Member Company Lunch & Learn with Sam White

Most Recent Buzz: Member Company Lunch & Learn Series
Sam White, Promethean Power Systems

To increase member company collaboration and encourage knowledge exchanges among our entrepreneurs, Greentown Labs has been facilitating Lunch and Learns lead by members and open to the entire Greentown Community.  Last week, Sam White of Promethean Power Systems, also a Greentown Labs Founding member, shared his company’s story and facilitated a discussion about pivoting technologies to market realities.

Sam described how his solar-powered cold 30a3508storage company and the technology they were engineering changed multiple times in response to customer feedback and cultural miscalculations.  They had a technology, and were looking for an application. While travelling around India with his business partner, Sam was introduced to one of the largest dairy distributors in India—and discovered a specific problem their company would endeavor to solve. 

Milk distribution in India raises a significant public health issue, because milk collection from rural farmers and transportation to collection centers allows for 4-6 hours of bacterial growth in the unchilled milk. Consumers boil milk to ensure they do not ingest bacteria, but the process removes the majority of nutritional value in milk. Finally, Promethean had a potential application to work with.

However, their technology at the time was not cost effective, and they “pivoted” towards a more cost-effective technology. Their second iteration, grounded in solar-powered thermo-electrics, could not chill milk to the temperature required.  This iteration was still logistically impossible, and again the company pivoted.  They engineered a solar-powered milk chiller with a 2000L cooling tank. Unfortunately, the size of the tank rendered it ineffective for the context of the problem: it was far too big to fit in the sheds of rural dairy farmers.  At this point, they pivoted again in order to serve the needs of the customer: lose the solar power, but engineer a small, reliable, cheap milk chiller that can serve the needs of this market.

rapid_chiller_2013Sam described how he and his company were almost blinded in a way to what they had to do in order to succeed—it’s difficult to step away from the momentum behind a broken idea.  But ultimately pivoting technology to the customer’s definition of success brought them to invent a 500L tank chilling 2X as much milk than the previous prototype.  This final version was informed by the thermal electrics iteration and downsized in response to the failed solar-power chiller.

After sharing his own company’s story, Sam transitioned the Lunch & Learn into a dynamic discussion about when to know to pivot, and how to do so:

Arron Acosta of Rise Robotics commented, “Pick a market, and stick with it, otherwise you lose focus easily.”

Peter Mitton, Director of Greenseed Angel Network, suggested “consistent answers from diverse customers that something about your product or technology is not working indicates that you should make a shift.” 

“When you reach the point of searching for a customer—an application for your technology that pays—integrating customer and industry feedback is necessary but it must be balanced with proper engineering. Either way, it’s important to know if or in what way you will change in response to market demand,” said Ephraim Langford from Altaeros Energies.

After a lively discussion among member companies, including representatives from Altaeros Energies, Rise Robotics, NBD Nano, Greenseed Angel Network, and Dynamo Micropower, entrepreneurs came away with several common lessons:

  • Pick a market, understand it, and stick with it
  • When it becomes apparent that you must pivot to meet market demand, move quickly
  • ASK MORE OFTEN: If I were this customer, what would I want? How would I define success?
  • Adjusting market focus may be more profitable and less risky than sticking to an approach that may no longer be working
  • How to identify/anticipate the time to pivot?
    –>Consistent feedback from diverse customers indicates one or more changes must be made
    –>Realizing cultural/logistical factors exist but not previously accounted for in design

Check back with us for the next Member-Led Lunch& Learn, where entrepreneurs share successes, failures, and interests to strengthen our vibrant community and enrich each other’s knowledge.