Ontario social entrepreneur works to automate monitoring of solar systems
Leon Kehl has worked for himself for almost 28 years, but only recently stopped flinching when people would ask him if he was a businessman.
“Entrepreneur, yes. Businessman no,” he said. “My transformation over the last two years is embracing the label of being a businessman.”
His discomfort with being called a businessman comes from his internal perception that many businesspeople are only concerned with the financial bottom line. “Having said that, I’ve seen a lot of good examples in the Mennonite church and the extended community of businessmen.”
“It’s probably because of the field I have been in. I’ve not seen as many good examples of those values in the tech community.”
Kehl, based at his home in the small village of Floradale, Ontario, is the son of a Mennonite pastor.
His father Lester served three southern Ontario congregations. Lester finished his church career as conference minister, then drove school bus until he was 78. Working past conventional retirement age has been a Kehl tradition for several generations, as Leon’s grandfather worked at the New Dundee creamery until age 75.
Leon Kehl recalls a company that he worked at for over a decade, Mutual Group (now part of Sun Life Canada) as a good example of a people-centred business philosophy. “Mother Mutual,” as the firm was fondly known by employees of that era, had a policy of no layoffs. “It was almost like a family. For me, that was interesting and good to see. My abilities as a leader were developed there.”
Ironically, he would be restructured out of a job by Sun Life in 2003 but was ready to try working for himself by then.
After finishing Master of Business Administration studies Kehl incorporated a business in 2003 and worked as a consultant. “It’s hard to build a business, but consulting is pretty easy, so I did a lot of that.”
He was approached by Power TakeOff, a US-based firm that helps utilities with energy efficiency, and built a Canadian development team for them in Kitchener.
Kehl’s entrepreneurial journey began in the mid-1980s, when he dropped out of school to become the fourth employee at NDI (Northern Digital Inc. at the time), a University of Waterloo spin-off.
He began computer programming five years before that, as a 16-year-old high school student. “That kind of transformed my life,” he recalls. “It wasn’t so much entrepreneurial in terms of business, more using software to solve problems.”
“I think read you need to fail at least four times before you have a successful business. I’ve attempted several things over the years, all of those failed in the sense that I never fully committed to them.”
Dale Brubacher-Cressman, a childhood acquaintance who interviewed him for a job at Research in Motion (later Blackberry) in Waterloo, would play a significant role in Kehl’s subsequent entrepreneurial path.
Brubacher-Cressman started Vigor Clean Tech (now VCT Group), a Kitchener solar energy firm, after leaving Blackberry. He introduced Kehl to Bryan Unrau, who now heads VCT.
VCT was a major early customer for Boxbrite, helping Kehl finance development by paying him upfront for system monitoring.
A lack of moving parts means that failures in solar systems are neither always apparent nor even discussed as being possible when systems are sold, Kehl said.
Boxbrite’s value proposition is ensuring that a solar system’s panels and inverters continue working efficiently for decades.
Currently, well-maintained solar systems tend to have a person around to oversee (and repair if necessary) up to 50 sites. Boxbrite aims to automate that process.
“My target is that one (person) can monitor 1,000 systems, and that person doesn’t have to be anywhere close (to the systems they are overseeing).
Kehl wants to be at least 10 times more efficient in overseeing systems than a layperson could be, using software can quickly scan data to discover hardware faults.
A malfunction of a $10 fan on an inverter could cost $2,000 a year in lost revenue because an inverter will get too hot and produce less power if the problem goes undetected, he said.
“There’s lots of efficiencies to squeeze out (with improved software algorithms), because right now the competition is a guy going out and looking at the system every day.”
While the company’s current customers are in Ontario, Kehl is looking at opportunities worldwide “If we’re having problems (with malfunctioning systems) in North America, what’s it going to be like in some of those Third World countries? We’re struggling, they’re going to be getting hit even harder.”
A person he spoke to in South Africa toured six village projects of solar systems funded by European agencies. Five years after installation, none of the systems were working, and in one village, (unconnected) solar panels were being used as roofing for a latrine.
“A lot of these developing countries are going even more whole hog into solar than us. Part of it is just the cost of fossil fuels.”
He is exploring partnership opportunities in Thailand, Vietnam, Nigeria and Myanmar for partners to provide tracking services based on Boxbrite’s technology. Kehl is also looking south for new opportunities. He is working on a partnership agreement with US-based Solar Data Systems, a company whose parent, Solar Log is the top solar data logger in the world.
As solar, a boom-and-bust industry at the residential level, increasingly becomes a commodity and prices plummet, small companies cannot afford to do monitoring, he said. “It’s just not cost effective.”
Boxbrite needs to multiply its customer base several times in order to be cashflow positive. For now, that means that the best market opportunities for Kehl are in large commercial or industrial systems, between 100KW and one MW in size.
As the firm grows, he hopes to offer monitoring for homeowners. With the state of California mandating solar panels on all new residential buildings, that opportunity should grow exponentially, he said.
Boxbrite currently employs 20, including part-timers and co-op students. During the pandemic, Kehl realized that staff could work from home as well as they could from a corporate office. Having outgrown the company’s office space, he decided to make the firm virtual permanently. “That’s a strategic business decision.”
There are both benefits and challenges with a virtual company model, as it requires a different way of leading. “What is does rely on is a fair bit of trust in your people.”
Despite no longer having common office space, company staff have connected regularly even during the pandemic. They have taken hikes together and done socially-distanced picnics in parks.
Once the pandemic is over, forcing employees to work in corporate offices will be a disadvantage in competition for talented staff, he said.
Kehl is comfortable with risks he is taking. “It’s not like (bank deposits) are paying that well right now, I might as well invest in myself.”
He would consider outside investment from a partner that wanted an equity stake in the firm, “but there has to be alignment. I don’t want to be someone else’s product.”
Firm is intentional about hiring newcomers
When Leon Kehl looks for staff, he values character and giving a chance to newcomers to Canada.
The founder of Boxbrite Technologies wants to hear the answers to three questions in jobs interviews: What is the person’s story, are they a good person, and is there a technical fit (business need for the person’s expertise).
Many companies jump right to the third question and lose sight of the first two, he said.
Kehl is adamant about the need to balance human and business imperatives. Hiring newcomers may require helping people more initially, but has greater benefits in the long-term, he said.
“That’s a Mennonite business approach,” he said “I hire a number of refugees. I hire a number of newcomers. I see that as good business and also consistent with my Mennonite values.”
Boxbrite’s staff include several people who fled Turkey, as well as someone from Iran. Kehl is also happy to have people from several different faith backgrounds working with him. He has a Hindu, as well as Shia and Sunni Muslims on his payroll.
The aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 got him interested in interfaith dialogue and working with newcomers. Seeing people being ostracized as “the other” made him realize the importance of people from different backgrounds getting to know each other.
“I believe love is stronger than hate, it just takes longer,” he said.
That understanding led him to visit Israel/Palestine and Turkey, participate in Muslim-Mennonite dialogue initiatives, work to sponsor Syrian refugees, and build bridges with Turkish refugees.
When Kehl started BoxBrite, he had helped five newcomers get established in Canada in the previous two years and wanted to continue helping others. “I’ve already achieved success, even if I fail as a business now.”