Jay Whelan’s ‘light bulb’ moment hit while he was undergoing physical therapy for a shoulder injury. He was bored and staring out the clinic window as he spun a wheel with a hand pedal attached. The device was designed to strengthen his shoulder muscles.
“I thought, ‘what if I could capture the energy I’m expending on this exercise and put it into the (electric) power grid?’” recalled Whelan, who has an industrial engineering background and a MBA from Boston College.
Whelan knew electricity could be generated from sports club equipment including spinning bikes, but he wasn’t sure how long it would take to develop the right equipment and technology.
“It was a matter of hiring engineers to take my vision and make something workable,” said Whelan, founder and CEO of eGreen Revolution.
Once they put together the gear, Whelan asked the owner of his local sports club to give it a try. About six weeks ago, Whelan’s team installed their technology on spinning bikes in sports clubs in New York City and Washington, DC. If things go well, they hope to sign up more clubs across the country and beyond.
According to the company’s website, 20 people participating in a spinning class could collectively generate about 3 kilowatts of electricity. A spinning room, with four classes of 20 people a day could generate 300 kilowatts a month—enough power to serve a typical home for six months.
In addition to installing the electricity-generating gear on individual bikes, they install a digital display screen so users can track the amount of power they are producing. The class can also track their collective output on a monitor in the room. Then, classes can compete to see who generates the most power.
“People in spin rooms are a passionate group who show up consistently and train hard,” said Ed Trainor, vice president business and product development, for Town Sports International, which owns the New York Sports Club and other clubs around the country. TSI installed the first eGreen Revolution equipment on spin bikes in New York City and Washington, DC about six weeks ago. So far, response has been positive.
“The spin classes were the perfect place to start using the technology,”
said Trainor. “It gives people a way to measure their effort and performance. It’s a hard workout but great to know at the end of the class that they’ve generated this power.” (Right now, he said riders generate enough electricity to power the video screens attached to the cardio equipment).
Trainor declined to say how much money the company has invested in the eGreen Revolution technology, but said it was thousands of dollars. “Our company has a strong green initiative and this fit right in. It is an investment and it will take a while to recover that investment but it’s definitely worth it… it has added real value and people like it.”
Prior to starting his own business, Whelan spent 18 years as a consultant for Accenture, helping hundreds of business owners and managers succeed. But the lucrative, prestigious job took a toll.
“After 18 years on the road, living in hotels and airports, my two kids didn’t really know who their dad was,” said Whelan. At age 46, he cashed out, planning to retire and putter around. But six months later, he was bored and ready to do something new. He explored various franchise opportunities but decided to start something on his own.
Unlike many entrepreneurs with a dream, Jay Whelan was fortunate because he was able to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money to start the business. He said he’s personally invested close to $1 million in cash and time. (Whelan does not pay himself a salary—yet).
Although things are going well, Whelan said he definitely underestimated the time it would take to perfect the technology to generate electricity from exercise equipment. “Six months of development, turned into two years,” he said.
Always interested in environmental issues, Whelan founded the Ridgefield Action Committee for the Environment in his hometown of Ridgefield, Connecticut. In 2008, he won a governor’s leadership award for his efforts.
Curious to see if his electricity-generating brainstorm could turn into a business, he recruited a few engineers to help him develop the technology that generates power from the spinning bike’s flywheel. Even after they figured out how to hook up the bikes to the club’s electrical power system, they still faced obstacles.
“The biggest challenge was trying to get the bike to feel the same way as it did before (being outfitted with the equipment),” said Jim Johnstone, who has owned the Ridgefield Fitness Club with his wife, Sue, for 10 years.
Although the Johnstones and their clients really liked having the “green” bikes in the club, he said their club is too small to be able to afford to install the energy-generating equipment—at least at the moment. “I think Jay’s model works wonderfully for a bigger scale club.”
“The clubs can sell it as a green energy savings and members will get excited about it,” he said. He figured that if could afford to install the equipment, “we would have realized a cost savings of a couple thousand dollars in a year’s time.”
Whelan said beta-testing the bikes at Johnstone’s fitness club was extremely helpful.
“It’s one thing to develop a product that works in the lab, but another to make it commercially viable,” explained Whelan.
For example, his engineers had to figure out why there was so much slippage when people were riding the bikes. “It turned out the club was using an oil-based cleaning fluid that messed up the friction,” said Whelan. “Based on that experience, we completely water-proofed the product.”
Another challenge was finding the best way to display the data that exercise fanatics crave. Some spinning class members wanted to know how many watts they were generating, while others didn’t. The company is still perfecting the data display.
Whelan said eGreenRevolution currently has 40 full and part-time employees and contractors. A core team of eight handles the engineering and marketing. They have a call center in located in New York City. The product is manufactured in Massachusetts using raw materials located within 100 miles of the factory, Whelan said.
Keeping everything as close is possible, helps eGreen Revolution practice what it preaches.Jane Applegate is the author of four books on small business management, including 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business, published by John Wiley & Sons. The Applegate Group Inc. provides strategic marketing consulting and video production services for big and small companies. For more information visit: www.theapplegategroup.com.