The electrical engineering process during Covid-19

October 27, 2020
Thibaut Feremans

Since the start of the year, I had been talking to Dennis, our current CFO, about this crazy idea he had been working on: a residential battery solution that would help people save money on their electricity bill. Given my background as an electrical engineer and as a consultant, Dennis wanted me to poke holes in his idea, both from a technical and business standpoint. I tried, but failed: the idea was really good and held big promise — if the team could execute on it. Then Dennis’ next question came: “Do you want to join our team to build this product?” I was so excited about the opportunity that I said yes on the spot.

Over the next couple of weeks, we refined and validated the idea. However, subconsciously, I think we were postponing building the actual product, as we realized that doing so in a COVID environment would be tough: Everything was closed, including labs which contained the components and equipment needed to build a hardware product. And trying to set up a company that sells a hardware product, without building that hardware product, seemed like a failing proposition. So, you may be wondering, how do you get started in this situation?

First, I strongly believe that to be successful in anything you do, you need a strong team to support and guide you. So, we set out to find that team: we leveraged our relationship with Northwestern University and recruited two rockstar graduate electrical engineering students to strengthen our team for the summer. They added the hard skills and brain power we needed to kick this off. And, luck for us, electrical engineers wouldn’t be electrical engineers if they did not have some equipment of their own, just sitting in their apartments. Not only did we onboard two new team members, but we now also had access to soldering rods, digital analyzers, multimeters and other basic electrical components — all you need to start hacking together a product. Complemented with Amazon and Digi-Key, we could get started. After all, a startup wouldn’t be a startup without a garage or basement-story, so we set up a makeshift lab in the basement unit/laundry room of my apartment building, which inevitably led to several awkward interactions with the landlord who wondered what the heck we were doing. We made sure not to mention that mishandling (read experimenting with) batteries could pose a serious fire hazard, but made sure to take all the necessary precautions to keep everyone safe.

Second, to speed up the discovery and research process, we tried to learn as much as possible from existing solutions. This meant combining as much secondary research as we could find with a start-ups mentality towards primary research. On one hand, there is a lot of information available online (e.g. common topologies of battery charging and discharging circuits, electronic circuit reference designs from established players such as TI). On the other hand, there were a couple of in-market battery solutions that we could learn from. Learning from these existing solutions would really accelerate our development as they had been through the R&D process, experimented along the way, and decided to bring a certain solution to market because it outperformed any other solution they had analyzed or built. So we got our hands on some existing products and stripped them down to their components to see exactly how they worked. Doing so allowed us to see what technical similarities and differences existed between these off-the-shelf solutions and the product that we envisioned eventually becoming blipOne.

This “classroom meets the real world” approach turned out to be successful. Over the course of a couple of weeks, the electrical engineering team came together (maintaining proper social distancing) to discuss potential solutions and build a benchtop prototype with off-the-shelf components — in our basement lab.

That’s what I call a true startup/hack story!

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blip is a residential energy storage company focused on expanding access to the benefits of energy storage