Interview with Yoav Lurie, SimpleEnergy

In the debate about energy efficiency, energy independence, and the country's energy future, one of the areas that comes into conversations frequently is how a lot of this country's energy goals could be helped by convincing people to save energy and implement energy efficiency measures. However, what does it take to convince people to care enough about the matter to do something about it? One startup--Denver-based SimpleEnergy--has an idea, which is making energy savings a game for consumers, to inspire consumers to save energy. The firm scored funding earlier this month for its efforts, so we sat down and talked with Yoav Lurie, the firm's founder and CEO, to hear more about what the company is all about.

What's the idea behind SimpleEnergy?

Yoav Lurie: SimpleEnergy is changing the way people save energy, making it a socially compelling activity for people. Not enough of most people's actual spending on energy make a monetary difference in a huge way for them, and energy usage has kind of been a private activity. You just don't spend much time on it. However, by making it social, by engaging you and your friends in saving energy, we're able to create a competition between you, making energy savings competitive and fun. We've also simplified things, so that instead of looking at kilowatt hours you've consumed, and trying to understand the pieces of energy usage, we analyze and serve back very specific and customized suggestions to you on how to save energy--all so you can beat your friends, or win a cool prize.

Talk about those prizes and how those games work?

Yoav Lurie: In the current product we have going, we have utilities giving away iPads, restaurant gift cards, and other prices. There are daily winners, monthly winners, and entire program winners. In Texas, the state has sponsored a contest giving away a Chevy Volt. And those are just the extrinsic rewards. We've found that also, if you supersize the rewards -- instead of a utility giving every one a small incentive, super-sizing that incentive and bundling up all the expense of those small incentives and giving them out in a more targeted way to a smaller number of people, it helps states to drive more action.

Gamification has been very interesting to web companies recently, and seems to have caught on, but will consumers respond in real life to gamification?

Yoav Lurie: Actually, long before you ever had this on web site, it has worked in real life. It's been used in smoking cessation and weight loss programs, charitable giving, and even traffic tickets. There's been studies of the behavior of competition and sociality which drives people's behavior. One of our advisors--Dan Ariely--wrote two books on the topic, which were not just research papers but actual bestsellers on the topic, of how you leverage the behavioral irrationality to drive results in the real world.

What's your background, and how'd you get into this?

Yoav Lurie: I've been thinking about energy for a long time, as many of us have. Specifically, at SimpleEnergy, we were looking at the problem of how to engage the consumer, and how do we shift the load. We came up with all sort sof ideas and devices, and tested lots of them, and we found out--it's not about the absence of cool hardware. There's lots of cool stuff people can buy and install in their home, which will automate all of this. The problem is also not the business model--it's a pretty mature market for load shifting. But, time after time, the conversation kept coming back to customer motivation. That really led us to the behavioral side.

Are consumers willing to share their energy usage with others? For example, who really wants to have something saying "boy, I'm being an energy hog today"?

Yoav Lurie: We take people's privacy very seriously. We don't show real energy use, which show a derivative value showing relative energy efficiency. Although that still wouldn't negate that issue of people seeing if you are an energy hog, most people are sharing and opting instead to share good news and pieces of information, bragging about it. Once you're in the system, it exposes if you are or aren't doing well, or if you or your friends are doing better. We're finding that results in people saving lots of energy. They have something they're proud of, though some do end up more proud than others.

What's the next step for your company?

Yoav Lurie: We're live with a program right now in a current deployment, and also in the next two weeks we'll go statewide in Texas. Our strategy is to get a flagship customer, a single major utility focused on demonstrating results through our mechanism. We're also doing three things, which is building our team, getting results, and demonstrating the efficacy of our product, with our current deployment and in Texas. Last, on the sales side, we're growing our customer base. We're interesting primarily flagship, bigger utilities where we can demonstrate results with this.