Visible Energy: Fighting Vampires With UFOs

ve-2As a rule, power strips are pretty boring-looking. Consisting of a bar of electrical sockets, often surrounded by a tangle of cords, their look can be described as utilitarian at best. But that’s begun to change over the last few years, with companies like Belkin and Power Sentry offering more stylish designs for the lowly strip.

Now Visible Energy, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup that presented at our Green:Net conference last week, hopes to corner the market on stylish strips with a new line that aims to be both good-looking and intelligent. The strips include energy-management software and electronics that will automatically record appliances’ consumption, storing such data for up to two months, and enable users to control those appliances via their iPhones, iPod Touch devices, or computers. (The company only has support for these devices available so far.)

The company plans to ship its first three products by the end of this year, CEO Marco Graziano told us this week. The first of these, called UFO Powerstrip, is a flying saucer-shaped disc about 11 inches in diameter with a rubber top that flips up to reveal four sockets in different colors, and space for hiding cords. The single-socket Monostrip, meanwhile, is both suitable for larger appliances and can fit into tighter spaces than the UFO. The third, the Load Monitor board, connects to homes’ electric panels to monitor their circuit breakers.

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With these products, Visible Energy hopes to reduce wasted standby power (also known as vampire power), the electricity that some appliances and electronics — including computers, DVD players, cell-phone chargers and microwaves — eat up when they aren’t in active use. Power vampires are estimated to consume anywhere from 7 percent to a whopping 40 percent of household electricity.

One solution is to plug the vampires into power strips and switch them off when they aren’t needed, but all that switch-flipping can be a pain. Visible Energy’s strips will enable users to control all the switches remotely, so they can turn several — or all of them — on or off at once. The strips can also be used in conjunction with timers, so that appliances are automatically shut off at pre-determined times.

The strips could not only help customers to use less energy during peak times, but also enable them to participate in demand-response programs, in which ratepayers get discounts for helping utilities prevent outages. Having more information about a home’s electricity usage will also lend itself to applications that recommend energy-conservation measures. And because Visible Energy can update its products’ software over the Internet, it will have the flexibility to add new applications, Graziano says.

Visible Energy was founded a year ago by the entrepreneurs that started Internet appliances company Teknema, which Ravisent bought for $15 million in 1999, and home automation and security startup MyCasa Network, which raised $5 million before running out of money in 2005. So far, the Visible Energy team has seeded the company with an undisclosed amount of funding; it’s now seeking a six-figure amount in its first equity financing round. It plans to use the cash to hire more people, increase its manufacturing and expand its product line.

cost-screen1The company plans to sell its UFO strip in U.S. retail stores, but it will pursue a different strategy in Europe, one involving distribution partnerships and a pilot project it is developing with an unnamed power company. Visible Energy has also partnered with an unnamed Taiwanese manufacturing partner, which is tooling up to begin mass UFO production this summer, making “tens of thousands” of units by the end of the year, Graziano says. It’s already released the Energy UFO iPhone application; it’s available for free at the iPhone App Store.

One of the company’s main challenges will be bringing enough products to the market at attractive prices, Graziano says, adding that it would like to offer a full range of home options. Visible Energy also faces competition from companies like Tendril, Agilwaves, Greenbox and Green Energy Options, which could make it hard to stand out in the notoriously fickle consumer market.

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