Sam Parks may have a degree in applied physics from Penn and have just closed a $2 million round of funding—but the brainchild behind Sapient Industries, one of Philly’s newest startups, says the roots of his company all go back to…a Hot Pocket?
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“It was 2014, and smart outlets weren’t a thing,” Parks says from the 19th floor of 2 Logan Square, where his ten-person team has planted roots so recently that the lobby still smells of fresh paint, and the common space houses only a pristine gray couch and two charging Onewheels, Parks’ preferred source of futuristic transportation around the city. “I was a [grad] student at Penn and I just wanted to know how much it was costing me to microwave my Hot Pockets.”
So Parks, a bearded, affable Missouri transplant whose arms are fittingly tattooed with Maxwell’s Equations, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and a binary translation of the phrase “I am” (in homage to Descartes), did what any Penn Engineering scholar would do: He MacGyver-ed his own “fire hazard jumble of wires” to measure the microwave’s output himself. “I was thinking this should just be a thing. It was frustrating that it wasn’t out there,” he says.
That insight led to the first incarnation of Sapient, as a smart outlet maker. But Parks and his co-founder and co-CEO, Austrian-born Wharton grad Martin Koch, soon realized that other companies were also out there making smart outlets and could do so faster and just as well. The duo pivoted, recognizing that while the need for smart outlets was now being met, the proper way to use them—to maximize them—was being completely overlooked.
Penn, with our system, would save about $10 million a year.
“Think about how cool it is to know how much it costs to run your home entertainment system and be able to switch it on and off—now do that for 3,000 devices in a building, and then hook that up to a dashboard for a facilities manager and then on top of that, equip it with a bunch of really cool machine learning tools, and suddenly you have more control and insight into your building than anyone has ever had before,” Parks says. “We take this commodity that is smart outlets, we put them in an entire building, they’re all measuring power consumption at every single socket, and then a facilities manager or office manager or a building owner sees their dashboard and can understand what’s being consumed and where. So you can answer really cool questions that have never even been in the minds of facilities managers, like how much are you paying to power just the laptops on floor five, room 502, between the hours and 9 and 5? You can get really granular.”
Since recognizing this unmet need, business has soared. Sapient officially became a company in April 2017; last September, it had five buildings in its sales pipeline; today, it has 120,000 building clients throughout the U.S., Canada, China, and Europe.
Parks sat down to talk about his vision for Sapient, the advantages Philly has over New York, and just how much money Philly’s largest employer could save by working with them.
JP: How do you explain to people what Sapient is and does?
SP: For a really long time, people have talked about wasted power—plug load, vampire current, standby mode. No one ends up doing anything about it because it appears really negligible—a single device’s [usage] is so small. But when you do a back-of-the-envelope calculation to see what that sort of waste means in a building, suddenly it becomes pretty significant.
Over the years, the amount of energy consumed by commercial buildings, by plug load, is only increasing because we’re using more devices. So it’s created two problems. We were only aware of one for a while, the wasted energy that’s being consumed. But what we’ve discovered is that there’s really more of a data problem. It’s an information and an insight problem.
SP: If you don’t understand plug load in a building, you’re missing out on a lot of opportunities to reduce consumption as a whole. And Sapient is capable of accomplishing those two things: providing insight into the information of a building, and then also sort of secondarily, the cherry on top, is reducing consumption, by taking what has recently become a commodity—smart outlets—and deploying those in an entire building.
JP: Can you give an example of what this could mean for a building in Philly?
SP: We have one particular customer that had 40 3D printers in a large co-working space. They were buying filament for all of those printers because, as far as they were concerned, they were all printing at some point in the week. But when we measured the consumption of each one, it turns out they only need about six of them! So there were 34 of them sitting there that they never would’ve known they didn’t need. By canceling the lease on those machines, they saved $15,000. It’s that kind of insight that is most valuable.
In Philly it’s almost comically easy to go from A to B, because you don’t have to traverse Mt. Everest first. You can usually just go find the person that you’re interested in knowing.
JP: Ok, so how does it actually work? If I’m a client, and I want access to this technology, what do I do?
SP: You’d go to our website, put in your address, we pull publicly available data for that building, and then it will take about 10 to 15 minutes to onboard, [a process that] informs us how much hardware to ship to you. Then the hardware [the smart outlets and outlet strips] arrives at your door; you scan the back of each one of these things, and plug them in. That’s it.
JP: Is it time-consuming?
SP: It takes about an afternoon for a 100,000 square-foot office building.
JP: What happens when you think of really large-scale entities in Philly, like Penn?
SP: We actually created a simulator tool to see how much we can save customers. Penn, with our system, would save about $10 million a year.
JP: Are there risks of the system failing, or blacking out?
SP: No. We don’t want to affect someone’s business, let alone someone’s health. You can kind of think of the way you go about engineering a nuclear fail-safe, where you make sure that there are checks all the way down, to make sure that nothing that you didn’t intend to happen will happen. That’s the way we went about building the automated end of this.
JP: What’s the fee structure?
SP: We charge per square foot of the space, from two cents to 10 cents, and we think of hardware as a service. Think of Comcast: You’re not paying for a $300 router, you’re paying $50 and then you just have a subscription that’s rolled in to whatever you’re doing. We do the same thing, so there’s no huge upfront cost. The goal of that is so that any single payment, when you’re budgeting for this thing, is below the threshold that would normally trigger a [capital expenditure] concern. It’s comparable to if you just decided to start using Slack, how it’s just rolled into the monthly [services]. That’s what we’re going for.
JP: Once a client is set up, are you monitoring their usage dashboard?
SP: No. Customers own all of their data. We don’t have access to it.
JP: Neither you nor your co-founder and co-CEO, Martin Koch, are from Philly—what made you want to plant Sapient here, as opposed to heading to, say, New York?
SP: New York is extremely vertical. To get from point A to point B in New York, you first have to go up the ladder and then maybe back down again. And that process takes a long time. And in Philly it’s almost comically easy to go from A to B, because you don’t have to traverse Mt. Everest first. You can usually just go find the person that you’re interested in knowing. FMC Tower, Schuylkill Yards, and all this stuff that’s happening [here]—communicating with the contractors and the architects and the designers and even the financiers of these projects is reasonably easy. And I think part of the reason why we did so well so quickly was because we had access to them and we asked a lot of questions. We never would’ve been able to ask those questions in New York, and we probably wouldn’t be where we are now if we hadn’t been able to do that.
JP: What’s your vision for where Sapient can go next—are you targeting companies, or governments, or will versions of this someday be available for individual homeowners?
SP: We’re about to launch something that we haven’t announced yet, but it’ll be more tuned for that type of [home] deployment. We’re not focusing on it, we’re not planning on it being a huge driver of anything. But the demand is there, and we’re in a good position to satisfy the people out there who want more than just one smart outlet with a mobile app [for their home]. We’ve done zero sales, zero marketing, zero anything, zero outbound effort; it’s all come to us. We’re very excited by the amount of interest that we have—honestly, we have more than we can handle. So we’re actually not looking for new business. But at this point, we finished fundraising, we’re just executing. And we’re hiring!
JP: Back to the Hot Pocket that started it all. What did your experiment wind up revealing?
SP: That my microwave wasn’t that expensive. But my rice cooker was extremely expensive—like $700 a year!
JP: Who knew!Photo via Sapient