According to Ulupreneur Vikhyat Chaudhry, if he wasn’t playing sports as a child, he was “geeking out” on electronics. He has always loved the art of creation, be it through technical engineering or art projects. Growing up in New Delhi, he began building electronic circuit boards when he was 15.
As a youngster, Vik remembers reading stories about the early tech pioneers who were pushing boundaries. They all seemed to be located in what he called “the cradle of innovation”: Silicon Valley. Coming from a city where six-hour power outages were not uncommon and the air was so polluted it was often difficult to breathe, Vik wanted to focus his education and career on environmental engineering.
He was fascinated by clean energy renewables and energy storage with solar cells. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the Dehli College of Engineering and went on to complete his master’s degree at Stanford in civil and environmental engineering, with a focus on energy engineering.
During his last quarter at Stanford, he took a Launchpad course called Entrepreneurship in Civil and Environmental Engineering. There he met his co-founder Kaitlyn Albertoli. They began ideating on his master’s thesis, which was focused on using drones to inspect wind turbines. From there, they came up with the idea of using drones and AI in the power sector, since it’s a much bigger market—since surveying powerlines is a much bigger problem.
By the end of the course, they were talking to both potential customers and investors. In 2017 they launched Buzz Solutions, a platform that automates and optimizes infrastructure inspections at utilities by analyzing millions of visual data points captured by helicopters, drones, and linemen in the field. The analysis can reduce the field risk of wildfires caused by failed grid infrastructure and can help alleviate power outages due to storms because the crews know where repairs are needed.
Kaitlyn and Vik were named to Forbes’s “30 under 30” in the energy sector in 2021. We caught up with Vik as Buzz continues to make headway with major utilities in the US and Canada.
What are some tips for fundraising?
Fundraising is always a challenge, especially for first-time founders. We launched right after a startup course. Every week they’d have panelists who were VCs. We would present and they’d give us feedback—which was sometimes brutal. It’s important to understand the dynamics of fundraising and storytelling in a compelling way. Understanding your product—market fit, whether the size of the market is big enough, and knowing who your customers are—these are all critical [things to know] before you get up in front of VCs. They often had questions we didn’t have answers to, but we found them. It’s critical to build your presentation decks with your ongoing feedback.
How did you get your first customers?
Initially we cold-called and emailed 90 utilities. Surprisingly, 30 percent of them got back to us saying, “Hey, this is interesting, we’d love to talk more.” During that time frame, we got our initial customers through some of the first trials we were running. We were able to get data from those customers, including utilities in the Midwest and California, since we have an AI product.
A big thing that really helped us launch to get a product in front of customers was the Electric Power Research Institute for utilities. We got validation from them early on and that was a green flag for utilities to take a look at us.
What have been your biggest challenges?
Building a startup is always challenging—there’s so many things that could go wrong. A lot of our challenges were because we deal with utilities and utilities are notoriously slow beasts; the sales cycles are pretty long. So dealing with those sales cycles, keeping our funnel always full, and then having different utility customers or potential clients at different stages are always challenges.
On the operations side of things, we are a fully remote team. So hiring folks who are a culture-fit and who are passionate about the mission is not easy. We’ve had misfits over the years, but it’s also a learning experience.
What are your dreams for Buzz?
We want to become the industry standard for utilities, not only just the power-line infrastructure, but for monitoring substations that have become vulnerable as well. A lot of substations have gone down in recent years and can be serious problems for communities, especially if they provide power for hospitals, commercial buildings, etc. The long-term dream is for Buzz to provide insights to the energy sector and to be the tool that helps the overall energy infrastructure, including renewables, become much more modernized.