Virginia Tech team’s software fills important niche in building efficiency

Software developed by a Virginia Tech team that can cut energy use by small and medium-sized commercial buildings is gaining traction in the private sector.
While owners of large commercial, industrial and government buildings are courted by international vendors willing to create multi-million dollar programs for managing electricity and natural gas usage around the clock, now owners of smaller commercial buildings can achieve similar savings — possibly without any up-front, out-of-pocket costs.
To develop the open-source software, Dr. Saifur Rahman, director of the university’s Advanced Research Institute, won $2 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Energy in March 2015. The software was named “BEMOSS,” or Building Energy Management Open Source Software.
“There are more than 6 million commercial buildings in the U.S., 90 percent of which aren’t big enough to afford expensive building information systems,” Rahman said.
To demonstrate the software, Rahman had to quickly secure the participation of three buildings. He connected with the building managers on the university’s home campus in Blacksburg along with officials at Arlington County and the City of Alexandria, which host two of Virginia Tech’s satellite campuses in northern Virginia.
While keenly interested in the potential energy savings, operators of all three facilities confronted Rahman early on with the same question: “If we use it for a year,” Rahman recalled, “what then?”
“As a professor at Virginia Tech, that’s not part of my job,” Rahman said. “When the (grant) is over, I move on to the next grant; life goes on.”
Rahman started thinking. “It’s not fair to drop them after a year’s involvement. I could either find a company (to pick up where Virginia Tech left off) or build a company myself.”
“If one of the corporate vendors didn’t pursue it, we had no idea how to commercialize it at the time. We were planning on writing a final report in three years and it would be over,” Rahman said.
So he sought and found funding to develop a company – BEM Controls – to continue marketing the software.
First stop: the Small Business Innovation Research / Small Business Technology Transfer program at the National Science Foundation. In June of last year, Rahman secured a $225,000 grant to develop the commercial features. Within one year, the company provided the data and then convinced the Center for Innovative Technologies in Herndon, Virginia to commit $50,000 for additional work that kicks in July 1.