Drew Depriest BSGE 2004
9/16/2016 9:34:59 AM
Drew DePriest says he has had an “entrepreneurial itch” ever since his college days. That’s why, after 12 years working for Automated Logic, which is one division in a company with 200,000 employees, this ISE alumnus has decided to jump on board a fast-growing, fledgling upstart with just under 40 employees.
This past August, DePriest joined a company called Comfy, which received $12 million in its most recent round of funding—a round that included investors such as Microsoft Ventures. Comfy is certainly an ironic name since DePriest is leaving the comfort of a secure, long-standing job to pursue his entrepreneurial dream.
Comfy software (comfyapp.com) sits on top of smart heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems—the kinds of commercial systems that he worked with in his previous job.
“Comfy puts the power to change a room’s heating and cooling in the hands of whoever is sitting in the office,” DePriest explains. “You use an app on your phone, or you log on to your laptop, and if you’re too hot, you click a button and the building automatically reacts and starts cooling it down for you.”
In an open office situation, where 20 people might share a large space, Comfy provides a democratic solution to the air conditioning wars that often take place, with employees battling over the thermostat. Now, each of the 20 people can select their preferred temperature, and the system will weigh all requests to come up with an optimal setting.
“Surprisingly,” he says, “Comfy has found that in most cases, the majority of people will submit similar requests throughout the day. The system can accommodate a wide variety of requests because it’s dynamic.”
DePriest received his bachelor’s degree in general engineering from ISE in 2004, and he got his first taste of heating and cooling work with a project he did as a student. In his senior design class, DePriest and two fellow students did work for Atlas, a Chicago company that produces an “accelerated weathering” machine.
“Imagine if you work for a company that sells exterior house paint,” he says. “You want to be able to show people that your product can withstand years of weathering.”
This is where the accelerated weathering system comes in. The machine, which is about the size of a filing cabinet, uses a powerful lamp that simulates, in a matter of hours or days, the weathering effect of the hot sun over the span of years. DePriest and his partners were given the challenge of finding a way to cool this powerful lamp without requiring the unit to be connected to a water supply. They wound up creating a closed-loop system, in which a fan blows air across circulating water.
One week after graduating from ISE, DePriest started working at Automated Logic, where he remained until this past summer. Automated Logic installs HVAC systems in smart buildings, and software allows the building’s energy manager to schedule desired temperatures throughout the day. The system can also orchestrate lighting to go on and off at scheduled times.
Energy savings can be significant, DePriest says. For example, one twenty-story building in downtown Chicago saved twenty-five percent on its gas and electric bill, paying for the cost of the new system in only one year.
At Automated Logic, DePriest worked his way up from field engineer to project engineer to project manager, a position in which he supervised as many as thirty projects at a time. This put him at major construction sites, which was why their team called themselves “Geeks in Hard Hats.”
Two memorable projects that he oversaw were the installation of a smart HVAC system in a large U.S. military installation in Japan and a new system in a 200,000-square-foot addition to a VA hospital in Chicago—the first time that the Department of Defense had teamed up with the Veteran’s Administration to build a new facility.
“That project had a lot of eyes on it,” he says. “Two separate parts of government were looking at the building, so it had to be done right.”
Most of these HVAC systems are controlled by a handful of people in the building. What makes his new product with Comfy different is that the comfort control is put into the hands of employees.
Comfy is based in Oakland, California, but DePriest and his young family did not have to move. He is working from his home office in Forest Park, Illinois, and his job is to bring the product to the Midwest. It is uncharted territory.
As he says, “It’s a fairly wide open market with a lot of demand. It seemed too good of an opportunity to pass up.”