photo by Michael Miller

Business Monday: Burlington's Draker Laboratories sees bright future

Burlington firm monitors performance of solar power installations


April 11, 2011 - Draker Laboratories wants to follow in the footsteps of Dealer.com.

The Burlington maker of sophisticated monitoring systems for commercial and utility-scale solar power installations is moving into Dealer.com’s old space in the Maltex Building on Pine Street this week. Then, like Dealer.com, Draker hopes to grow and take up more space until it is forced to leave for bigger digs, as Dealer.com did when it moved across Pine Street.

Draker’s business grew by some 400 percent last year. The firm has nearly doubled its number of employees to 23, precipitating the move from its former space on North Street. The company is looking to hire six more people, particularly software programmers, Chief Executive Officer Chach Curtis said.

“Dealer.com had a similar experience here,” Curtis said in an interview last week. “They started with five guys here and took over most of the building before they moved across the street and now are expanding wildly. They were able to do what I hope to do, continue to expand here over time and continue to lease more space here as we need it.”

Draker is likely to need the space as it gears up for its biggest contract yet — a 20-megawatt solar installation covering 100 acres with solar panels, being installed by a public utility in New Jersey. Previously, Draker — founded in 1999 by electrical engineer A.J. Rossman, a graduate of the University of Vermont who remains chief technical officer of the company — dealt exclusively with smaller commercial installations of 1 megawatt or less. Roughly speaking, one megawatt of capacity will produce enough electricity to take care of the needs of 400 to 900 homes for one year.

“We’ve been awarded the first big utility-scale project on the East Coast,” Curtis said. “We’re quoting bigger projects all over the country.”

Unlike commercial solar projects, which provide power for a specific building or group of buildings, utility-scale solar projects generate enough power to sell into the electrical grid, just like a coal-fired power plant, although not nearly as large. Coal-fired plants can generate thousands of megawatts, and account for nearly half the electrical power in the country.

Draker’s technology is contained in a “base station,” an assembly of electronic components housed in a stainless steel or hard plastic box, depending on the model, to collect performance data from solar panels, as well as environmental data from sensors measuring wind speed, ambient air temperature and the temperature of the panels. Altogether, the data creates a framework in which the efficiency and efficacy of the solar system can be evaluated. Then Draker provides the proprietary software that allows clients to monitor the performance of their installations from any device with access to the web, from a desktop to a smartphone.

“Our secret sauce is to process that data into an analytical framework and present it in a Web interface,” said Mark Sherman, vice president of marketing. “Customers can fine-tune their system to produce as much electricity as possible.”

The problems Draker’s system can pick up on can be as simple as snow collecting on solar panels. Or they can be buried within the internal workings of the solar panel.

A Draker installation can cost anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000, “depending on the bells and whistles,” Curtis said, which is considerably more than their two California competitors charge. He said customers are increasingly willing to pay a premium for Draker’s sophisticated tools.

“Where we’ve been successful of late is that developers are starting to build large portfolios,” Curtis said. “In the early days, a big developer had five or 10 projects of 100 kilowatts each. Now, a developer has several hundred projects 20 times that size.”

That can translate into a $25 million investment, Curtis said, making the expense of a Draker monitoring system relatively minor, yet increasingly essential.

“Debt providers aren’t messing around putting that kind of money in,” Curtis said. “They want guarantees from the system owner this is going to perform as advertised. That’s been a godsend for us. It gets everyone aligned around good data, so everybody knows how the system is working.”

Draker has raised a total of $2 million in venture capital, and Curtis said the company is looking to raise another $2.5 million to $3 million. Although he won’t reveal the privately held company’s revenue figures, it’s clear from the hiring and the move to the Maltex Building — doubling the company’s space from about 5,000 square feet to 10,000 square feet — that Draker is growing rapidly.

“Something we’re very proud of is that A.J. and the team here long before me built this company on a shoestring, yet built the most advanced product in the market,” Curtis said.

Curtis is counting on his new space in the Maltex Building, with its exposed bricks and large, multi-light windows and exposed heating ducts, to set a tone for the company and create the right environment for the talent he hopes to continue to attract.

“We want to create an environment that’s fun, creative and stimulating,” Curtis said. “We’re in a pretty dynamic industry, a sector that’s moving fast, which puts the burden on us to stay ahead of that and be creative.”