A decade ago, they were just three undergraduates trying to make energy information more readable. Now, they run a business whose clients include Google, Sony, and the city governments of Philadelphia and Washington, DC.
This summer marks the tenth anniversary of Lucid Design, a data visualization firm started at Oberlin by alums Vladi Shunturov ’05, Gavin Platt ’06, and Michael Murray ’03 and John Petersen ’88. Lucid creates systems that allow building occupants to track their resource usage in real time, through 160 different metrics, like water consumption and electricity use. Their 10-year anniversary coincides with another major achievement, raising $8.2 million for expansion from venture capital firm Foundation 8, to further develop BuildingOS, their building monitoring program.
Shunturov, Platt, and Murray first began working together as student assistants in Oberlin’s environmental studies program under the direction of Professor of Environmental Studies John Petersen, who is currently on the Board of Directors at Lucid, at the Adam Joseph Lewis Center. The building was wired to provide data about resource consumptions, but lacked a way to display that information neatly and in real time. Petersen brought in students to help him do this, Shunturov explains. "He wanted to see if this concept of feedback—being able to see your energy use in real time," he says. "If it would be able to improve people's behavior in a way that conserves energy and water."
The team tested Petersen's hypothesis by setting up monitoring systems in two residence halls, Harkness and Fairchild. When they compared the usage in these halls to that in the others, which were simply given meter readings once a week for a three week interval, the results were clear: feedback works. The student residents of Harkness and Fairchild reduced their usage 56% and 55%, respectively, compared to 22%, the highest reduction from the other dorms.
Petersen and the students published the results and received a great deal of publicity. The monitoring system was part of the first wave of "the internet of things," the present trend of enabling objects with the ability to transmit information back to a central source. "The technology existed, but no one had really focused on making it accessible," says Shunturov. "There's nothing special about what we did at Oberlin, other than we made it look pretty."
But others took note. Not only did the team broaden the monitoring system across campus, but they began setting up similar systems at Harvard and Emory. Initially, every system that they installed was custom made but, three years after graduation, the trio had the idea to turn what they made into a product, which would make it more affordable and, thus, accessible, as had been the initial goal of their work with Petersen.
Now, Lucid technologies can be found in some 6,000 buildings. Shunturov attributes this to an increase in the construction of green buildings—LEED certification, the system used by the U.S. Green Buildings Council to evaluate buildings' environmental impact—hadn't been invented when Lucid started—and years of persistence. "It took us 10 years to get here, and the first five were five really tough years," he says. "But when you really believe in the work you're doing, persistence pays off."
That quality is exactly what he recommends to the aspiring entrepreneurs at Oberlin. Shunturov and the Lucid team had the chance to meet with some of these young entrepreneurs as part of the LaunchU experience, a program during winter term that provides Oberlin students and alumni with the opportunity to develop and receive funding for their entrepreneurial endeavors. "I'm extremely excited by the fact that a really committed group of individuals has come together to make LaunchU possible," says Shunturov. "That's an invaluable resource."