6 Questions: One-on-One with Gene Wang, CEO, People Power Company

A new take on an old way to conserve energy, one appliance at a time.

Gene Wang is probably the only Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was inspired by his children’s elementary school curriculum to start a company. After a brief stint at Hewlett-Packard in 2007, after the IT giant acquired his previous company, Bitphone Corp., the four-time start-up CEO was looking for new ideas. At the same time, his school-aged children were learning about conservation and environmentalism. Wang realized that “information technology can help energy technology, or put another way, ET needs IT.” Today, People Power’s cornerstone product is the SuRF (Sensor Ultra Radio Frequency) software developer’s kit. It detects electrical usage in home appliances and connects to a web portal where energy consumption is monitored, and waste — appliances on standby, automatic sprinklers watering lawns during rainstorms, lights in empty rooms — can be eliminated. Wang believes company will have a much greater impact when it expands further into commercial and industrial sectors. Launched in 2009, People Power is funded by Wang, a variety of angel investors and VCs, and by a small business innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

What is the greatest challenge currently facing People Power and what are you doing about it?

It’s making people care. And making people incentivized and motivated to make changes. And I wouldn’t say just people, it’s companies. We’re also trying to associate ourselves with some of the bigger policy discussions, and also open-sourcing our technology, which is very important to me — I think we’re one of the very few green tech companies really focusing on making their software freely available and this will really help to drive innovation and promote operability.

Who else — person or company — do you feel is doing innovative work and in what way?

One company that we’re meeting today, RICOH [an office equipment manufacturer] is widely respected as one of the greenest companies in the world. [Among] their three corporate values are moving toward sustainability and eco-IT. Another organization I would have to say is working hard is the U.S. government — you have players like the National Institute of Standards and Technology here in the U.S. trying to define a road map and a framework for the U.S to change the energy industry, which has been pretty stagnant over the last 100 years. Unfortunately the U.S. is not living up to its worldwide obligations to put a cap on carbon, so we need to do a lot more. But there is a lot more promise under this administration.

How would you describe your leadership approach/style?

We are very distributed. We have 70 people all around the world. Two in China, three in Canada, many throughout the U.S. and we use cloud based computing. So these days so much can be virtual … it’s a new way to build companies and lead teams. We do meet in person, though. This weekend, in fact, we’re all flying in and getting together to have a great big party. The thing about startups is that it’s the journey, and it’s got to be fun because the hours are long and salary is low and technology leaps are frequent.

People Power was founded in the middle of the last recession, and some are warning we may be headed for a double-dip recession. How likely do you think that is, and how prepared would you be to get through it?

Well, I am very hopeful that it won’t happen. At the same time, this is a very good time to start a company. No. 1, there’s a lot of talent looking for jobs. No. 2, there’s a lot of government stimulus waking up the sector, and government is in many ways the new venture capital. Not only are they VC directly like in the grant we won, they’re also paying for things as customers and that becomes revenue.

You talk a lot about government stimulus, and you’re partially funded with a U.S. Small Business Innovation Research Grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. How supportive of green business innovation is the U.S. government, and has that changed since you first got involved in the field?

I’ve won 12 small business grants in my career, but this is the first from the Department of Energy. It’s a very good program for sponsoring small startups and the department is becoming really active lately. The Secretary of Energy, Steve Chu, is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and he’s really injecting some energy into the whole equation. He’s injecting stimulus funds, he is really thinking of this era as a second industrial revolution.

You’ve managed to balance an impressive corporate resume with a career as a smooth jazz and children’s music recording artist, even recording a campaign song for Hillary Clinton in 2008. How do your music and career overlap?

I have three albums on iTunes [and] we’ve got a band, the People Power band, available for hire to perform at green events. We played on Earth Day at the National Mall in Washington, and I thought that performance was a once in a lifetime event — except that we were invited back next year. We’re happy to spread the message through music.