by Stan Linhorst
SaLisa Berrien is founder and CEO of COI Energy. Her Binghamton-based company uses digital tools to detect and eliminate energy waste in buildings.
She started the company in 2016 in Tampa, Florida, and still maintains a branch office there. In 2020, Berrien moved COI Energy to Binghamton and also opened an office in Brooklyn. In 2020, COI Energy was a finalist and won a $500,000 investment in the 76 West competition, which helps to build clean energy businesses and jobs in the Southern Tier. In November, Berrien won a $200,000 investment in the ClimateTech business accelerator run by Chloe Capital and Cornell University.
The company has 19 employees and is recruiting more.
She says it is vital to lead a company with empathy, integrity, and a transparency in relationships that extends to customers. It starts with understanding your core values and creating a mission.
First, give me some sense of the scale of your company – number of customers, for instance – and the services you provide.
I’ll start by kind of helping you understand our journey. I’ve worked in the energy ecosystem my whole career. Straight out of college, I worked for utilities. Then I went into the smart-grid space working at startups for 15 years prior to starting COI Energy.
We did a whole lot of R&D when we started in 2016. We launched our MVP (minimum viable product) in 2017. We began signing beta customers in 2018. We did our beta testing in 2019, and in 2020 we went live and launched to the public.
We had about a hundred customers for the beta testing – and they were all paying customers. Now we’re a little over 400 customers.
We’re a business-to-business platform and our customers range from small businesses to large industrial entities. We have customers in Florida, New York, and within PJM, which is an electric grid operator coordinating the movement of wholesale electricity in 13 states, mostly in the Mid-Atlantic area as well as the District of Columbia.
We detect and eliminate energy waste in buildings. We do it digitally by pulling real-time energy information from the electric meter. We learn the energy patterns and behaviors. We’re able to detect anomalies and inefficiencies in how customers are operating.
Customers might have a plan to operate their HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) at a certain level, make sure their illumination levels are at a certain point, or operate their production line at a certain speed. We have all that information and we have a registry of the assets driving their energy usage. We can dis-aggregate the information and see what’s causing anomalies. On an industrial level, we measure down to the equipment level in order to see what’s happening and what’s causing issues. The biggest thing is we are able to predict energy waste and correct it before it shows up on the energy bill.
What attracted you to a career in energy?
My parents could not always afford to pay our electric bill, and that meant we didn’t have hot water; we didn’t have heat. I had the unfortunate honor of working in the dark sometimes in elementary school and high school. My friends would come over and they would see that we didn’t have lights. You know how kids are – they’re cruel even though they don’t think they are.
I always looked at the electric company employees as my heroes whenever they would come and reconnect our power. Back then, they had to physically come out – it wasn’t a remote thing. During those times it just gave me back hope.
I went to the University of Pittsburgh (Class of 1991) and majored in mechanical engineering. I think it was subconscious, to be honest, that I did an internship at Allegheny Power, working in distribution engineering.
When I graduated, I decided to go to Pennsylvania Power and Light, the utility that served my family. I worked with industrial and commercial customers, helping them improve efficiency in their buildings and eliminating bottlenecks in their production lines.
That was the start of my career in energy, and I think it really stems from, as a kid, knowing that those people were my heroes because they turned the lights back on for us.
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