Rice University alumnus Bryan Hassin (B.S. in CS ’01, B.S. in ECE ’01, M.C.S. ’02) is driven to create something meaningful. He’s launched seven startups and the idea for his current project, Smart Office Energy Solutions, was kindled during a local Nobel Laureate’s lecture in 2003.
“Rick Smalley talked about the importance of improving global access to energy resources and he asked the audience to take up this challenge. It made me consider my own career focus,” said Hassin.
“I’d been an entrepreneur. It wasn’t obvious how a tech startup guy could make a positive impact in energy, but I was inspired by that lecture and it stayed with me. To that point, most of my startup success had been helping dirty energy companies be more profitable; Smalley’s challenge motivated me to change directions.
“Smart Office Energy Solutions uses the Internet of Things (IoT) to measure and optimize a building’s energy consumption. In addition to reducing a building’s energy bill, our technology can time energy reductions to take load off the grid when demand is highest. From the grid’s perspective, using fewer electrons is the same as generating more electrons so this approach is referred to as a ‘virtual power plant.’ We are building a global network of these smart buildings that – together – constitute a virtual power plant an order of magnitude greater than the largest physical power plant in the world – and we’re doing it with computer science, not with coal.”
Before he was inspired to start his first company, Hassin discovered his strength as a leader during three team-based courses taught by Rice Computer Science professors. He said Dan Wallach’s Data Structures & Algorithms, Matthias Felleisen’s Software Engineering, and John Bennett’s Computer Systems Design courses all involved real-world design. The students received customer problem specifications, then formed teams to tackle the problem.
Hassin said, “We’d be given an open set of requirements and told to figure out the best way to satisfy the customer’s needs. Each of those courses required us to work in teams, and those skills have carried me throughout my career. Those experiences gave me an appreciation for the impact of group dynamics on a team’s work product – you could have the smartest developers in the world but, if you couldn’t work together effectively, you were sunk.
“Those courses also helped me realize that I was a good computer scientist, but not a great one. Some of my classmates were true prodigies; my comparative advantage was the ability to communicate and foster effective teamwork. It was my wakeup call – now I concentrate on building teams rather than building software.”
His Rice leadership opportunities also extended into social areas. Hassin served as president of Lovett College and was elected as the second president of GEEKS, the newly formed student computer science club.
“We changed the name to the ‘CS Club’ after finding that ‘GEEKS’ didn’t appeal to the female CS majors. There weren’t many female CS majors at the time so it was really important that they felt included – all the more so because they were the smartest among us,” said Hassin.
His willingness to make changes that foster a more inclusive environment stem from both successes and failures. He works to create open environments where everyone is welcome and said diverse teams make better decisions than homogenous teams.
“Yes, diverse teams may experience more conflict than homogenous teams, but it is productive conflict, and the outcome is better than the product, idea, or process would be without it. The coward’s way is to hire all the same kind of people,” he said.
“Dumbledore [a character in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling] said something like, ‘Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.’ Choose right. The outcomes are better.”
With a diverse and cohesive team in place, Hassin can focus his attention on enabling the team and building out the vision for their startup. Most of his time is spent describing Smart Office Energy Solutions’ interesting technology and how it can change the world.
“I need to communicate that vision to different audiences. Investors want to know what their return will be. Customers ask how we can make their lives better. Employees wonder if they will get the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution.
“The rest of my time is spent ensuring everyone on the team has the resources to be successful. We try to hire really good people and, if they are not doing well, I take personal umbrage with that; that means we are failing them. We’re a startup. We’re going to take big swings and take on audacious goals, so everyone needs to feel confident enough to fail and try again.”
One of Hassin’s earliest big swings was applying to Rice. His classmates at a science magnet high school all seemed to choose universities in their own state or in the Northeast, but Hassin wanted to balance his interest in engineering with a strong liberal arts education.
“I upheld the ideal of the Renaissance man, of being well rounded. My mom had spent her career in the space industry and recommended I look at Rice. We came to visit in July before my senior year and I expected to see dust and tumbleweeds. Driving through the main entrance under that canopy of live oaks, it was love at first sight,” he said.
“But my enthusiasm was also due to the people I interacted with on that visit. For example, I walked into the Computer Science office and asked if I could talk to someone. A professor, Joe Warren, poked his head out, invited me into his office, and we talked for half an hour or so. I felt so welcome. I felt like they wanted me here. The spirit of being ‘elite but not elitist’ resonated at Rice from the first moment I stepped on campus.”
Hassin returned to Rice after launching several successful startups, this time as an Entrepreneur in Residence. He helped students launch an on-campus startup accelerator, OwlSpark, between 2012 and 2013. OwlSpark, a joint venture between the Rice Alliance for Technology and Innovation and the George R. Brown School of Engineering, was rated the top university incubator in the world in 2014.
After establishing a solid entrepreneurial environment for Rice students, Hassin returned his focus to Smalley’s challenge: improving global utilization of and access to energy resources.
He said, “Smart Office Energy Solutions is a thrilling startup to be part of. All startups have been fun, but in this case – if we get it right – we can really do something good for society and the world. That gives me a great sense of satisfaction. And I might finally be able to accomplish what Rick Smalley was asking us to do.”
Bryan Hassin completed his B.S. in Computer Science at Rice University in 2001 and his M.C.S. in 2002.