Ryan Wright, founder and CEO of WrightGrid, is one of the many innovators working to usher in the era of “smart cities.” WrightGrid installs and operates solar-powered Wi-Fi hotspot and mobile phone charging stations throughout communities.
Per WrightGrid’s philosophy, “two of the most critical benchmarks of an economically-vibrant and healthy community are a robust communications network and an inexpensive source of energy. Yet despite major investments in mobile phone infrastructure throughout developing nations, nearly 2+ billion mobile phone users are without a reliable charging source.”
We sat down with Wright to learn more about his thoughts on smart cities and his experiences in working with local governments to bring smart cities to life.
Tell us about your business model.
I started this business because I was very passionate about sustainability, and the concept of the triple bottom line; it’s more than just a financial benefit that we are looking for.
Property owners benefit from our free and convenient service at no cost; we handle all the maintenance, installation, and servicing of the stations. As long as property owners have locations fit for advertising, then all we have to do is agree on placement locations and then they get the benefits.
Our model allows us to come in, offer the no-cost option and then get revenue from the advertisers and, in certain instances, we can even generate revenue and share it back to the property owner. So they can generate revenue by allowing us to place our stations. And through data each station collects, they can better understand how space is being utilized and what’s being utilize.
We also really want to have those other two pillars be important parts of our business – the environmental impact and the social impact. So from the environmental side, it’s very much about using renewable energy as much as possible and moving away from grid type mentality to point of use power application.
Then on the social side, there is the fact that we are able to (in the developed world) offer free and convenient phone charging and Wi-Fi. We’ve found that, particularly in urban environments, the homeless communities are early adopters and key users of our stations. We found that in the homeless community, especially in Boston, just about everybody has a cell phone, but they don’t always have a roof over their heads, and so those folks have been big time users of our stations through the pilots that we’ve done locally.
How has the concept of “smart cities” impacted your work?
It’s an interesting time because of the notion of smart cities is a real buzz word right now, cities want to be “smart.” But I think a lot of what that actually means is still yet to be defined by the cities themselves.
When we look at the smart city, the underpinning or the core is connectivity - collecting and processing data
that allows the city to run more efficiently and effectively.
But beyond that basic definition, cities tend to struggle with what data is actually most meaningful to collect. What are they going to do with that data? How are they going to take action with that data?
I think that municipalities are coming around to the idea of the smart city, and they are open to smart city opportunities. But because they don't necessarily have a clear understanding of what that looks like for their individual city, it presents a bit of a challenge for us. Our work is a little more challenging when we have to work with the city to help them understand the benefits of what we are providing and how it can be useful to them in their day to day operations.
What has your experience been like working with local governments?
The two cities that we have worked with to date are the City of Boston and the City of Somerville. We are physically based in Somerville; working with the city has been helpful for us because we have a testing ground in our immediate backyard.
We are fortunate that Somerville is a very forward thinking municipality – it is focused on the goal of being carbon neutral by 2050. It is looking at early stage projects to roll out in the city that are focused on using renewables in new and creative ways. Somerville is looking to build a road map for how to get to carbon neutrality by 2050.
We were the second pilot project the municipality undertook, and things went very well this past year. We decided to roll out four stations in Somerville as a pilot to see what the utilization rates were like and figure out how the stations function in an urban setting. Overall, the feedback was incredibly positive. We saw tremendous utilization of the stations and the city loved that it didn't have to pay anything for them.
The model seemed to work well so we’ve just signed a deal with Somerville to roll out 10 more stations this year and those stations will have advertisements on them, which will allow us to monetize the stations being deployed.
Is a very similar tale with Boston in that we did the same pilot in the fall; again utilization was very high on the stations; the overall cost impact for the city was minimum to non-existent and so they want to move ahead with a larger scale roll out – we’re talking about 10-15 stations to be deployed in Boston this year.
How can this technology help local governments prepare for climate change?
If you want to provide services that require electricity, you’ll have to have a grid connection by and large. We are trying to move folks away from that – getting them to understand that for many applications, there are opportunities for point of use power. You can use whatever renewable sources you have available, in many case that is solar, but it could be wind or geothermal or several other types of renewable energy. Grid power is predominately from fossil fuels and we‘re trying to show that you don’t always need to plug into a grid to pull power.
And so with our stations, for instance, you don’t need to make an electrical connection at street level that could cost you several thousands of dollars. As we go forward, we have plans to branch out into additional products and services based around the concept of point of use power and utilizing what you have available to you, rather than requiring a grid connection.
The benefit of that is also, not just from the environmental perspective of saving power, but also, from a cost perspective, point of use power is much more affordable than grid power in many cases because you don’t have the infrastructural cost associated with connecting and tying into and existing grid.
How do you choose installation sites?
We work with the cities to pick exact locations for the stations. The places where we are deploying this have heavy foot traffic, typically in locations that are very accessible and visible, often times aligning with public transportation. A license agreement allows us to place stations there at no cost and then we work with advertisers as a means for us to pay for the deployments. In terms of advertising, anything that goes out has to be tasteful and the city has final approval. For example, the basics that we are not allow to do are alcohol, tobacco, firearms. But as long as the advertising is tasteful and community friendly, then they have no issue with that. We’ve worked with retail brands, utilities, consumer brands and for the most part, there is really no issue.
What are your results to date?
We’ve been heavy into product development over the past couple of years, so really focused on iterating quickly, getting products out into the field, testing them through end users and customers, and refining our product offering.
We have one more season (2016) to deploy our 5th generation charging stations that incorporate wifi hot spots. We are testing those; we are building the back end capability; and as we go forward the goal is to get to a critical mass of stations deployed in the Greater Boston area at scale that allows us to test all of our back end networking capability, so that by early next year we are in a position to scale up our business and branch out beyond just the Northeast.
What are your plans for the future?
Our goal as we move forward is to provide meaningful data sets back to municipalities – anything that makes the city run more efficiently. For instance, data we are collecting could help them better understand foot traffic and utilization or how to better staff their different departments, like the police department for the number of staff they need on hand in a given day to patrol Boston, or the frequency with which they need to empty their trash barrels, etc.
We have several other municipalities in our pipeline with pilot activities to get off the ground, but really we are focused on the greater Boston area to prove out our concept before we scale beyond. We are starting to build interest through the mid-Atlantic as our next expansion opportunity.
You can learn more about WrightGrid by visiting it's website here.