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Bright Ideas: Students Create Startup to Increase LED Use

The team from Bright Ideas celebrates their Green Innovator title at Clean Air Council's GreenFest

When the Sustainability Workshop opened in October 2011 Mayor Nutter challenged the 29 incoming public school seniors: reduce energy consumption in city-owned buildings by 10 to 30 percent. The challenge inspired Bright Ideas, a year-long student project turned startup company. While standard energy audits focus on big ticket items including windows, insulation and heating systems, Bright Ideas saw potential in oft overlooked lumen-emitting-diode [LED] bulbs.
“There was a study by EEB Hub stating that [buildings] use 17 percent of their energy on lighting,” Anthony Tran, Bright Ideas co-founder, explains. “If we change our school's light bulbs, then we have already addressed the Mayor's challenge.  That is was how the idea began.” 
LEDs produce high quality light using 84 percent less energy than incandescent. Furthermore, the bulbs last about 25 times longer, saving more money and waste.  Yet, at $36 a pop, switching to LEDs can cost a small fortune.
If LEDs were provided at no additional cost, the students reasoned, most consumers would switch.  City-wide, the switch would have significant impact on the energy grid.
After intense research, the students discovered a shortcut: six to eight “high-use” bulbs account for 80 percent of energy spent on lighting.  They developed lighting logs, auditing software that tracks the use of each bulb in a building.
“[The students] figured out some ways to identify those [high-use] bulbs,” Simon Hauger, co-founder and student mentor at The Sustainability Workshop, explains. “This is the clever part of their idea. You’d think that if you replaced the bulbs in your living room, the room where the TV is and your kitchen, you’re probably good. But in a big national study, there’s no trend, the trend is that people are different.”  
Bright Ideas partnered with Lancaster County-based Amerigreen and the Center City, Philadelphia-based Energy Co-Op and developed a financing strategy.  The group gives customers a lighting audit and provides LEDs for high-use bulbs at no cost. Each month, the money saved on energy is split with Bright Ideas. The consumer receives some of the remaining savings on their energy bill and the rest becomes payment towards the bulbs. By year three the bulbs are paid in full and the buyer receives the full savings. 
Within the year, Bright Ideas -- which received funding from Oliver Kuttner of Edison2, EEB Hub and Children Can Shape the Future Foundation -- completed commercial and residential pilot programs proving the revenue generating potentials of their business model.  Their business plan -- developed through partnership with Wharton -- was top 5-finalist in the Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge held in California’s Bay Area. They’ve also presented to Mayor Nutter and Chaka Fattah. Earlier in September, they won first place in the Green Innovators competition at the Clean Air Council's GreenFest.
“Going to California to attend a national conference was just mind blowing,” Tran exclaims.
Tran says he and the other founders -- Kenrick Tan, Trang Dang and Vivian Chen -- will continue working on Bright Ideas as they move on to college. Hauger expects to recruit incoming seniors to assist with the start-up. 
Although he is no stranger to long-shot success, Hauger, who founded and directed West Philly Hybrid X team, says the considerable progress of Bright Ideas has been a surprise. “Looks like we’re going to accidentally start a business at the end of all this,” he says. “When we thought about [The Sustainability Workshop] we thought about the possibility of some of this work actually translating into the world in this way -- we just didn’t think it would happen the first year.”

DANA HENRY is Innovation & Jobs news editor for Flying Kite. Send feedback here.
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