CenterPoint, Bauer MBA Team Combine for Gas Meter Ingenuity
Published on August 12, 2010
Bauer Business Consulting Lab Devises Market Solution for CenterPoint Energy
A Houston company rolled out a product this summer that allows the gas company to change out the meter without any homeowner hassles, and a group of MBA students from the University of Houston C. T. Bauer College of Business helped make it possible.
The Business Consulting Lab at UH Bauer was hired by CenterPoint Energy to study how to commercialize a device it had invented to make changing out gas meters easier.
The device allows gas utility repair technicians to replace a natural gas meter without cutting off the gas. That’s a plus for homeowners because normally when the gas goes out, a technician needs to get into the house to relight all the pilot lights. That often means no hot water or heat until someone takes time off work to let the utility tech in the house to light the pilots.
CenterPoint Energy saw early on that this device could eliminate a big service headache. But the company is in the gas and electric service business, not new product marketing, so when it had a workable prototype, it hired the Business Consulting Lab – a class where a team of graduate students complete a detailed study of a significant problem presented by a company.
“We had created the product and tested it in-house and felt comfortable with it, but we wanted to know: does it have legs in the marketplace?” said Dimitri Karastamatis, director of CenterPoint Energy Mobile Energy Solutions.
The five student team members, working along with Stephen Koch, executive professor and director of the consulting lab program, went to great lengths to get to know this specialized market.
“They did a good job of looking at competing products, researching what other local providers of services throughout the country would be interested in purchasing, and made an estimate of how many they’d buy,” Karastamatis said.
CenterPoint Energy incorporated the report into its plan to commercialize what is now called the StayLit device. It followed one of the options studied – licensing the technology to an established company that will build and market the device to customers in the gas utility business. That company, Houston-based Heath Consultants Inc, began showing the device at trade shows this spring, and selling it in mid-summer.
StayLit looks like the chambers used in a lab to isolate hazardous materials. Workers stick their hands inside of gloves that allow them to work inside the sealed chamber. It allows the gas to keep flowing into the house during the meter change-out.
Paul Wehnert, vice president for sales and marketing for Heath, which is also in the business of providing meter maintenance for utilities, said he spoke to members of the Business Consulting Lab while it was getting to know the business.
Wehnert believes the StayLit device is clearly better than its competitors. But in this industry it takes time to win over customers who need to test it and to train employees to use it properly.
The project also had an impact on one of the MBA students on the team who was hired by CenterPoint Energy, and continued to help on the StayLit project.
“There were a couple of folks in the group we would have loved to have hired,” Karastamatis said.
This story points to a primary goal of the consulting lab – offering well-researched practical advice.
“We tell students that part of their grade is our sense of the likelihood of seeing their recommendations being executed,” Koch said.
For more information on the StayLit device and a video on how it works, click here.
By Stephen Rassenfoss