Nick Blitterswyk, CEO of UGE talks to VLN and @ecoentrepreneur about his innovtive eco venture – Urban Green Energy UGE.
4E: What Inspired you to Start UGE?
NB: I grew up in a nature reserve in western Canada, so I grew up surrounded by sustainability which, looking back, I always took for granted. Fast forward, and when I graduated from university I moved to New York to become an actuary (at Towers Perrin then JPMorgan), but was feeling somewhat unfulfilled and yearned to work in something that made a more meaningful contribution. After about a year of soul searching I started focusing on distributed (”small”) wind technologies, which I thought looked like an area in need of innovation, and co-founded UGE in late 2007/early 2008.
4E: What was the initial vision?
The initial vision was to make distributed wind energy more accessible. Wind energy is quite an affordable technology, but most of the investment in recent years has been in the larger scale wind turbines leaving small wind largely undeveloped. We envisioned a wind technology that could be installed in a far wider range of locations, due to power performance but also characteristics like noise and vibration, and a product that would look really good as well. We developed the technology within UGE and commercialized it in early 2010.
4E: How is Your Design Different From Other Technologies Out There?
NB: Really what we’re aiming to do with our design is to make a wind turbine that can produce the most power in the places where it is actually installed, paces very different than where large wind turbines are installed. The location of a wind farm is determined by one primary factor – the wind – and transmission lines are used to bring the energy produced to where it is used. On the distributed side of the industry, however, the opposite is true. A site needs energy, and the wind turbine is rarely installed farther than 100 meters away, meaning the types of winds it must endure will generally be lower quality. Thus, we have designed our line of wind turbines to produce power in these types of winds, plus for it to be quiet, so it doesn’t annoy people, and low vibration, so that it can be placed atop other structures, whether that be a telecoms tower, street light, building, etc.
The technology itself is referred to as “helical Darrieus” which we feel is the best approach to take for its high efficiency and good durability. That said, it can be quite difficult to design and manufacture, so since we started UGE we’ve really been forced to become experts in both the design of wind turbines and the manufacture of composite parts as well. We have IP relating to several characteristics of our design which really give us a leg up on the other companies out there.
Going one step further, we are also unique in our use of other technologies to create “hybrid” solutions. For example, in 2011 we launched the Sanya Skypump with GE, an EV charging station powered by wind and solar. We use solar in a lot of our other projects as well because at the end of the day the combination of the technologies is worth more than the sum of the parts thanks to things like lower variability in when energy is produced and higher energy density in terms of space constraints.
4E: What are some of the things that China is doing to promote Green Entrepreneurship that we can learn from?
NB: First I’ll start with what China is doing in general, and that is making a clear statement that they are dedicated to adopting clean technologies. In just the last few years the country has done a real 180 in this regard and we now see China as perhaps the biggest future market for us. I think it is this clear leadership that really helps an industry get off the ground and is somewhat lacking in the US right now. If the people and companies within a country know that it is dedicated to moving towards clean technology in the short and long term they will find ways to start the companies, and make the products we need to move towards a cleaner future.
Regarding entrepreneurs themselves, I’ll first say that China is an impressively entrepreneurial country where it is perfectly normal for people to have one or more side jobs outside of their day job. The VC community in China is also growing very quickly and is learning quickly from the success of Silicon Valley. That said, there is definitely something to be said for the US entrepreneurial spirit, especially when it comes to scaling up young companies. In the end, I think the countries can learn a lot from each other, and hopefully will do so more as partners than as seeing the other as a threat.
4E: What are your Plans to Scale and Bring On Board and Collaborate With more Eco-Entrepreneurs
NB: In terms of scale, our revenue grew more than 3-fold in 2011 and we are looking to do something similar in 2012. We are chasing this growth through focusing hard on where our products work best and can make the biggest impact. At the end of the day, that’s what our growth depends on: using our products and solutions to solve problems and “deliver happiness”, if you will.
As we grow we continuously look for like-minded, ambitious entrepreneurs to join us, and our recruiting process is targeted to find people who can take on loads of responsibility from the start. As one example, we had someone join us in late 2011, straight out of school, and within his first month he was giving public presentations on behalf of UGE.
Looking outside UGE, we are always looking to partner with other companies too. We have a very open, collaborative culture and are always willing to join forces with other companies, even those within distributed wind energy. We believe that climate change is a huge issue that isn’t going to be solved by one technology but rather through the combination of several, and look to join with other companies who feel the same way.
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