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Calgary’s Next Economy: 26 Celsius blends science and sustainability

Zack Zhang’s journey to being an entrepreneur begins like many in Calgary right now.

Having spent more than 10 years in the city’s oil and gas industry, Zhang has seen his share of oilpatch ups and downs.

“Last year, as we all know, it was a bad year. A really bad year,” he said.

“I started to focus on where I should position my career for long-term growth.”

Zhang, a mechanical engineer brainstormed ways where he could apply his skillset to common Calgary problems.

One problem he looked at was the loss of heat energy in Calgary homes in the winter.

“I feel like there are more efficient ways where there should be innovations that help people to reduce the energy usage in homes and buildings,” Zhang said.

He’s had knack for robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT) and this was the perfect opportunity to merge them together to create a product that encourages home and building sustainability.

Zhang’s start up, 26 Celsius, develops products that reduce the environmental footprint of homes and buildings.

All of their current and future products will have an environmental gain in mind, he said.

Applying the technology

The current project focus is smart thermal blinds for windows.

He said he’s seen so many homeowners take that thin plastic and tape it, glue it or air dry it to the windows to create an extra thermal barrier.

“From the conversations I’ve had with the homeowners, they hate it. They just have no other choice but to do it, to save some energy costs,” he said.

At first, they looked at a roller system. You’d roll it down, and then it seals your window. When comparing the cost (and appearance) of the roller versus the cheap plastic layer, it wasn’t feasible.

That’s when it clicked.

“We had to pivot, and we then we looked at some other things that people are already putting on their windows,” Zhang said.

That’s when they started to integrate the insulation into the window coverings themselves.

The system has a software control that sense where the sun is during the day and will adjust itself accordingly. That provides additional climate control by using the sun to help heat, or block it to cool a home.

Work with SAIT, Junction program

Right now, Zhang and 26 Celsius have partnered with SAIT’s Green Building Technology Centre where they will be installing and testing the blinds. There’s a monitoring system already installed in the centre, so they can collect data once the install is complete.

One of the things his team has realized is the broader application might be better suited to larger buildings. Homeowners can get blinds at the local home improvement store inexpensively. The savings they’d get from the Smart Blind system might be negligible.

Initially, Zhang said he talked himself into the consumer market.

“Actually, right now, our business focus is on the business sector,” he said.

Businesses that want to see a substantial reduction in environmental footprint on a brick and mortar location would be willing to find the ideal tech to make it happen.

This was all a learning process for Zhang. He’s participated in a handful of startup accelerators, with the latest being Platform Calgary’s Junction program.

It’s been valuable in filling in the blind spots in the business, he said.

“As a first-time entrepreneur, I knew nothing about doing how to start a business,” Zhang said.

Zhang said they want to finish the pilot installation with SAIT. They’ve explored potential with the Calgary Board of Education.  Once they can establish the environmental impact, they’ll move beyond that.

From there, it’s a decision on being a smart home platform, or a smart blind company.