COI Energy Services is disrupting the energy market by redesigning the delivery and management of electricity.
When SaLisa Berrien was eight years old, she asked her aunt for a cash register because she wanted to start a business. After her first product line sold out— Kool-Aid frozen in individual servings—she re-invested the profits and added chips and penny candy to her menu. And thus, an entrepreneur was born.
Today Berrien runs a bigger enterprise: COI Energy Services, a Tampa-based company that has been described as the Lyft or Uber of the electricity sector. Named for “circle of influence,” COI is a platform designed to manage and monetize flexible energy resources to power the grid.
“By providing a dynamic overview of their energy assets, we allow a utility's business customers to generate cash from unused energy sources through user-specific portfolio tracking and alerts," Berrien says.
This customer-focused solution is why COI was chosen to participate in Morgan Stanley’s Multicultural Innovation Lab, which provides multicultural and women entrepreneurs with a $200,000 investment in exchange for an equity stake in the business. Founders like Berrien also benefit from mentoring, office space in the firm’s headquarters in Times Square, and a full curriculum of training and coaching.
Berrien had entrepreneur role models right in the family: Several aunts and uncles owned small businesses.
“I had my daughter very young,” Berrien says. “I was in high school, and I went from being an honor student to just shutting down. In my junior year, a teacher saw that I was doing well in math. She asked me what I wanted to do for a career. I told her, I wanted to be a lawyer or radio broadcaster. She said ‘We have enough lawyers in the world. Why don’t you consider being an engineer?’”
Berrien took the advice. After completing a summer gifted program in Bioengineering at Lehigh University, she enrolled into the School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh some 25 years ago. Then she began working in the energy industry and, over time, took note of a mismatch in the market. “Flexibility and transparency were at the root of the conversations I had with clients,” she says . “They could verbalize the solutions they were looking for, but couldn’t find them anywhere in the marketplace.”
Two years ago, while working for an energy services company, Berrien had an epiphany. “I was at a strategy meeting and the CEO asked us why we weren’t closing deals. We were being told to say that our software was a Lexus package, and I said, ‘but suppose what the client wants is a Toyota?’” she says. “They had come up with a product without considering what the client wanted.”
And what the client wanted, she knew, was a simplified and integrated way to manage grid assets efficiently.
While Berrien had long known that she wanted to start her own business, she hadn’t planned on starting it quite so soon. However, Berrien recalls, “I realized I couldn’t continue down the road I was on.”
By providing a dynamic overview of customers’ energy assets, COI allows both business customers and utilities to generate value from unused energy sources through user-specific portfolio tracking and alerts. COI notifies users of ways to save energy and make money, adding tangible value on a daily basis.
Determined to take COI’s scope further, Berrien is also building a machine-learning algorithm that will offer usage insights, which will provide customers with even greater clarity surrounding their energy consumption habits and expected future energy needs.
For an African-American woman entrepreneur, Berrien says, the Innovation Lab provides unique resources and opportunities. “What brought me to Morgan Stanley was the access to great advisers,” she says. “The entire team has accelerated my business by providing not only guidance but also meaningful introductions, which I will carry with me for years to come.”