By Josh Wolfe, Contributor

The excerpt below comes from Forbes/Wolfe Emerging Technology Report’s recent full-length interview with Naimish Patel, CEO of Gridco Systems, a provider of intelligent power control and management solutions for the 21st century electric grid. Previously, Naimish served as Entrepreneur in Residence at General Catalyst Partners, where he focused on investment opportunities in clean technology, advanced materials, and life sciences. Prior to his role at General Catalyst, Naimish was Chief Technology Officer (CTO) at Sycamore Networks, a leading provider of optical networking solutions for mission-critical networks. As Sycamore’s CTO, Naimish was responsible for the company’s technology vision and product strategy. Naimish was one of the four founding team members of Sycamore Networks, where he made key contributions to Sycamore’s product development since its inception in 1998. Naimish holds BS, MS, and MEng degrees in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is the holder of 18 patents. Tell me a bit about your personal background and what inspired you to found Gridco Systems. I did my Master’s thesis at MIT in Electrical Engineering with a focus on optics, and shortly after graduating, co-founded Sycamore Networks. I remained there for about seven years in the capacity of CTO. I then joined General Catalyst Partners as an Entrepreneur-In-Residence (EIR), and when I was there, I was exposed to the power distribution world doing some work where we built a data center in Iceland. Around that time, I posed the question: “Is there an opportunity to build a leading company offering a fundamentally new class of infrastructure to electric utilities?” This question gave rise to a lot of customer discussions and interactions, which nine months later led to the founding of Gridco Systems. What did you see in your survey of the utilities sector that answered this question? Having been on the investor side and seeing a lot of the innovations and investments that were being made and applied to the electric grid, I noticed that there was one class of investments being made, primarily application of information technology to the grid. Whether that was communications infrastructure, grid analytics, or sensor technologies and the like, we found that it was quite difficult, if not impossible in many cases, to render a business case that didn’t rely on some form of societal benefits to make them whole. Fortunately, there were subsidies available from ARPA and state equivalents to support the testing and deployment of those technologies, and that was good from my perspective, because those are necessary ingredients of a modernized grid. But we founded Gridco on the core principle that what we provide to utilities must have an associated business case that stands alone and does not rely on subsidy. When you look at the space from that perspective, the missing ingredient in a truly modernized grid is what we call “active grid infrastructure,” or infrastructure that enables utilities to alter, regulate, and manage the flow of power in response to the telemetry coming back from the IT-oriented technologies. We are pursuing a new set of infrastructure that enables utilities to enact change in response to telemetry. Intelligence doesn’t do utilities much good without agility. What separates your effort from those of other companies that are attempting to modernize the grid? The fundamental and unique aspect of what we do is we build hardware and associated software that actively regulates the flow of power in a utility’s distribution systems. We can do everything from regulating the voltage delivered to end customers, to managing reactive power on the system, to increasing the quality of power through cancellation of harmonics – fundamentally ensuring grid reliability end-to-end. A reasonable analogy for what currently exists, in the absence of Gridco’s products, would be a router at the core of the Internet that could look up incoming packets, look up where they needed to go but couldn’t physically route them. That routing function, actually being able to manipulate and alter the flow of power is the new piece of the puzzle that we solve. Why did you feel like now was the right time to start this company? We noticed three fundamental trends in the industry that were creating stress on the existing grid. First was renewables integration. In other words, how do utilities deal with the reliability challenges that come from increasingly distributed and varied sources of power? The second trend was that over the past couple of decades, little investment has been made in both base load generation and transmission capacity, and as a result, utilities need to be able to extract higher levels of efficiency from their systems in the face of load growth. The third trend has been severe storms. Whether you believe this trend is manmade or not, severe storms are occurring, and with higher frequency, and the impact of outages both in scale and time is significant, so how do utilities better address outage recovery in such a scenario? Additionally, there has been great innovation in power electronics over the last decade, resulting from things like inverters, solar inverters, wind converters and even hybrid electric vehicles. So if you put the demand drivers and changes in conjunction with this new supply capability, our thesis was that you could build a company around that. Where is Gridco Systems now? We recently launched our Gridco Systems emPower™ Solution. The emPower solution consists of three products. The first part of the solution is the In-Line Power Regulators (IPRs)™, our power electronics-based hardware system ruggedized for the distribution environment that lasts 25 years, requires no maintenance and performs the functions I mentioned before. These operate in conjunction with the intelligence of the solution, our Distributed Grid Controllers™, a ruggedized computing platform that enables control, monitoring of Gridco’s assets as well as other assets. Lastly, the third component of the solution is a suite of software that we call the Grid Management and Analytics Platform, or GMAP™, which provides remote monitoring and control, as well as advanced analytics for these systems. Coming into this venture, you had little to no background in the industry. Do you think that that was an advantage or disadvantage in starting Gridco Systems? The advantage is that I was perhaps not jaded and thus was willing to try something new, despite the significant challenges. The disadvantage was that I needed to develop a deep understanding of the space, and that’s why I spent nine months surveying it. That actually turned out to be an advantage because it forced me to take a top-down approach rather than a technology oriented approach. If I had been a power electronics engineer, maybe I instead would have tried to come up with a niche product and find an application for it. So I think that orientation in the end probably helped us as a company. Where do you see Gridco five years from now? We will hopefully be the market leader in active grid infrastructure. Even though we’re just beginning, five years is actually a long time, even on a utility timescale, and based on what we’ve seen in response thus far, there is certainly is an opportunity for us to be the leader in that market.