Fueling the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Fueling the Entrepreneurial Spirit


"It was all about being energy independent," says Joshi, who recalled the energy embargo in the 1970s when gas prices skyrocketed and long lines at gas stations were the norm. But when the embargo ended in 1979 and oil started flowing again, the prices dropped and the interest in energy conservation waned. It was just the beginning for Joshi, though, whose major project looked at the cost-effectiveness of residential solar heating.

Today, Joshi remains driven by the desire to turn alternative energy initiatives into real working applications. The entrepreneur and businessman is co-owner of the Boylston, Mass.-based Owl Power Co., Inc., a venture whose co-generation system turns used vegetable oil into electric power. "The key innovation is in how we process the vegetable oil," says Joshi, who also holds a PhD from MIT. For years, innovators have experimented with vegetableoil as a potential energy source, mostly for powering cars. But the challenge with powering motor vehicles, Joshi says, is that they require the use of diesel fuel as well as vegetable oil. Owl Power’s Vegawatt power system can run purely on recycled vegetable oil. "We clean up the oil on site and use an internal combustion engine to generate electricity," he says.

This waste-to-electricity system can produce about onethird of a restaurant’s power, saving up to $10,000 a year in electricity costs for a 100-seat restaurant. At about $20,000 per unit, or $500 a month to lease, the rate of return makes this system a compelling energy option.

With two patents pending and a local customer site in beta testing, the company is tweaking the product to meet the strict state and local regulatory issues around combustion engines. Once that hurdle is cleared, the product is poised for tremendous growth, says Joshi, and he is heavily pitching the product to national food chains, such as McDonald’s.

Joshi, who provides corporate development and strategy consulting services to Owl Power and is responsible for business planning and raising capital for the company launch, says he’s driven by the challenge of bringing an idea to market. He was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug as an engineer at American Superconductor Corp. in the late 1980s. "I liked the idea of being involved in things in the early stage," he says. "Building a company from scratch, taking what was being developed in the lab and turning it into a useful application— it was very intriguing to me."

In 1996 Joshi left American Superconductor to form his own company, Energen Inc., a precision control device maker based in Lowell, Mass. The company’s first product, based on technology to come out of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, took Magnetostrictive—a material that changes its shape when it connects with a magnet—and turned it into a precision motion application now used in the image stabilization feature of a movie camera. The product was licensed to Panavision in 2007, opening the door for yet another venture. "I decided to go back and look at what the energy industry was producing," he says.

At the annual Clean Energy Conference in Boston, Joshi connected with people working on clean energy initiatives. “I started getting involved in helping these younger engineers build a company around their technology,” he says. That’s where he met Owl Power co-founder James Peret, a former development engineer at Boston-based Insight Product Development.

But Joshi attributes his desire to handle the business side of technological innovation to his years at WPI. It was there, he says, he worked on projects that showcased his technical skills. “The flexibility allowed me to go and explore what I was interested in—a solar heating system application. So I talked to [Professor] Jack Boyd and said, ‘Here’s what I’d like to do.’ He allowed me to put together a team and explore what was involved in designing a solar energy system.”

As he immerses himself in bringing a new alternative energy plan to fruition, Joshi says the country, like his career, has come full circle. But he doesn’t believe there will be any waning in environmental concerns this time around. In the 1970s, the cost of oil drove people to turn to alternative energy sources. But today, he says, it’s a change in attitudes toward fossil fuels and concerns about the environment that will sustain the alternative energy movement.

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