It was last summer when Alec Manfre, 22, a Mechanical Engineering major at Georgia Tech and a Flagler Palm Coast High School graduate, decided he wanted to do something about all the unnecessary energy consumption he observed in his college dorm room and other university buildings.
“I grew up in a household where people were passionate about environmental consciousness, which made it difficult to ignore these things,” he says.
Alec began devising a plan for an energy-saving product and enlisting Georgia Tech peers and friends for a startup team. The group eventually organized with him as the Chief Operating Officer; Brian Meier, Chief Financial Officer; Ramu Annamalai, Chief Sales Officer; Matt Lynch, Chief Technology Officer; and Travis Wooten, Chief Software Officer. He also appointed his older sister Catherine as the Chief Marketing and Communications Officer. At the time, Catherine, also an FPC graduate who had studied Middle Eastern and Islamist studies at New York University and had worked for two years as a communications consultant for the International Finance Corporation, was living in Cairo, working at the American International School as a High School English teacher (the school led by former Flagler County Superintendent Bill Delbrugge).
“Alec and I had always talked about opening our own business,” says Catherine, 24. “Our mother was a commercial real estate broker and our father was president of the Flagler County Rotary Club. They had had their own business so we were raised in an entrepreneurial environment. They taught us early on that it’s good to make money but it’s just as important to give back.”
The team called itself Bractlet—a combination of the first letters of the six founding members’ names. A “bract” is also a type of specialized leaf and the inspiration for the stylized, organic “B” in the company’s logo.
The prototype in production, called the Smartlet, will help commercial entities reduce avoidable energy consumption, saving companies money while also cutting growing energy demands. It functions as an outlet that fits over an existing outlet and measures the power being consumed, allowing the customer to turn the appliance off via web-based software.
“It allows businesses to monitor their energy consumption in real time,” says Alec. “Right now, in the system as it is, we’re relying on individuals to pull the plug on specific outlets. It’s not practical.”
In practice, the Smartlet will allow building managers a complete view of all spaces so they will be able to see people leave different areas at different times and can turn off the outlets no longer in use. Once the company is able to pinpoint where they can cut their energy costs, they’ll be free to develop more advanced money-saving strategies.
According to Catherine, in difficult economic times the product becomes more marketable still. “The American city electric grid is over-stressed and energy efficiency is much cheaper than adding renewable energy. In the global scheme, in burgeoning cities like Cairo, for example, the grids frequently blow, leaving us subject to blackouts.”
“Our goal is to elevate the 20th century model of dealing with month-by-month electric bills to a 21st century model with intelligence, real data, real time,” says Alec.
Pricing, according to Alec, will vary and is hard to estimate at this point. “That will be determined on a case-by-case basis. It will depend on the kinds and number of devices being utilized.” Right now, Bractlet is gearing the Smartlet towards commercial customers whose energy needs are much greater than those of homeowners.
When asked when the product will launch broadly, the team members say that Bractlet is being careful not to rush things. “We know the necessary steps we need to complete, so our plan is more phase-based than strictly timed. We’re beginning our pilot stage and are currently getting feedback on implementation from potential customers in the Atlanta area.”
In developing the prototype, Bractlet received $40,000 in equity-free seed money from the Chilean government through an international competition called Start-Up Chile. The competition selected 154 start-ups from over 650 that applied from 33 different countries.
The Chilean government holds no part of Bractlet’s patent. “With this incubator program, Chile’s sole aim is to make itself a tech hub—the Silicone Valley of South America,” says Alec. This month, two of the Bractlet team members are traveling to Chile to begin the six-month program.
Alec first heard of Start-Up Chile through a friend of the Georgia Tech team members, who had received a grant the previous year for a project that sought to create toilets that turned human waste into fertilizer.
Both Manfre siblings are effusive about their FPC education, although Florida schools are ranked poorly nationwide in terms of funding and college readiness. “FPC is a great school that continually tries to keep itself above the norm,” says Alec. For an example, he sites its International Baccalaureate degree program—essentially a more in-depth Advanced Placement program. “I had so many great learning experiences in classes like Theory of Knowledge and Future Problem-Solving with Mrs. Diane Tomko and also from other teachers like Mr. [Jim] Pignatiello and Mr. Warren Sanson. They helped prepare me for what we’re doing now.”
“A lot of Americans forget how fortunate they are even if they’re educated in a lesser ranked school,” says Catherine. “Working and teaching in a third world city, I see all the time the type of opportunity that Americans take for granted. When someone leaves our education system, they’re well rounded enough that, if they just have a little ambition, they can achieve something.”
Alec and Catherine are the children of Jim Manfre, the former Flagler County sheriff. Also a lawyer, Manfre was sworn in on January 2001, serving for four years. Growing up as the children of a sheriff, Alec and Catherine’s idea of “giving back” is more than a hollow platitude.
“I was in high school when my dad was sheriff,” says Catherine. “He spent four years selflessly working towards bettering the community. His number one priority was making sure his deputies were taken care of. The most vivid image in my mind is him rushing out in the middle of the night when Deputy Charles Sease was killed in a car accident.” (Sease was deploying stop sticks at an exit ramp on I-95 during a suspect’s pursuit when the suspect’s car struck and killed him in July 2003. The man is serving 35 years in prison.)
“Our dad just wanted to be in a position where he’d have power to fix problems,” says Alec, who was in middle school when his father began his tenure. “He was in charge of thousands of people. He taught me to always listen to the other side of the conversation but also not to be afraid to stand up for what I believe in.”
Jim Manfre, whose own father owned a gas station, wrote his graduate thesis on solar energy. “I am proud that my kids are using their creative talents to relieve a global crisis.” He credits their excellent high school and college experiences for their entrepreneurial and altruistic spirits.
Manfre sees the Smartlet being beneficial to local organizations like the Rotary Club of Flagler County for its annual Fantasy Lights display—a giant interactive display of Christmas lights at Town Center’s Central Park. “This device would eliminate the time-consuming and sometimes dangerous elements involved in controlling all those lights,” he says.
“My kids have tapped into something that needs to be addressed, something that my generation completely neglected. There’s a huge divide in our country about how to move forward. Flagler County has the highest unemployment rate in the state, and our community is looking for a new economic direction. There’s no one solution but there’s a lot of them. A big one includes dealing with energy consumption.
“We need to stimulate these types of technology. It’s great that Chile is getting on board with this but wouldn’t it be great if our government encouraged the same?”