French start-up and ACES 2013 Winner Qualisteo takes a new approach to measuring energy

31 Jul 2013 | News
It’s hard to save electricity when you don’t know where it’s going. Qualisteo’s Wattseeker reads the fingerprints of electrical systems to make monitoring energy use easier and less costly

When it comes to saving energy across an industrial or commercial site, the first step is figuring out how much is being used – and where. But monitoring the energy consumption of every appliance or system across such sites is no small feat. Qualisteo, winner of the ACES Energy & Environment Award, set out to simplify that task by developing a device that could measure and control electricity use from a single location. 

Based on research from the Institut Materiaux Microélectronique Nanosciences de Provence (IM2NP), Qualisteo’s Lynx Wattseeker device combines metering technology and algorithms that analyse the data collected. Unlike the conventional approach with separate monitors on every device, Wattseeker monitors electricity use from one central point. “We read electricity load curves to extract signals that are fingerprints of devices,” explains Christophe Robillard, founder and CEO of Qualisteo .The patented bit of the process is the ability to identify and read the load curve so that you can detect devices. “That is basically software,” he says.

Wattseeker’s trick is to monitor electrical ‘noise’ on the wiring. Every time someone switches on a kettle, or a thermostat starts the air conditioning, the electrical device produces a distinctive electrical noise, says Robillard. This noise, the device’s fingerprint, as he describes it, travels through the wiring to the Lynx Wattseeker. “If you can read the noise, you can understand the device behind the noise,” he explains. That’s how Qualisteo’s Lynx Wattseeker does detailed analysis of the electricity consumption of different electrical equipment from one single measurement point. 

Robillard estimates Wattseeker, which resides in a device the size of a laptop computer, can increase energy efficiency by an average of more than 15 per cent, and that the electricity savings will pay back the cost of the service within two years. One customer, SNCF, the French railway company, found a single Wattseeker box could replace 120 electricity meters that require four months to install at a cost of €120,000. “What we did was to roll out our system in less than one day for one tenth of the cost. At the end of the day they used our results rather than the results of the big system that they had put in,” says Robillard.

The software is also designed to cut energy use by predicting and controlling the power consumption of many devices. For example, Wattseeker can turn the heating down for a short period. Qualisteo hopes to shrink the device from its current laptop dimensions to something the size of a mobile phone.

Robillard’s path to entrepreneurship started with an ‘industrial professorship’ in entrepreneurship at Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines near Paris, the first of its kind in France, with a remit to develop new ways of doing eco-innovation. His work brought together academics and industrialists to investigate problems that industry would like to see solved. Robillard’s job was to find university know-how to address those problems.

That led Robillard to IM2NP where he found research that fit with his own expertise in electricity and signal processing and addressed the innovation need identified by industry. Early tests with the patented technology went well – so Robillard set out to create a commercial product and a business, setting up Qualisteo in 2010 together with some of the IM2NP’s researchers. “It was a piece of luck at the end of the day. I had the right ideas put on the table by the right knowledgeable guys. That idea was not coming from me. But it was in my area of expertise.”

Data for the algorithms

After two years of technology development, the hardware platform for Wattseeker was third generation and had been put through its paces by some of the leading energy companies and energy efficiency companies in France. At the end of 2012, Qualisteo went commercial, setting itself a target of €1.2 million for sales revenue in 2013 and plans to be cash-flow positive in 2014, with forecast sales of €2.5 million. The company is now raising a second round of capital – €2 million, to fund international sales and operations. “Our growth will come from gaining international growth quickly,” he says.

As well as selling equipment, Qualisteo hopes to create a new business that does not exist today, what Robillard describes as “measurement as a service”. Customers will pay for their power reading results rather than for buying meters which you won’t use after you have measured what is going on. 

In the three years since Qualisteo set up shop, the company has collected an impressive array of awards – 15 regional, national and international awards – for its clean technology. Coinciding with the ACES award, the company also collected an award in the Smart Building category of the Smart Grid 2013 awards in Paris.

The company still maintains close links with IM2NP and has three PhD research programmes working on projects that should feed into future generations of Wattseeker, not to mention more patents. 

The market for energy savings is huge. But Qualisteo is concentrating on obvious targets – 500,000 mid-sized companies who can’t afford expensive metering technology to monitor every electric device and system. Robillard’s idea is to go to electricity consumers that are big enough to approach Qualisteo directly or to work through businesses that advise companies on their energy consumption.  He is also setting his sights on developing countries where electricity is much more expensive, carbon intensive, unreliable and in short supply.  

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