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After graduating in 1991 with an MBA from the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business, design engineer Niraj Bhargava enjoyed a nearly decade-long stint at General Electric, where he oversaw expansion into the energy efficiency market. In 1996, he decamped to Enerstat Ltd., makers of one of the first commercialized programmable thermostats. There, he met Jorge Deligiannis, with whom in 2004 he founded Energate Inc., a privately held, Ottawa-based company specializing in home energy management.
Niraj Bhargava, chairman and chief
executive officer of Energate. Inc.
Today, Energate is a leading provider of smart thermostats, consumer energy displays, load switches, mobile apps and utility software. It helps utilities meet conservation targets and manage peak use while giving consumers tools to manage energy use and control costs.
Energate’s products have been a part of pilot programs at more than 25 utilities in North America and are being rolled out in large jurisdictions including Ontario, one of Energate’s newest clients. The company’s biggest market, however, is the United States, where it has offices in Illinois, Texas and Florida. Energate will pursue overseas markets once financing is in place, says Bhargava, who is 49.
What’s your market?
We are specialists in managing energy in the home, and we provide that value for both homeowners and electric utilities. Our primary market is actually the electric utilities because there’s an imperative right now around the world for utilities to manage demand because there’s not enough supply of energy resources. What drives the peak of demand is typically residential use, so what we do is help the electric utilities shift some of the peak load to avoid having to build a new power plant.
Where in the world do you work?
Our market is global. But our primary market is the United States.
What are some of the challenges of expanding into foreign markets?
A noisy marketplace is a key challenge for us. We have many perceived competitors, so while we have superior and leading technology we need to cut through the noise to get the market to understand our offering. That’s a marketing challenge, mostly.
How do you make sure you are heard?
We need constantly to be on the ground in the United States in order to present ourselves as ready to do business with U.S. utilities. We also need adequate investment to win the global market, which is what we are working on now.
Is such investment hard to come by?
Yes. There’s very limited access to capital for entrepreneurial growth companies in today’s market. You have to find the investors who believe in your business, and that’s as much of a marketing job as it is building the revenues.
Does this require you to travel much?
Yes. I am travelling across the United States every second week right now. Later, we’ll be pursuing overseas markets and I envision more foreign travel. It’s important to make a presence.
Do you partner with local companies?
We have many partners. We partner with other technology companies so as to make sure we have an optimal solution for every market we enter. We also have smart-grid channel partners to enable us to get to the local utilities we want to reach.
Do you have foreign offices, and how do you find them?
Yes. When we find good sales and marketing people, as long as they live close to a good airport, we build an office around them, including setting them up in home offices. We recently did that for an individual we met and hired in Florida. He now works for us, but from his own home.
How do you find your people?
Through our own networks, partners and search firms that know our industry. Everyone we hire first has to go through extensive reference checks, which aren’t always easy.
Are U.S. partners easier to work with than Canadians?
Not at all. Our biggest surprise when expanding into the United States was that large U.S. companies do not understand the market any better than we do. Lesson learned? Don’t over-rely on partnerships.
What might you advise other Canadian entrepreneurs to do when approaching the United States as a potential market?
Be confident and bold.
Not to do?
Don’t build your business in Canada and then export. Go to the United States first. You get more credibility that way, plus the potential for more revenues, right off the bat.
This interview has been edited and condensed.