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Summary:

A California startup has raised a seed round to show that its energy management app could keep office workers happy and save energy for building owners.

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Turns out helping office workers create personalized comfort zones is also a good way for building owners to save money. A one-year-old California startup called Building Robotics just raised $1.14 million to prove that case, and is aiming to be like a Nest for commercial buildings — minus the smart thermostat.

Using Building Robotics’ app, office workers can exert control over their heating and cooling comfort throughout the day. At the same time, the company’s algorithm, which resides in the computer that controls a building’s heating and cooling system, learns the workers’ temperature preferences and collects data to help building managers reduce wasteful energy use.

A slew of energy management software startups have cropped up in recent years to target the commercial building market. Generally, these companies’ software collects and analyzes a building’s energy use, utility bill, weather data and other information to chart out energy consumption patterns and expenditures over time. More sophisticated software can figure out when to cut back energy use a bit when a utility charges a premium for delivering power (such as on hot summer days). Others can make it possible for building owners to compare the energy use of all of their holdings, or how their energy use compares with nearby buildings with similar attributes.

Often these startups focus only on working with building managers to help them get a closer look at how much electricity various equipment uses and adjusts them accordingly. Building Robotics’ CEO, Andrew Krioukov, said those approaches typically overlook something crucial: that the purpose of the heating and cooling systems, sensors and other technology is to create a comfortable environment for the building occupants.

WarbyParkerOfficesBuilding Robotics’ software pays attention to the workers and aims to create technology that leads to a comfortable working environment and energy savings, said Krioukov, who with co-founder Stephen Dawson-Haggerty developed the technology’s underlying framework while both were getting their Ph.D. in computer science at UC Berkeley.

To achieve that, Building Robotic’s app allows office employees to request temperature adjustments via their mobile phones or computers. They can personalize the comfort levels because many large office buildings today are divided into zones that makes it possible to deliver a certain amount of cold or warm air to each zone. A conference room could be a zone by itself while six to eight cubicles could share a zone.

Those requests from office workers then go to a computer that controls a building’s air conditioning and heating systems. Building Robotics’ software then processes the requests and directs the heating or cooling system to blast air a few degrees lower or higher for, say, 10 minutes. The short-term blast of cold or hot air is usually audible as it gets piped into different rooms. Having that sound provides an assurance to the office workers that they are getting what they asked for.

“We realized, from a psychological point of view, that you want the system to respond to you,” Krioukov said. “We want to make sure they will feel it.”

Office workers can request changes as often as they want. But they will have to make sure their co-workers within the same zone are OK with that. That’s because Building Robotics’ app lets people see their neighbors’ requests.

The startup began running pilot projects at some tech companies in the San Francisco Bay Area earlier this year. Krioukov declined to disclose the names of those companies. Building Robotics also won an opportunity to have its technology evaluated by the General Services Administration, which manages 300 million square feet of federal office buildings. The administration plans to issue a report late next year that gives its assessment of Building Robotics’ technology. From there the federal agency will decide whether to use the startup’s technology.

Krioukov plans to use the $1.14 million seed fund to hire people who expertise in areas such as building management and user experience. The 4-person startup’s investors include Claremont Creek Ventures, Google Ventures, Formation 8, Navitas Capital and Red Swan Ventures.

  1. Great idea – wonder whether it’ll lead to co-worker disputes though! Next will come the democratisation app that ensures the fair selection of temperatures to meet all employees needs. Suppose all the people with bad circulation could all sit in a warm zone! Might actually encourage cross-department communication!!!

    “is anyone cold in here or is it just me?”

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    1. Good point! I mentioned that to Andrew when I interviewed him. Suppose some office workers will have to spend time negotiating the right temperature setting. But why another app when rock-paper-scissors would do just fine to settle a dispute. Technology doesn’t solve everything.

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      1. Good question, Will! It’s true, we are seeing that it encourages communication, and it’s actually in a positive direction! We’ve worked a lot on providing an interface that encourages collaboration, it’s all about transparency and framing. That’s a big part of the human-centered design work we do at BR. We can’t solve everything, of course, but we see Comfy as a BIG improvement over the way it works now in office buildings. Thanks for the response!

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        1. No problem – I just love stories like this (hat’s off to gigaom and Ucilia for continuing to bringing such interesting content to the fore).

          Temperature has such a massive effect on productivity – I think anything which attempts, and clearly in your case Beau, which helps to create a more productive environment is marvellous! Even better if it gets people collaborating too! Great stuff.

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  2. Great story Ucilia. Totally captured the company’s story.

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  3. Check Intelen’s upcoming disruptive Ingage, that combines behavioral science, real-time analytics, metering/BAS integration or utility bills+ human comfort control to solve all this under game mechs ;-)

    Stay tuned for upcoming deployments to East and West coast

    @ https://twitter.com/intelen/status/396395146037579776/photo/1
    @ https://twitter.com/intelen/status/394503744571715585/photo/1

    We combine also human fault inputs and crowd-feeding building maintenance… stay tuned

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