The ENGR 310 class on Entrepreneurial Leadership is filled with engineering students, people who by nature are prone to ask WHERE, WHAT and HOW. So Professor Greg Woodman takes particular joy in asking them to think about their WHY, or their inner motivation. Asking WHERE and HOW create transactional answers, he says, but it’s how we answer our WHY that gives us our north star.
Four years ago, Nikhil Bharadwaj dug deep to answer his WHY in Woodman’s class and predicted a future for himself that was both audacious and expansive. Over the last few years, he’s checked off goals, one crazy-big check mark at a time.
Bharadwaj is in town for Penn State’s Startup Week, and is the Spring 2022 Bishoff Entrepreneur in Residence. On the first day of Startup Week, he was a guest speaker in Woodman’s class, in front of the class where he was a student only a few years ago.
“From ages 16-19, I was overwhelmed by the world, by climate change,” he said. “I ultimately decided that I wanted to add meaning to my life. I shifted my focus from inward to outward … to making a difference.”
In Woodman’s class, each student has to create a life plan, and Bharadwaj outlined the shift along with his big picture idea: He wanted to be the face of clean energy, and one day go back to his birth country of India to drive energy change at a national level. “I wanted to stop climate change without bothering people. That was my WHY — my north star,” he said.
As an undergrad, Bharadwaj was quickly recognized for his passion for clean energy, working on plans for solar energy for homes in developing countries as well as building electric bikes for commercial applications. After he graduated, he took a full-time position in energy engineering, but his passion for startups and his WHY never waned.
How it works: Electric vehicle charging companies depend on reliable internet access to sell electricity to customers, track usage data, authenticate users and receive over-the-air updates. But without internet connectivity, drivers are in trouble. Xeal bypasses Wi-Fi/Cellular connectivity entirely with a patent-pending protocol that uses time-bound cryptographic tokens and distributed ledgers.
“While in Los Angeles, I noticed that my boss would walk up to a window and stare out every 30 minutes. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was trying to see when an electric car charger was available so he could rotate his car into the parking spot and get it charged.”
People like his boss struggled constantly with finding a place to charge their car, and knowing how much it would cost since the cost of electricity fluctuates throughout the day. But what if an app could take all available chargers and create a calendar where you could see the availability, location, best time to charge, and save a block of time? “That was my lightbulb moment when we started, although we moved to our self-reliant connectivity protocol which was the true innovation for the industry” he said.
From this idea, a startup was born. Bharadwaj joined with fellow Penn Stater Alexander Isaacson to start building Xeal. “At the most basic level, we are an EV driver app to make charging as frictionless and reliable as possible, but we wanted to be more than that,” he said. “Drivers only switch to electric when chargers are readily available, which means buildings are the leading force for change. We re-engineered every variable of the EV charger equation to make chargers a no-brainer investment for buildings.”
Their idea grew to the point where they both quit their jobs … then raised money through friends and family …seed.. then series A funding and are moving towards series B funding to expand on their protocol for other applications. Today, Xeal has raised over $14M in funding and the future looks promising. “We’re out of the dark days into slightly brighter days,” he said to the class.
As the company has developed, their focus has shifted from mainly helping consumers to helping real estate entities manage and monetize charging spaces outside of apartment buildings, condos, and workplaces. As their customer base develops, the product itself has expanded to a totally new solution that is not IoT-dependent. “We can process payments and continue to be smart with zero IT infrastructure,” he said. “That’s our core technology that separates us from everyone else out there.”
He says that one of the secrets to their success “was extreme ownership around customer problems.”
Investment into clean energy: Xeal’s tech has gotten the attention of investors, to the tune of an $11 million Series A and a previously unannounced $3 million seed round for a total investment of $14 million.
Another secret to their success? Bharadwaj says that as an immigrant, he had to make it to stay in the US. “My back was against the wall,” he said. “When you think there is no plan B, you’ll do whatever it takes.”
Together with Isaacson, he’s done whatever it takes — sacrificing sleep, taking risks and arguing together to reach optimal results. Those steps have gotten them to where they are now — on the cusp of a promising exit, talking about numbers in the billions — guided by their north star of stopping climate change without bothering people.”
“Founders have to continue to be risk takers,” he said. “To create the change you want to see in the world, you have to generate exponential value, and new value can’t be generated with zero risk taking.”
“Their idea grew to the point where they both quit their jobs … then raised money through friends and family …seed.. then series A funding and are moving towards series B funding to expand on their protocol for other applications.”
Cara Aungst writes about industry, innovation and how Happy Valley ideas change the world. She can be reached with story ideas and comments at Cara@AffinityConnection.com.