“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”
― The Dalai Lama
[Modern] Dirt Farmer Wisdom
by Robert Zulkoski, Social Entrepreneur Comparing Vermont to a mosquito may hit a little too close to home now that summer is in full swing, but the metaphor is too apt to pass by. Just as a mosquito can disrupt a night’s sleep, our small state can disrupt industry. As I have said in this column before and countless others have espoused, Vermont is small, but we can sometimes punch above our weight.
We lead the way on many national issues, are known for our social entrepreneurship, and have higher education renowned for preeminent language programs, green business, and data science.
As I have invested in companies in the state and had the privilege of meeting many entrepreneurs here, I have been consistently impressed by the caliber of ingenuity they hold; and yet, we struggle to gain national attention and the recognition due our accomplishments.
I have been writing these columns for almost a year, outlining my vision of a viable Vermont along the way. In the coming months, I want to let you all hear from the Vermont entrepreneurs, disrupting the norm right in our backyard.
To start this series, I spoke with Scott Johnstone of Packetized Energy about his experience taking Vermont innovation to a global scale.
BZ: Packetized Energy spun out of research at the University of Vermont and has national and global significance for climate change impacts and electric grid management. Why is it innovative?
SJ: Packetized Energy is a company that is focused on optimizing the electric grid to benefit consumers and utilities. We do this by managing electric devices in homes and small businesses in unique ways that enables the grid to better utilize and incorporate renewable energy.
The idea for our company was born of research completed by our founders at University of Vermont with the help of ARPA-E funds through the Department of Energy. The research was found to be so compelling that the company was incorporated in 2016. Packetized can realistically have a huge effect on energy use throughout the US and globally.
Everyone at Packetized is passionate about combating climate change and increasing renewable energy production and our technology will have a huge impact on these things – all while sharing benefits with consumers and assuring they get the quality of service they want and deserve.
We are currently finishing up our market tests of our products with our utilities here in Vermont and California and once we close our next round of funding, we will be ready to scale to a national level quickly.
BZ: We’re convinced that Vermont can be an incubator for solving rural economic challenges and Packetized Energy is a good example. It represents incredible energy-tech innovation with real potential to change the world - and truly homegrown. What made your company successful in spreading that tech far and wide?
SJ: The beauty of Vermont is that it is small and fairly isolated, but the challenge of Vermont is that we are a small, fairly isolated state.
When building a company, this compels you to stay close to all the friends you can get and avoid isolationist tendencies. I was lucky enough to step into the role of CEO of Packetized from being the Executive Director at Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, so I came to the company with both a robust network and experience in carrying great Vermont ideas and innovations to the rest of the world. This, coupled with our Founders’ tremendous networks, all certainly helped, but we needed much better connections to capital markets and additional market actors to scale in the way we truly need to.
We were lucky enough to have investors that have networks to be leveraged and have used those to gain the access that we’ve needed across the United States and the world.
BZ: What do you think is preventing others from doing the same thing as you?
SJ: Earlier I noted the challenge of being small and isolated. To the rest of the world Vermont can be viewed as too small to take a second look at.
Conversely, when we press our advantages of being small, we can bring great ideas that have been tested in our perfect sized laboratory and then the world notices. For me this simply means we need to think in grander increments in Vermont.
We have that Yankee frugality here and I think it comes from this notion that we can only do things at a certain scale - but I think we can and must dream bigger. We can leverage the resources we do have to get the attention of larger capital markets to support our tech companies here and get them the capital that they need.
I think when we think bigger thoughts; we find that our destiny is for bigger and grander outcomes.
Robert Zulkoski is one of the founders of Vermont Works Management Company (www.vermontworks.co) and The Vermont Innovation Commons (www.vtinnovationcommons.com), whose objective is to deliver capital, mentorship, and connectivity to Vermont’s innovation ecosystem. The goal is to ensure that Vermont is a full participant in the emerging, technology-enabled “new economy.” Zulkoski sees the dynamic changes sweeping the country and the globe as an achievable opportunity for Vermont to create large numbers of livable wage and sustainable jobs that help retain and attract talent and innovation while staying true to the “Vermont Brand” and what it represents to the citizens of Vermont. Zulkoski is also a founding shareholder and Director of Impact .Investment of The Conduit (www.theconduit.com), which connects thinkers, leaders, and innovators in social change, business, and the arts to create impact for the greater good.