EVmatch: Charging the Future of Transportation
BY NASTACIA SCHMOLL
Heather Hochrein and Shannon Walker are co-founders of EVmatch, a business that matches electric vehicle (EV) drivers to underutilized charging stations through a peer-to-peer public charging network. Their hope is to make EVs more accessible, reduce air pollution caused by conventional gasoline vehicles, and make the future of transportation more sustainable.
In the past six months Hochrein and Walker have taken EVmatch from a master’s thesis project to a viable startup. They spoke with impactmania about their vision for the future of sustainable transportation and the sharing economy, as well as their journey developing a business that spans two traditionally male dominated industries – automotive and tech.
How did EVmatch start?
Heather: EVmatch started as our master’s thesis project. Shannon and I were both completing our master’s at UC Santa Barbara’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management. We were both in the eco-entrepreneurship track, where we were seeking to build a business model that solves environmental problems.
We came together because of our shared interest for solving air pollution and climate change issues. We wanted to find a practical solution to these problems. The more and more we researched, we realized that transportation is a huge and growing issue in terms of harmful emissions and that vehicle electrification has huge potential for lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Over the course of two years we did extensive customer research and found that a lack of a public infrastructure is preventing people from buying EVs.
The demographic for EV ownership is very narrow right now. You need to be a homeowner in order to own an EV. And we want to change that. With our sharing network, we can really change the demographics and enable EV ownership to a broader group of individuals.
We were getting a lot of positive reinforcement from business plan competitions and were quickly gaining a lot of traction. We decided to launch EVmatch as a business in June after graduating. We have been working on it for six months now.
As a crowd-sourced project, how does it fit into the current economy and the way that people live now?
Shannon: There are a lot of market trends that indicate that the sharing economy is growing really quickly, especially with Millennials. They are gaining purchasing power, looking for solutions that are efficient, that involve the community, and they’re not afraid to share with other people. For Millennials and people around our age, ownership isn’t really a priority. People don’t prioritize investing in homes or cars, suggesting they also won’t invest in their own home EV charging station. These trends fit well with our business model because it’s really convenient and easy for people to use EVmatch to find reservable charging and not have to deal with the hassle of installing their own station, or the inconvenience of always being home to charge their car.
With this comes a lack of desire to own a car itself. How do you think that’s going to affect EVmatch?
Shannon: That’s the million dollar question. A lot of auto manufacturers are heavily investing in answering: What is the future of transportation going to look like? What is the future of vehicle ownership going to look like?
Trends suggest there will be more car sharing and car fleets, where individuals pay to have access to multiple types of shared vehicles. It isn’t going to happen overnight, but this is the direction things are headed. We think that’s great! Regardless of whether a person owns a car or if they are renting, people can use EVmatch to find a place to charge. Car sharing is just another sharing economy platform that complements our own.
Heather: Initially we’re targeting individual homeowners and drivers. But as we build up our network and increase the functionality of our software platform, we’ll be able to tie in commercial charging stations and charge large fleets in the future. We anticipate that cars are going to be owned less and less by individuals and more and more by companies and car-sharing platforms. We are anticipating those trends, and we know that we’re going to need to adapt as the ownership model changes. Initially we’re focusing on increasing access to underutilized residential charging stations, then we can leverage our network to expand from there.
Have you started networking and building this intersection with other companies?
Heather: We have spoken with several businesses and commercial entities that have charging stations, and there’s definitely an interest in increasing their utilization and return on their investment. This is particularly true for workplaces that offer charging stations to their employees during the day that then sit there idle at night. We know how we will integrate these stations into our network, but it will require a hardware-software integration, so this is Phase II of our business expansion.
Shannon: At this point, we’re focusing on market research and forming connections with the industry players. One of our external mentors works for a public EV charging network, EVgo, which is really leading the way in EV fast charging infrastructure. Another of our external mentors works at Bosch Automotive. We’re also semi-finalists in the Global Automotive and Mobility Innovation Challenge, a competition led by SAE International, the Society of Automotive Engineers, MI Innovation Alliance, and NextEnergy. We’re really involved with industry players to keep up with the rapidly evolving market, and will continue to focus on making these relationships stronger.
Where have you been getting funding for your company?
Shannon: Initially, a lot of our funding came from award money that we won as a student project and from fellowships that we received pretty close to graduation. On the grand scale of businesses our software-as-a-service model requires less capital expenditure than most. But of course, as two recent graduates, we do need investment to initially launch and scale EVmatch. Our initial revenue comes from a transaction fee. Then as the network grows, we’ll be able to minimize the transaction fee and instead leverage the power of the network for additional revenue alternatives.
Heather: There’s an accelerator specifically for women that we’re participating in that’s providing some funding. Also within the next six months, we will be seeking private investment from Angel Investors, or potentially Venture Capital. Right now, we’re working on developing our minimum viable product (MVP) to get it out there, retain customers, and be able to show quantifiable traction to our investors. We can be profitable by mid-2018, and then reinvest that profit back into our business development.
2.7% of venture backed companies are led by women, but make more profit on average than companies led by men. How has it been for you, as two women co-founders, speaking with investors and other organizations?
Heather: It has been a challenge. It’s difficult to “get into the club” without first having an in. Our accelerator will be valuable for getting more of those introductions.
Our challenges will largely be remedied once we demonstrate market demand for our service through our MVP. But it’s hard to not wonder if some of the challenges we face are exacerbated because we are two women in a male dominated world. It feels like we have to be even more convincing that this is a viable business opportunity.
Shannon: You can look at it from two very different perspectives. The first is that it’s challenging because we’re not inherently “part of the club.” And it’s not because we don’t have the skills or technical experience necessary to do what we’re doing. We’re both very competent individuals.
At the same time, being that there are so few women owned companies backed by venture capital, in some cases it has benefitted us that people do look at us differently. They are excited to support us, because we aren’t your average tech startup. And so when I’m frustrated, I also become inspired by thinking about what we’re doing to change the face of women-owned startups, and what other women in similar positions are doing to create change. It’s really part of a greater movement than just starting a company; it’s about proving that women can also do this and do it well.
Heather: You’re representing more than just yourself, and sometimes I feel pressure to be successful. The tech and automotive industries are heavily male-dominated. So we sometimes go to these competitions where it’s all men. They look at you like, “What are you doing here? Are you in the wrong building?” And then you start talking, and they realize you actually know something about EVs and about the sector and you do have something to contribute. You see people’s impression change. Maybe they made a judgment about me, and they had some sort of stereotype, and I’m breaking that stereotype. I love that.
What’s been the biggest challenge for you?
Heather: The uncertainty. Being an entrepreneur, you have to just embrace that uncertainty – not knowing where our funding is coming from, not knowing where we’re going to live, not knowing where our next big opportunity is. Embracing that uncertainty and having faith and confidence that we’re going to make it work is a new way of thinking. We have a plan, but we also understand that sometimes the plan will change and we need to be flexible, adaptable, and persistent.
Shannon: You have to wear every possible hat, because that’s the only way you can grow your business without a lot of initial funding. We’re being accountants; we’re reviewing legal documents; we’re creating all of our contracts for our employees. It takes a lot of time. The days are long. Sometimes you’re not doing the work that you really want to do. You have to remind yourself that it’s all part of this greater goal, and just continue to put one foot in front of the other. Some days doing that takes a lot of mental strength.
What’s been a surprising learning for you?
Shannon: That I can work in such a high-stress environment and love it. We’ve been doing it for six months and things are still very uncertain, but I’m still very happy with my decision to start this company. I’ve grown more than I could have ever imagined in this short amount of time.
Heather: I think I’m surprised that I am a business owner. That is not something that I expected. Going into grad school, I thought I’d be working for a nonprofit or working in government. And knowing that I can make the biggest impact by starting this business is something that’s really surprising to me.
Who’s inspired you to do this or has made an impact on you as a business woman and an environmentalist?
Heather: My previous supervisor. I worked for five years at a nonprofit called Rising Sun Energy Center. They’re based in the Bay Area, and they employ youth and disadvantaged adults to do weatherization energy efficiency projects in local communities, specifically targeting low income communities. They’re focused on energy efficiency, but also job training and economic development. That intersection of community development and sustainability is something I’ve brought to EVmatch. We are also improving communities through increased sustainability, and this can help people economically.
Watching my supervisor grow a very small organization to a much larger one was very motivating. At one point she said, “You’re going to be a CEO one day and you’re going to run your own company.” I thought, you’re ridiculous, that’s not gonna happen. And then years later here we are.
Shannon: I’ve been greatly inspired by the three other women in my graduate program that worked with me on the original EVmatch thesis project. They were all amazingly well versed in the energy sector and strong, hardworking women. I grew immensely working with and learning from them. They pushed me to a whole other level, and their energy and enthusiasm is contagious. They were and remain to be very supportive of EVmatch, and it’s really inspiring.
What’s one word to describe your experience?