Brothers Mark and Scott Keeley are the founders of Obvia LLC, a West Hartford-based startup that designs innovative wind turbine blades.
Innovation Destination Hartford: How did you develop the business concept for the startup?
MARK KEELEY: Scott and I are fairly entrepreneurial. Our father owned his own company when we were younger, so we always thought we’d own something someday when we grew up.
Scott pursued a number of careers from architectural and industrial design to art and music. He was left side of the brain and I was the accountant, the right side of the brain. We knew we had a good combination that would work from a business side and a creative side.
Back in the early 1990s Scott worked for a company that developed a wind turbine with a shroud. It basically looks like a jet engine on a stick instead of a propeller on a stick.
The propeller companies do what they do and the shroud companies do what they do. So, my brother came up with an innovative idea to take the best of both worlds. He developed a patent-pending design that uses the best of a propeller design and the best of the shroud design and merges the two to more efficiently create energy from wind.
IDH: Was the startup Scott’s idea to begin with?
MK: Yes. He created the design and launched out on his own almost a year ago. And, he has experience writing the patents—he became a patent agent in January. That was really the spark that was helpful in getting us started. Not only did he have an idea, he could legitimize it with a patent. We already have a number of patents on his design. That’s the way patents work, you have to patent a lot of the little pieces of the product.
IDH: How and when did you come on board?
MK: Scott asked me to join him after he became a patent agent and wanted to go off on his own. It’s scary to do something like that. He was looking to see if he could have helpers. His wife is a technical writer. She helps write some patents. I’m an accountant and I’ve been in sales and accounting services most of my life. I act as Chief Financial Officer and help with sales, accounting, and finance.
IDH: Is the product finalized? What are your next steps?
MK: We’ve gone from theory and design to prototyping and testing. Now we’re examining a number of parallel paths.
It takes about 18 months to get patent on our type of technology. So, one path would be to take our design—once it’s patented—and contact Vestas, General Electric (GE), and Siemens, which are the three biggest manufacturers of wind turbines, to ask them what they think about our design and find out if they are interested in collaborating with us. They may or may not want to play. But that’s one pathway.
Another pathway is to look at the different components of wind technology. Vestas, GE, and Siemens make big wind. We could look into mid-wind companies, such as Bergey, and see if someone wants to license our design, then they can model their blades after it.
There’s also a small wind market. We can reach out to Sungard, which is the biggest manufacturer of small wind turbines.
Let’s say none of those big-, mid-, or small-wind companies want to collaborate with us. Well, then another path is we do it ourselves.
IDH: Do you have the resources to do that?
MK: We’ve talked to six or eight different mold manufacturers here in Connecticut. We could bootstrap the business at six figures to make our own blades. We could make replacement blades for the handful of small wind operators out there. But they may not want us replacing their small blades. We could make our blades and then those companies could tell buyers of the blade they can’t use it because it will invalidate their warranty. If that were to occur, we would make our own turbines here in Connecticut.
There are only three components to a turbine. There are the blades that capture the energy; the controller/generator that turns the wind energy into electricity; and the housing, which is the piece of metal everything sits in. The blades are the creative part. They are what harnesses the energy. The controller that absorbs the energy, you can buy anywhere. And the housing, you can either make your own or buy those anywhere. So, we could take two very common, fairly unpatentable parts, put our blades on them, and make our own turbines. We can do that on a small basis to start and then get bigger as time goes on.
IDH: It sounds like there are a lot of options.
MK: There are. We’re trying to simultaneously think small and big. One of the things were doing right now is we are applying to the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).
ARPA-E does give out some grant money, but that is inconsequential compared to the context their validation provides. Once someone sees our patent-pending—or maybe by that stage, patented—blade, then people come calling. And that would generate more interest and allow the powers that be at Vestas, GE, or Siemens to take us seriously.
IDH: With all these different options, is it challenging to try and determine which path to take?
MK: I don’t see that as a challenge, mainly because of the business environment I grew up in. The people who were most successful were able to deal with ambiguity. I was always told: If you’re not comfortable with where you are, that’s exactly where you want to be.
I think big, medium, and small wind could all be answers, but we don’t mind being a little picky and making one option work. We don’t necessarily need to see ourselves succeed in all three venues. We’re happy to simultaneously go down all of these paths.
IDH: You are very involved in the Greater Hartford entrepreneurial ecosystem. Tell us about the importance of that and how it’s helping to shape your startup.
MK: We started becoming involved with the entrepreneurial ecosystem before we even put together our idea to get it patented.
I always found that volunteering in the community helps with your network. I started at reSET with Program Manager Christopher Mazziotto providing mentoring from a financial perspective, because I’m a certified public accountant. My brother started working with Entrepreneur-in-Residence Eric Knight from a patent perspective, mentoring people about patents.
Between the two of us, Scott and I became mentors and then as he developed his idea we became members. I also used the Connecticut Innovations website to try and find all the connected organizations and go to them. That’s how I found Innovation Destination Hartford and found the CT Entrepreneurs Meetup event, which is where I met IDH Website Curator Nan Price. I go to all kinds of entrepreneurial events.
IDH: Speaking of Connecticut Innovations, you won an Entrepreneur Innovation Award in May 2016. How are you using the funding?
MK: Great question. We’ve been using the first part of the funding to refine our testing. We haven’t even needed to use all the money yet, we’ve only drawn down half of it.
Now we’re using the funding to make blades. The Department of Energy already recognizes that blade improvement is necessary. They’ve made it clear that they want blades that have higher tip speed, produce less noise, and create less load. And our blades meet all three areas.
So we’re using the award money mostly to make the blades, design them, pay for all the patenting, and also hire an aerodynamicist.
IDH: Let’s go back and talk about the challenges you’ve been facing as a startup.
MK: The biggest challenge in my mind is answering questions from venture capitalists, because they ask: How much money do you need and when do you need it? To me that’s like asking: How long is a piece of string?
If a company decides to buy our design, we need no money and no help. But if we’re going to make our own blades and small wind doesn’t want to talk to us, then we’ll go mid wind. And if we go mid wind, now we’re not spending six figures on a mold with injection molding, we’re spending seven figures. Then do we need $200,000 for small wind or do we need $2 million for mid wind? We are not likely to do both at the outset.
So, my biggest challenge is coming up with a cohesive answer to: What do you want?
One of the other questions is: Are you going to go residential or commercial? Residential is where small wind is—it can be used in residential boats or homes. But there is a lot of challenge to that because the acceptance of turbines is not all the way there yet. We don’t even know what towns are likely to want turbines or not want turbines. And so, we’re thinking residential may not be the answer.
But our biggest challenge—apart from not knowing what we’re truly going to be when we grow up—is who is most interested and who has contacts? Does anyone know anyone in wind?
What we’re most challenged with is making connections with people who are in the wind industry. Someone who can get GE to answer our phone call.
So our challenge is picking the right market, and the right market may well be defined by who we connect with.
IDH: Any advice for other startups?
MK: My advice to folks would be to just do it. Quit your job. Jump off the cliff. And you hear that on Shark Tank too. They want to know that you’re dedicated full-time. That’s a big leap at any stage of life. It’s demonstrating a sacrifice yourself before anyone’s going to commit to you.
IDH: And if you’re not passionate about it, you’re not going to quit your job or take that leap.
MK: Right. And to that point, we are willing to take that leap. Here’s an example of how open-minded we are. Right now solar seems to be all the rage. People aren’t complaining about it like they did in the beginning. Now it’s on people’s rooftops. Now it looks like solar is starting to become cool.
And we believe solar and wind can coexist, so one of the ideas we’re pursuing is a solar and wind combo.
We are self-aware. We know that wind is not necessarily accepted on a universal scale, but it’s becoming more accepted, and we want to be there when it is.
Learn more about Obvia LLC by visiting www.obvia.biz.