Photo by Erica housekeeper | Jesse Thornburg of Grid Fruit holds a sensor beacon at Mach’s Market in Pawlet. The sensor beacon measures certain characteristics of the environment where they’re placed—such as a refrigerator or freezer—and send those measurements to a nearby microcomputer.
Written by Kelly Nottermann, Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund
Passionate about climate change and sustainability, Jesse Thornburg and Javad Mohammadi met in Pennsylvania through their respective research on ways to reduce energy demand on the power grid—the key, they felt, to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing climate change.
Thornburg came from a renewable energy background, while Mohammadi had worked with utilities, but they both came to the same conclusion: big companies, including Google and Honeywell, were making headway in the residential space, but there was one niche not being targeted by the biggest players—commercial refrigeration.
Drawing on their respective experience and shared research, Thornburg and Mohammadi launched Grid Fruit in late 2018 to reduce costs and emissions by bringing data-driven intelligence to food retail operations.
Energy Star estimates that refrigeration constitutes up to 40 percent of the total energy in supermarkets, grocery stores, or convenience stores, but Thornburg says that most U.S. stores don’t measure refrigeration demand separately from store consumption as a whole, let alone use that data in day-to-day decision making.
“Renewables are increasing in prevalence,” said Thornburg. “That’s the supply side of the equation and we’re all for that. But there also needs to be responsiveness on the demand side. Big companies are seeing that and working on residential solutions, but no one is focused on the smallest class of commercial buildings that rely on consistent refrigeration.”
Gib Mach, owner of Mach’s Market in Pawlet, Vt. and one of Grid Fruit’s first clients agrees. Mach recently installed 146 solar panels on the roof of his building and hopes to install a hydro-electric station in the future. Mach is “all about climate change” and says Grid Fruit is just what he was looking for.
“It’s an opportunity to get involved,” says Mach. “I want my business to be as efficient and cost effective as possible and Grid Fruit offers a sophisticated way for me to manage energy use.”
Using data to shift energy demand.
Refrigerators and freezers use compressors to keep temperatures within an optimal range. When the temperature drifts up toward the maximum of that range, the compressor turns on to cool the unit—that’s the typical humm you hear from your refrigerator at home. In a commercial setting, Thornburg and Mohammadi found that compressors in multiple units are often running at the same time and are not controlled by centralized digital controls like you might have with smart home devices. Many grocers use legacy systems that either don’t collect data or, if they do, send the data to the cloud and never use it outside of maintenance emergencies.
Grid Fruit collects that existing data and also supplies small sensors to units that do not have data collection capability. These measurements of temperature and power characterize how the refrigerators and freezers are running. That data is then run through an algorithm that returns recommendations for optimizing energy use—for example, staggering compressor cycles or the timing of defrost—to flatten demand.
The company also helps grocers be responsive to alerts sent from utilities to shift power to or away from certain times of day depending on anticipated load on the grid.
“The total effect is reduced demand during peak times which is good for global warming and, because it reduces expensive spikes in energy use, good for the business owner as well,” said Thornburg. “The two work hand in hand.”
For example, if Green Mountain Power anticipates a surge in energy demand on a hot day when people are running their air conditioners, they might send an alert asking customers to shift energy-intensive events to evening. Grid Fruit can manage that event for store owners, shifting a scheduled defrost, for example, to an off-peak time of day. The store owners get access to a customized dashboard where their information is available in real-time and they can participate as much, or as little, as they choose for each event.
Starting up during a shutdown.
The company was just beginning to gain some traction when COVID-19 hit in 2020. “We had a couple of signed non-disclosure agreements,” said Thornburg, “but no one wanted to move forward amid such uncertainty, so we were a little stuck.”
Taking the pause as an opportunity to dig deeper into their business and marketing plans, the founders looked into accelerator programs. “DeltaClime’s Energy 2021 cohort was a great fit for us,” said Thornburg, “and once we realized it was going to be virtual, we jumped on the opportunity.”
Based in Tennessee at the time, Thornburg was thinking about bringing the business to Vermont and saw the DeltaClimeVT Energy 2021 accelerator program as a way to test the waters before committing to a move.
“DeltaClime helped us focus on business plan fundamentals that were critical to us as technical co-founders without formal business training,” he said. “The active participation of the utilities was really exciting and left us with the impression that Vermont is a small and agile place to be an energy startup.”
Grid Fruit won a pilot with Green Mountain Power through the program, prompting the company’s expansion to Brattleboro where they currently have two pilots underway, including Mach’s Market, and are in conversations with a commercial baker. The five-person team is complemented by a three-person research team at the University of Tennessee.
Power in numbers.
The pilots, along with the relationships the company is developing with DeltaClimeVT sponsors Green Mountain Power and Efficiency Vermont, are the starting point for a bigger vision where Grid Fruit is managing not only individual stores but also looking regionally at their collective power use and making adjustments accordingly.
“Eventually, we want to offer a plug and play option for small stores that immediately connects individual stores into this network across the service territory, across the state, or beyond,” said Thornburg. “Within a store, we can balance eight to 20 or more units, but there is a much larger benefit to the grid if a number of stores within the area are signed on.”
Thornburg would like to enroll larger chains, food manufacturers, and shipping facilities—really any business that relies on refrigeration.“We see this as a way to network clients that are reliant on refrigeration that has traditionally been very inefficient and run without consideration for the unit next door or across the street. We want to give them an opportunity to individually and collectively make a difference on climate change.”
Geoff Robertson, Managing Director of the DeltaClimeVT business accelerator program, is currently recruiting entrepreneurs like Thornburg and Mohammadi for the DeltaClimeVT Energy 2022 cohort, which will be focused on energy-related products and services that reduce the need for costly infrastructure or electrical panel upgrades.
“We are particularly interested in services and technologies that have wide potential applicability with rural populations and that enable small businesses, low and moderate-income Vermonters, disadvantaged populations and multi-family building residents to participate in the low-carbon economy,” said Robertson.
Selection will focus on companies that are currently at a pilot or demonstration stage and planning for scale. Applications for the Energy 2022 cohort are due by January 31, 2022. For more details, visit deltaclimevt.com or contact Geoff Robertson at 802-828-3753.
About DeltaClimeVT – A Climate Economy Business Accelerator
Managed by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF), the DeltaClimeVT business accelerator is a Vermont-based program serving startup and seed-stage ventures focusing on energy and climate economy innovation. The program provides an intense accelerated learning and business development process designed to test assumptions, expose and remediate business vulnerabilities, prepare for significant investment, and provide a platform for rapid scaling. As a proven leader in sustainability, Vermont offers participants access to a large number of entrepreneurial climate economy and energy experts throughout the program.
Photo by Erica Houskeeper | Treeline Terrains co-founder Nathaniel Klein starts a piece in a workshop in Middlebury. Each mountain is made with laminated hardwoods, carved with a CNC router, and hand-sanded and finished with linseed oil for long-term protection.
When three friends at Middlebury College couldn’t find the perfect gift for their boss, they decided to make something special. Nathaniel Klein, Jacob Freedman, and Alex Gemme wanted to thank their supervisor at the Middlebury Snow Bowl for helping them establish a scholarship program. “We had such a great experience coaching skiing and wanted to give her something that was connected to the Snow Bowl,” said Gemme. “We had this idea of carving a model of the ski hill out of wood.”
And so, they did.
Freedman, a geography major, figured out how to map the ski area using Geographic Information System (GIS) technology. From there, the trio worked out how to send the digital mapping file to a CNC router that would carve a model from wood. Klein, who grew up in his grandfather’s woodshop, put the finishing touches on the model, hand sanding and rubbing in linseed oil to bring out the grain of the wood. It was an instant hit.
“Everyone kept telling us we had to sell them,” said Gemme. “We didn’t set out to start a business; it was actually an accident.”
Still undergrad students at Middlebury College at the time, they registered their company in the spring of 2021 and Treeline Terrains was officially in business.
Support from entrepreneurial, wood products communities.
As biology, chemistry and geography majors, they realized they would need to brush up on their business skills to really give Treeline Terrains a go. Senior year, they enrolled in Middlebury Entrepreneurs, a winter term course taught by the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies for students who want to start their own business.
“Without the class we would not have gotten to where we are,” said Freedman. “It allowed us to take our idea in this amorphous shape and figure out the main roadblocks we would have to face to go from an idea to selling something. From there, we were able to springboard into an LLC that spring, which was a quicker timeframe than what we anticipated.”
In the summer of 2020 they received a grant from MiddChallenge, a program at the college that funds student entrepreneurs for the summer who want to explore a business idea. They decided to buy a CNC router and move into Klein’s grandfather’s basement in Massachusetts for the summer where they would have access to a workshop and woodworking tools. They spent the summer refining their models, figuring out how to add features such as buildings, rivers, lakes, and trails… and planning their return to the Green Mountains.
“It was always our goal to be back in Vermont,” said Freedman, “but housing is really scarce and we were in the middle of the pandemic.” After looking all over the state they found a local builder willing to let them use his shop back in Middlebury and, through their connections, were also able to land an apartment.
“The community connections were on our side,” added Freedman. “It was a business decision to come back to Middlebury and it was definitely the right one.”
Another key component of their decision to locate the business in Middlebury was their relationships with A. Johnson Co. lumber mill in Bristol, where they purchase all of the wood for their models. “They’re a great family and have competitive pricing and good products,” said Klein. “They have expertise from working in the industry most of their lives and are willing to share that with us. Once we found them, we were not going to go anywhere else.”
Connecting people to the places they love.
As the models have evolved, so has their customer. The business has caught the attention of local nonprofits, including the Middlebury Area Land Trust who commissioned them to make a model of their 18-mile trail system so that kids could engage tactically with the trail system, and Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports who had them create a 3-D model of Sugarbush Ski Area for visually impaired skiers and riders. “They are education pieces that help people connect with place,” said Freedman.
They also recently completed a large commissioned piece for a family that wanted to see their home on a map of their local ski area. “It was really fun to make,” said Gemme. “The larger the scale, the more terrain there is to play with.” He added that the family marked their home on the model with a gemstone.
One of their largest pieces was presented to Senator Patrick Leahy November 10, 2021 to commemorate the Senator’s receipt of the Vermont Outdoor Business Association Trailblazer Award. The piece is a physical outline of Vermont showing all of the state’s natural mountain and water features—something they would like to do more of for other states.
While a large, custom model might run into the thousands, most pieces on the company’s website range from $70 to a few hundred dollars. The current collection includes lakes and ski areas in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, a Saddleback Mountain cribbage board, and a model of the Adirondack High Peaks region. This holiday season they are introducing keychain models of Mt. Mansfield and Camel’s Hump that will sell for $14.
“The pieces are really about helping people to connect to the places they love,” said Freedman.
Planning for growth in Vermont.
The business is a full time job for all three and they have big visions for the company’s future. To start, Klein would like the business to have its own shop space and a full set of quality tools, some of which they currently lease or borrow. Gemme would like to see that happen by spring of 2022. He adds that the company will need two or three additional routers if growth meets projections, much of which centers on edging into the ski market.
“We’re iterating and trying something new every day,” said Freedman. “Most of our peers are sitting at a desk all day or doing something more related to their major, but every day is a new and exciting adventure for us.”
“Alex and I thought we were going to be doctors,” said Klein with a grin, “but now, who knows.”
About the Vermont Forest Industry Network
Vermont’s forest products industry contributes $1.3 billion to Vermont’s economy and supports more than 9,000 direct and indirect jobs in forestry, logging, processing, specialty woodworking, construction and wood heating (2017). Those numbers more than double when maple production and forest-based recreation are factored in. The Vermont Forest Industry Network creates space for strong relationships and collaboration throughout the industry, including helping to promote new and existing markets for Vermont wood products. Learn more or join at www.vsjf.org.
Considering a career in nursing in Vermont? The Green Mountain State is a wonderful place for healthcare professionals to live, work, and develop careers.
Vermont’s Department of Labor knows occupational licensure adds additional logistics for professionals who are considering relocating to another state, so it’s focused on reducing barriers for interstate mobility by processing licensure applications as quickly as possible.
Under the State’s new initiative, “Fast-Track Endorsement”, a person who has been practicing in another state for three years can get their license approved within two business days. Utilizing this process, the Office of Professional Regulation has licensed approximately 1125 people in nearly 50 professions since April 2021.
Vermont employers as well as applicants can view real-time licensure status on the Office’s website; applications are entirely online with access 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Visit the Office of Professional Regulation to apply, renew, update, request a verification, or check your application status.
In addition to the expedited licensure, on February 1, 2022, Vermont will join 39 other jurisdictions as a member of the Nurse Licensure Compact. The compact allows registered nurses (RNs) and licensed practical/vocational nurses (LPN/VNs) to have one multistate license, with the ability to practice in person or via telehealth, in both the primary state of residence and other compact jurisdictions.
Vermont’s excellent healthcare rankings are a major factor in our high quality of life and have earned us recognition as one of the healthiest states in the US – No. 2 for children’s health and the No. 3 for senior health. As of Dec. 30, 2021, Vermont had the highest rate of complete COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country with 79% of all eligible Vermonters fully vaccinated. We hope you come join Vermont’s vibrant health care community.
Find your next health care career in Vermont.
Until recent years, Vermont’s $2 billion aerospace industry has been mainly comprised of parts manufacturing, rather than whole airframe construction and design, explains Kyle Clark, founder and chief test pilot at Burlington’s Beta Technologies.
Beta’s Alia changed all that.
Alia-250, imposing, futuristic and sleek, is an electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft capable of transporting cargo and passengers on long-range flights. Beta Technologies staff talk about the craft as if it’s a person, and when it’s brought into the hangar for maintenance or testing, the atmosphere takes on the crackle and buzz of a meeting with a celebrity.
Right now, there are about one and a half Alias in existence. In April 2021, Beta Technologies inked a deal with United Parcel Service to sell 150 to the logistics and delivery firm.
UPS will use its Alia fleet for deliveries in small and mid-size markets to cut down on fossil fuel usage. Beta Technologies plans to expand as a result of the deal, eyeing a new 400,000-square-foot facility and a staff totaling 1,000, up from its current 250-person-deep bench. As Clark pointed out, that means more than a salary for just Beta’s staff; the 30,000 people employed at Vermont aerospace manufacturing firms will benefit, too.
Beta Technologies also has contracts with Blade for passenger aircraft, United Therapeutics, and has approval from the United States Air Force to fly on behalf of the military.
According to Chris Carrigan, vice president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, Vermont’s aerospace industry supports 9,500 direct jobs in Vermont and accounts for 2.2% of its gross domestic product. “Vermont has a thriving aerospace and aviation industry with a tradition going back before the Civil War of precision machining,” says Carrigan.
In addition to Beta, Carrigan highlighted aviation firms with Vermont bases like GE Aviation in Rutland, General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems, Raytheon Technologies and Bennington’s KAMAN as contributors to the state’s industry.
Vermont-made parts go into the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the 25mm Gatling gun used in the F-35 joint-strike air fighter for the Vermont Air National Guard.
Raytheon Technologies recently signed a deal with Vermont’s GlobalFoundries to produce 5G communications chips.
“We have an amazing workforce in Vermont” for aviation companies, offers Clark. “Vermont is primed to become a hotbed for tech and aerospace jobs because of its workforce, training pipeline and existing parts manufacturing capabilities.”
Vermont’s education system offers a pipeline for students to get involved early in their careers, too. Carrigan cited programs like those at Vermont Technical College, Vermont Flight Academy, Green Mountain Flight Academy and Burlington Technical Training Center.
“It’s really unique that Burlington is adjacent to probably the best aircraft testing facility this side of the Mississippi,” Clark said, referring to BTV’s large runway.
“Vermont has two really unique assets. No. 1, it’s just south of Montreal, where there’s a massive aerospace intellectual capital pocket, and it also has the (Vermont) Air National Guard here, the Green Mountain Boys,” Clark said.
“We have a whole contingent of former Air National Guard pilots that have stuck around and are working here. … Vermont isn’t really off the beaten path when it comes to highly qualified aerospace talent.”
Carrigan also notes the state’s position in the Quebec-New England Aerospace Trade Corridor as a benefit to aerospace firms. Vermont is between the Montreal aerospace cluster and one in Hartford, Conn., and groups like the Vermont Chamber of Commerce are working to more strongly link the three regions for sharing contracts, connections and best practices.
Clark says Beta makes a point of finding people who have lived in Vermont, but then left to work or study elsewhere, and recruiting them to return. Beta employees have pedigrees that include time at Tesla, Boeing and Pratt & Whitney.
“We actively (seek) them out as high-quality engineers that had earned very respectable positions at those companies and gave them an opportunity to come back to Vermont and do something in the field of electric transportation that was intellectually interesting and had an association with aviation that was appealing to them. They brought their whole families back here to Vermont,” Clark said. “Vermont’s a wonderful place for people who like the outdoors, like associating with thoughtful and engaging intellectual people and people who like a healthy lifestyle. Those folks turn out to be really good contributors to a team like this. It’s strategically beneficial to our business to have that quality of people here.”
“Vermont’s aerospace and aviation has a bright future. We have a lot of exciting projects in the works, manufacturing, with the right programs I think we can recruit the right students and recruit the right people for tomorrow,” Carrigan said.
“I think given the pandemic there’s been a paradigm shift, and I think people are recognizing the quality of life and the opportunity to move to and live, work and play in Vermont. There are remote opportunities as well, but I think we have definitely seen an influx of new people into Vermont, and that’s a good thing.”
Learn more about Beta and find your next career.
Bill Forchion is a multidisciplinary artist and visionary speaker. He is a graduate of Barnum & Bailey Clown College as well as the American Institute of Holistic Theology. This talented writer, performer, filmmaker, and U.S. State Department-appointed cultural exchange ambassador for the arts grew up in Hammonton, New Jersey and moved to Brattleboro in 2001.
Bill believes “Artists create work based on the song their soul is singing. My work is as much of part of where I am (Vermont) as who I am.”
Bill shared other thoughts about being a Vermont artist.
How has living as an artist in Vermont affected your creative process?
Being an artist in Vermont has affected me in a number of ways. It has provided me with the space to grow into myself artistically. By this, I mean the space has given me the opportunity to fall over and over again, allowing myself to take greater risks in developing my unique expression. The beauty of Vermont’s four seasons (mud season not included) has been an inspiring element in my creative process. Creating in Vermont alongside so many other creative people has opened many doors of artistic collaboration. Each collaboration promotes a new direction of growth. So basically, just about everything about Vermont has affected my creative process.
What is something about your art that has changed over time?
Being a parent and watching my kids grow, and helping them mature has been an amazing growth resource for me. My artistic expression has gained a fearlessness. Where once I worried about who might be offended or what critique I might receive, I now find that I work from the heart. I create out of kindness and love; that sometimes deals with frustration and anger, which allows me to delve into deep emotional places without fear of harming others or compromising myself. Raising children has helped me explore innocence.
What is your vision for the next several years?
My vision for the coming years is to use art for healing, teaching, and community building. Scientists and politicians have worked very hard on issues such as the climate emergency and the opioid epidemic and we are still without a viable solution to the problems. I believe it is time to incorporate artists alongside scientists and politicians into these discussions. My vision is to integrate art into the process of science and politics and religion as means of creating new pathways to mental, physical, spiritual and community health.
Browse Bill’s website.
Find Bill’s books on Amazon.
Visit theDreamerStation on YouTube
See his posts on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
The “I am a Vermont Artist” series explores how artists’ creative expressions reflect their experiences of ethnicity, gender identity, religion, disability, or age. Covering all artistic disciplines, and a range of backgrounds—from New Americans to the state’s first residents—we hope to amplify voices that deepen our understanding of what it means to be a Vermont artist.
The “I am a Vermont Artist” series explores how artists’ creative expressions reflect their experiences of ethnicity, gender identity, religion, disability, or age. Covering all artistic disciplines, and a range of backgrounds—from New Americans to the state’s first residents—we hope to amplify voices that deepen our understanding of what it means to be a Vermont artist. This story by the Vermont Arts Council originally appeared at https://www.vermontartscouncil.org/blog/i-am-a-vermont-artist-bill-forchion/