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Erik Burgess, Published June 20 2012

NDSU students semifinalists in clean energy contest

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Saving the planet? There’s an app for that.

Three North Dakota State University seniors are semifinalists at a national clean energy competition here this weekend for their upstart company Switch.

They hope to eventually create software that would allow consumers to control household electronics and utilities, as well as monitor their electricity use, from a mobile phone.

“The goal is to cut down on energy use and be as efficient as possible,” said Switch co-founder and NDSU senior Jake Jor-aanstad.

If Joraan-stad’s name is familiar, it’s because he is also behind Fargo-based Myriad Devices, which created a winter survival app and flood information app.

Switch, which also includes co-founders and fellow NDSU seniors Ben Whittier and Ross Eickhoff, started off as a design project for their computer electrical engineering course. Joraanstad said it is independent of his work at Myriad.

The concept of Switch is simple. Companies that want software allowing users to control devices remotely now have to program it themselves.

Switch would program software for these companies, leaving them to build the hardware, cutting costs. Joraanstad gave an example: A shopper could walk down an aisle in Wal-Mart and see a variety of household electrical items marked with a sticker: “Switch approved.”

The consumer would then bring this product home, plug it in and register it online at Switch’s website in order to gain control of it remotely via Switch’s mobile app and to track their electricity use via the website.

Joraanstad said future plans for Switch include a Facebook app, which would post status updates such as “I just saved 10 percent on my energy bill this month.” He said social integration is a key component of the product’s purpose.

“(We want) to get people to be really competitive about saving energy and then, on top of that, saving money,” he said. “If you can save energy, you can save money.”

Switch was chosen as a semifinalist at the Cleantech Open National Conference this weekend. Semifinalist status comes at the end of a nearly year-long process, Joraanstad said. If Switch wins, Cleantech will provide the founders with cash and services to help get their startup off the ground.

Whittier said the conference also provides them with the opportunity to work with investors and gain valuable marketplace experience.

“I think it’ll be a really valuable learning experience,” he said. “There’s just all kinds of very experienced and educated people that know and can answer the questions that we don’t know.”

Cleantech’s website states that it has awarded more than $5 million in cash and services to support startups like Switch since its inception in 2006.

“They’re kind of the leader in bringing about these green companies, in helping them get started,” Joraanstad said.

And although Switch isn’t a fully fledged company yet – the trio still have a semester left at NDSU – Whittier said he hopes to make a career out of it once he finishes school.

“Depending on how this all goes, maybe this is what I’ll do when I graduate, but that’s something I’ll have to wait and see, I guess,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518

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