On average, convention centers use 22 million kilowatt hours of energy annually, which translates to an enormous $2.6 million spent on electricity. However, with no efficient way to track this expense, they are unable to charge clients for their power usage, which can lead to unprofitable events. That’s what motivated one Senior Design team to consult with the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC) to develop Enercast Solutions, a software platform based in Amazon Web Services that provides a tool for convention centers to predict electricity consumption.
The entrepreneurial nature of the project made it a great fit for the team to join Georgia Tech’s CREATE-X Capstone to complete their Senior Design project. This was the first time students from the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial Systems and Engineering (ISyE) participated in CREATE-X Capstone. It also gave them an opportunity to diversify their skill set by adding two computer science majors to the team.*
The creators of Enercast Solutions are the members of team “Helluva Energy-neers” (advised by ISyE Professor Craig Tovey), which includes Abdulhafiz Abdullahi, Ronnie Bian, Jackson Burke, Aarushi Khajuria, Sonakshi Mishra, Junzhe Ruan, Laura Zhang, and Sam Zimmerman from ISyE, as well as computer science students Jordan Rodrigues and Vale Tolpegin.
“We were interested in learning about entrepreneurship, and this seemed like a really good opportunity,” said Zhang about their decision to join CREATE-X Capstone. “With traditional Senior Design, your scope of impact is just one client, but in the CREATE-X entrepreneurship path, we had the potential to influence several hundred convention centers across the United States.”
Led by mechanical engineering Professor Craig Forest, this special capstone design section is dedicated to developing entrepreneurial prototypes and exploring their market demand. The multidisciplinary program has been running for several years now and is open to students from the departments of biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science, electrical and computer engineering, and now ISyE.
The ISyE students assembled during pre-Senior Design, where their high potential for entrepreneurship was identified by Dima Nazzal, ISyE director of professional practice and leader of the Senior Design program. "ISyE students are increasingly interested in entrepreneurship and multi-disciplinary projects, which motivated us to explore this pathway,” said Nazzal. “It turned out to be a successful experiment with excellent potential for expansion and continuity.”
The energy prediction tool they created uses machine-learning techniques to model energy consumption with several input factors: square footage utilized, forecasted attendance, whether special equipment will be used, and the event dates. Based on predicted electricity usage, the tool outputs a baseline cost for the convention center, as well as an upper and lower bound on how much the event will cost. Convention centers can use these estimates to decide the appropriate amount to charge their clients for the increase in electricity use resulting from their events.
Enercast Solutions topped the competition by winning the CREATE-X best project award across 13 teams and were invited to present their prototype pitch at the ISyE Best of Senior Design presentations.
“Despite their lack of experience in the course compared to the other majors, the ISyE students jumped to the fore because they had already explored customer relationships over the preceding semester and had identified a client as their first customer,” said Forest. “They were able to use this as a springboard, meeting dozens or hundreds of more potential customers who had the same problem, enabling them to assess the size of the market.”
Although pre-Senior Design gave the team a head start, choosing CREATE-X Capstone came with many challenges. “CREATE-X is a different mindset than a lot of the other design projects,” said Tolpegin. “You have to find a problem, and people discount the difficulty of that — that's why 95% of startups fail. Early in the semester, we came up with two different project ideas, and it was a very challenging decision to figure out what path to go down.”
Customer discovery was instrumental in finding a relevant problem space, which meant ensuring that their product would be applicable to most, if not all, convention centers. The team leveraged GWCC partners, cold-called event spaces, and messaged convention center personnel through LinkedIn to secure interviews. In total, they consulted 55 event spaces across the United States and globally. By performing market research and analyzing data from GWCC, the team was able to identify electricity consumption as one of the highest expenses convention centers incur.
In addition to customer discovery, user testing was an important step in prototype creation. “We were able to get user feedback very early on in the process, and that gave us the ability to adapt and grow our solution based on customer needs,” Tolpegin explained.
Throughout the development cycle, the team conducted a series of tests to refine the Enercast Solutions website. User testing involved recording the amount of mouse clicks and time needed to accomplish various tasks on the website. They also interviewed the testers about their experience and had them fill out a system usability scale – a basic questionnaire used to get feedback on a prototype. Employing standard industry metrics for evaluating software products ensured they obtained objective data.
Another crucial hurdle to overcome was coordination; with 10 members, the team was larger than the typical Senior Design team. “Meeting and ensuring everyone is on the same page can be a lot to do, because you want to make sure that everyone feels like their voices are being heard,” said Khajuria. They came up with a framework to split the members into smaller sub-teams for the second half of the semester, which proved successful.
Though team organization was challenging, they cited working in an interdisciplinary team as a very valuable opportunity. “We've had experience building prediction models with other ISyE students, but this time – working with the CS students – we could see the different ways we approach forecasting,” said Abdullahi.
Ultimately, the team’s hard work and dedication paid off, enabling them to deliver a top-notch product solution that gave GWCC access to information they had never been able to collect before. “We appreciate how easy this tool is to use,” said Vince Almoina, national sales manager at GWCC. “It’s a very simplified platform that delivers exactly the information needed with minimal steps.” In addition to GWCC, two other convention centers also expressed interest in Enercast Solutions services, though the team ultimately decided not to continue with their company.
With their commitment to the challenge and impressive win in the CREATE-X Capstone competition, this team sets a high bar for future students. “I was especially impressed by the students’ professionalism, clear communication, and energy throughout the semester,” said Forest. “If this team, which was named best in the entire class, is representative of what ISyE students bring to the table, then I can’t wait to have more in the class in Fall 2021 and beyond.”
*A second Senior Design team primarily comprising ISyE students also participated in the CREATE-X Capstone Course. The team, nicknamed "Big Things Come in Small Parcels," includes Reed Bethune, Bill Doran, William DuPre, Chase Hubbard, Colin McCormick, Mary Claire Solomon, and Emma Taylor. Aaron Lopes, a computer science major, is also a member. They were advised by Professor Emeritus Leon McGinnis and did not have a client.
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Communications Assistant H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering