future Lab, an incubator at NYU Tandon School of Engineering that supports clean energy start-ups” he said. “In learning about the community at NYU focused on entrepreneurship and sustainability, I knew that NYU was the right place for me to pursue an entrepreneurial endeavor.”

While Hill had planned on pursuing an entrepreneurial path prior to his admission at Stern, Yeh had not, explaining that his interest in entrepreneurship was piqued after hearing Hill’s idea. Hill and Yeh met after they both successfully ran for Block Leadership positions, with Hill in Orange and Yeh in Purple. They became friends getting to know each other after the elections; after Hill explained his GridSpire plan, their partnership was born.

“Prior to coming to NYU…. I’d never really had an interest in becoming an entrepreneur,” Yeh said of the decision to enter the competition. “But when Ed finally pitched me his idea, I started seeing the potential that it had… it really changed my mind and decided that this was something I wanted to go forward with.”

“We had less than a month to balance both of our busy schedules, working part time and taking classes, to deliver our business plan summary for the first round of NYU’s Entrepreneurship Challenge,” Yeh added. “Fortunately, we were able to put together a strong business plan and made it through the first round of the competition. That’s when we knew we had something.”

GridSpire will operate as a matchmaking service, connecting property owners looking to implement clean energy or energy efficiency projects with developers who are capable of taking on clean energy projects. The service will provide homeowners with a simple way to find qualified bids for their projects, while giving contractors and developers access to a large pool of potential projects. Information on each project will be anonymized, and developers will pay a referral fee to GridSpire for each opportunity they wish to pursue.

Yeh explained that the platform is technology agnostic and is designed to help homeowners decide which projects are best for them. Many homeowners install solar panels without considering other alternatives.

“People will install solar panels because it is what they know about,” Yeh said. “Often times, there is another solution out there that may be better for them … maybe it is energy efficiency or micro-turbines.”

While GridSpire plans to offer a comprehensive suite of solutions, Yeh explained that “in the beginning we are focusing on solar, co-generation and energy efficiency.”

The company will also introduce projects to financing opportunities.

“By working closely with the Connecticut Clean Bank, we’ve been able to make introductions with clean energy financiers and get a deeper understanding of the challenges they face in providing finance for clean energy projects,” Hill said. GridSpire will earn referral fees on each project they introduce to financiers, in addition to the fees paid by developers.

The Entrepreneurship Challenge kicked off in early September last year and has maintained a rigorous schedule of events. Participants in the challenge were given access to experienced coaches as well as advice from industry experts and forums on various issues that start-ups commonly face. Participants were invited to participate in five weekend boot camps, covering topics from prototyping and concept testing to branding and legal strategies. Start-ups that will be participating in the final event this Friday, May 4 have already made it through three judged elimination rounds.

Yeh explained that the mentorship and network opportunities provided by the Challenge have been especially helpful. “Phoebe Punzalan at the Berkley Center actually helped introduce us to one of our board members, who is a national developer in renewable energy,” he said. “Beyond just the simple coaching and mentorship … NYU has really been great at giving us access to mentors and helping to connect us to people they thought would help us along the way.”

GridSpire has bold plans for the summer and beyond. GridSpire plans to take their Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to market, with hopes to originate at least fifteen projects over the summer. Yeh explains that while GridSpire aims to service projects of all sizes, GridSpire estimates the average transaction size to be roughly $10,000. After the summer roll-out and the onboarding of the first batch of clients, GridSpire plans to build a more robust interface.

Regardless of the results on Friday, Hill and Yeh have found the challenge to be a rewarding experience.

“Participating in NYU’s Entrepreneurship Challenge has been an incredible experience for us and it has forced us to hone our business model, prove out our hypothesis and prepare us for launching our company,” Hill explained. “This summer we are excited about working with our first round of customers to really build out the service and prepare for a more significant launch as we close out the year.”

The $300K Entrepreneur’s Challenge on May 4 will begin at 1:00pm at Tisch Hall with pitches to judging panels, with each panel made up of industry veterans. Attendees will be able to view both the pitches made by each team as well as the panel’s feedback and critiques. At 4:30pm, doors will open for the Pitch Showcase and Awards Ceremony. At 5:00pm guests will be able to see abbreviated versions of the team’s final pitches, followed by audience voting and crowning the winner. The award ceremony will be followed by networking over drinks and snacks.

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