Leaptran wins SBIR funding, prizes for its solar energy forecasting

By Iris Gonzalez
Leaptran wins the 2023 forecasting prize from the Department of Energy, courtesy photo

Leaptran has won significant funding for its innovative software that helps utilities manage and integrate renewable energy sources more efficiently. 

The San Antonio startup won a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant in September for $650,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to develop its solar energy forecasting technology for rural and community use. 

As renewable energy sources like solar and wind power become increasingly prevalent in power generation, net load forecasting becomes more challenging. Net load forecasting refers to predicting the electricity demand after accounting for the electricity generated by renewable sources.  Electric utilities use this data for long-term planning and short-term operational decisions. 

Leaptran works with several utility companies to provide underserved rural communities with solar and net load forecasting capabilities. The startup used crowd-sourced weather data and algorithms to predict how much solar energy could be generated, improving forecasting accuracy by more than 50% over current methods. The SBIR Phase II funding will support Leaptran’s efforts to continue innovating its integrated solar and net load forecasting solutions. 

San Antonio startup wins forecasting prizes

The Leaptran team has garnered the American-Made Net Load Forecasting Prize and the American-Made Solar Forecasting Prize, sponsored by the Solar Energy Technologies Office at the Department of Energy.

In 2022, Leaptran was one of five national companies and universities to win the American-Made Solar Forecasting Prize of $50,000 for its solar forecasting technologies. The prize recognizes solar forecast providers developing tools that predict how much energy solar power plants will be able to generate days in advance so operators can manage grids more effectively and participate in the electricity market efficiently. 

In September 2023, Leaptran competed against 70 teams to win the American-Made Net Load Forecasting Prize of $50,000 for its competitive net load forecasting algorithms. 

Leaptran is an R1 university tech spinoff startup

Launched in 2016, the San Antonio-based startup is developing licensed technologies from The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), based on co-founder Dr. Bing Dong’s and other faculties’ research in solar forecasting, building energy efficiency, occupant behavior, big data analytics, building to grid integration, intelligent building operation and optimization, measurement and verification, and buildings-to-grid integration research. Battery storage expert and former Southwest Research Institute scientist Jeff Xu evaluated these technologies and recognized their value for commercial consumers, inspiring him to join Leaptran as its co-founder and CEO.

Leaptran started by developing technologies for commercial buildings, which typically consume 70% of total electricity in a city. 

Leaptran’s integrated building energy management platform combines a battery energy storage system, internet-of-things (IoT) platform, Wi-Fi-enabled thermostats, remotely accessible electricity sub-meters, and energy consumption measurement devices with Leapsmart, their company’s proprietary software that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to optimize energy use. Leaptran’s technology helps reduce wasted energy in a building by up to 50% to reduce a building’s electric bill and greenhouse gas emissions.

Early startup funding included a Phase I SBIR grant from the Department of Energy in 2017 for almost $150,000 and a $50,000 I-Corps grant from the National Science Foundation’s Innovation Corps program in the same year.

Leaptran completed projects under the UTSA and the CPS Energy Research Alliance to explore microgrid-level energy optimization and intelligently deploy distributed energy resources such as the increasing number of small-scale photovoltaic panels (PV), energy storage, and electric vehicles (EVs) generating electricity. These emerging energy storage capabilities benefit consumers who increasingly can take control of their energy demand through a complex web of interactive smart energy devices.

In 2017, Leaptran installed a demand response system for Joint Base San Antonio’s Fort Sam Houston at the Campbell Library building. Leaptran’s technology reduced energy consumption by 20%, with a 200% improvement in demand reduction compared to the previous year’s performance. A similar project was also implemented on UTSA’s campus.

Read more: UTSA Piloting Innovation from Startup Leaptran To Manage Campus Energy Usage

By 2019, the startup won the International Smart 50 Award for its energy monitoring and control system for buildings. The Smart 50 Awards annually recognizes the world’s top 50 most transformative smart city projects.

Read more: UTSA Startup Leaptran Wins Award for Sustainable Energy Innovation

Leaptran now focused on solar and net load forecasting

In its early days, Leaptran had several software and hardware products, but developing them simultaneously for the market could be challenging for any startup, EPIcenter‘s incubator and accelerator chief Andi Littlejohn explained.  Working with EPIcenter’s energy incubator and accelerator advisors, Leaptran refined its strategy to focus more on software solutions for a common pain point in the solar industry — forecasting and integrating solar energy production.

The 2020 pandemic, which drove office workers from countless commercial buildings, meant more businesses needed to manage building energy use remotely. 

“We pivoted at the end of 2020 to leverage our strengths in renewable solar energy and grid load forecasting,” Xu said. “That led us to partner with utilities strategically.”

In 2021, CPS Energy signed an agreement with Leaptran to leverage its integrated and accurate solar forecasting tool across the San Antonio’s utility area of operations.

“Getting a Phase II SBIR grant for their solar forecasting solution is a validation of what Leaptran is developing,” EPIcenter’s development officer Jill Vassar said. “SBIR submissions are highly competitive, so winning a Phase II speaks to the value of Leaptran’s innovation.”

Leaptran is now working closely with the University of Arizona Center for Innovation. They support Leaptran’s business expansion beyond Texas to work with utilities in other nationwide regions. 

The startup has two part-time and four full-time employees. In the short term, Xu aims to generate over $1 million in revenue by 2024. Xu is now fundraising to hire more talent and onboard investors as the startup scales its tools for the broader market.

“As more businesses and utilities look to manage energy resources more sustainably, there will be more demand for analytic software solutions,” Xu said. “And we plan for Leaptran to be a world-class provider of those tools to make our national grid reliable and resilient.” 

The featured image is of Leaptran winning the 2023 American-Made Net Load Forecasting Prize from the Department of Energy; courtesy photo.

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