Team develops patented smart breaker box to sense, interpret and act on home electrical use information.
A prototype of part of the patented smart breaker box developed by CyberPowered Home.
Some say mom knows best. In the case of CyberPowered Home, a co-founder's mother sparked the idea two years ago that eventually led the team to win first place in the 2018 Discovery Competition in Washington University in St. Louis' School of Engineering & Applied Science and the 2018 Skandalaris Cup.
Will Blanchard, who is graduating this month with a bachelor's degree in computer engineering and bachelor's degree in applied science in systems engineering, credits his mother with the initial idea for a product to help enable microgrids, local energy grids than can operate in isolation from the grid. Blanchard, CEO and co-founder of CyberPowered Home, took the idea as fuel for thought, then collaborated with Engineering alumnus Allen Nikka late in 2017 to bring the idea into reality.
Over the past two years, the team has developed a patented smart breaker box designed to automatically sense, interpret and act on information about electrical use in a home. Such a box could save homeowners up to 25 percent on energy costs, while also benefiting electric utilities by allowing them to better manage demand for energy and ultimately streamline costs.
"We're living in the time of big data," said Nikka, who earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering at WashU in 2017 and is a graduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Other systems claim to use data to calibrate for users' needs, but their scope is too limited, or they quite simply don't. We're trying to bring real-world data to bear on real-world problems."
Blanchard and Nikka developed several prototypes of their smart breaker box, which includes their proprietary software and hardware, then handed it to Danny Andreev, the hardware engineer on the team who is a dual-degree student earning a bachelor's and master's in electrical engineering. He earned a bachelor's degree in physics from Knox College in 2017.
"The box reads the electrical use information, then we can understand which devices are being used in a home at any time, then draw inferences about what's happening in the home based on use or lack of use of devices," Blanchard said. "The core idea is bringing in the contextual data and understanding what's going on in the home with one device."
With this contextual data, CyberPowered Home's product will, the team says, regulate appliances in the home to make homes more convenient and energy efficient for homeowners while offering residential demand management to utility companies.
While smart thermostats, such as Nest, exist, Nikka said this product is unique.
"No one is directly bridging the smart home and smart grid space using a combined software and hardware solution in the way that we are trying to do," he said. "We think that there's a lot of benefit trying to play both sides as opposed to one or the other."
This summer, the team will test the device and gather data from several homes' heating and air conditioning systems, which can be nearly half of a homeowner's energy costs.
"This is what will save people real money," Andreev said. "The HVAC is the first step, but we plan to extend its use beyond that."
In addition to the $25,000 prize from the 2018 Discovery Competition, the team won $4,000 in the 2018 Skandalaris Cup. It was runner-up for both of those competitions in 2017. Blanchard also was named the Skandalaris Center Student Entrepreneur of the Year in 2018.
The team is a finalist in the First Look West (FLOW) competition at CalTech taking place later this month, in the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge, which is decided by public vote and for the 2018 Global Impact Award at WashU. It also was a finalist in the 2017 Clean Energy Trust Cleantech University Prize Award and the 2017 TigerLaunch competition in Chicago.
Moving forward, Blanchard and Nikka plan to work on CyberPowered Home full-time while continuing to enter business competitions and to apply for accelerator programs.
The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 96.5 tenured/tenure-track and 33 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, 1,200 graduate students and 20,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.