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David Helliwell, chief executive officer of Pulse Energy Inc. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
David Helliwell, chief executive officer of Pulse Energy Inc. (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail/Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

The Lunch

The man who greens the Games Add to ...

The "Bill Cosby" smoked-meat sandwich was far more than David Helliwell could handle. So he did what any conscientious environmentalist would do: He had the unfinished half wrapped for takeout.

Mr. Helliwell hates waste, which he equates with economic inefficiency as well as environmental harm. The elimination of it is what drives him and has made him one of Canada's leading clean-technology entrepreneurs, a bright light in one of the West Coast's emerging industries.

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You probably haven't heard much about Mr. Helliwell or the business he co-founded, Pulse Energy Inc. But as energy prices leap skyward, and governments look for ways to curb the growth in carbon emissions, you will likely be hearing more about the company and its boyish-looking, 38-year-old chief executive officer.

Pulse makes software that can be used to make more efficient some of the worst energy-sucking buildings in North America. More to the point, in an industry rife with bright ideas that don't quite work or require large government subsidies to be viable, it is also enjoying some genuine commercial success. Last year, its revenue grew by 500 per cent and Mr. Helliwell sees no signs of slowing down. He expects to at least double them again in 2011. (Because the company is privately held, he won't reveal actual revenue figures.)

Over a fat sandwich and some greasy fish and chips at a noisy Shopsy's, he exudes the kind of zeal that combines an idealistic streak with an aggressive entrepreneurial bent. He likes to think that his company epitomizes that enviro-business mantra of "doing good by doing well."

"There are all kinds of pathways to having an impact," he said. "It doesn't have to be with a non-profit. There are all sorts of for-profit companies like ours that are designed from the ground up with the mission to do something that, by the nature of doing business, we make the world a better place."

His signature project was the greening of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. At Olympic venues such as B.C. Place and Canada Hockey Place (better known now as Rogers Arena), Pulse software was used to calculate and display energy use, providing building engineers with real-time information and analytics on how to reduce consumption - while still keeping the indoor climate right for athletes and spectators.

Following Pulse's work on the Vancouver Games, sponsors and organizers of the London Olympics invited the company to work with them on building an energy plan for 2012 - similar to what was done in Vancouver, but on a larger scale. They are now working out the relationship, but the CEO is hopeful it will give Pulse a beachhead in an important market.

"It could be a company-changing deal," Mr. Helliwell said. "It would mean we'd be staffing up fast in the U.K., and the U.K. is one of the most advanced markets in the world in energy conservation."

It was a twisting road that led Mr. Helliwell to the CEO position in a rising clean-tech star.

Over lunch, he traced his peripatetic career from petroleum geologist, to professional windsurfer, to Paris-based management consultant, to senior policy adviser in a federal minister's office, to clean-technology entrepreneur - before his 35th birthday. He joked that he has gone from mining energy in the ground to mining it in buildings.

While his mother worried he couldn't settle down, the itinerant career path prepared him well for running a fast-growing technology company.

Even the windsurfing experience honed his business skills. He reached a ranking in the top 30 worldwide as he travelled to races in Maui, Australia and the Caribbean. "I was living the lifestyle of the rich and famous, and my annual income was $20,000 to $25,000 a year," he said with a laugh. "But I learned how to negotiate with airlines. Try to travel around the world with 200 kilos of excess baggage and not pay."

As he wound down his sports career, he enrolled for an MBA at France's prestigious École nationale des ponts et chaussées, a civil engineering school in Paris. After taking a summer break to marry his wife, Nancy, and compete in one last windsurfing world cup race, he landed a consulting job with Cap Gemini Ernst & Young in Paris as a strategic adviser.

Two years later, he was recruited by Liberal MP Stephen Owen to serve as his senior policy adviser, first in the Office of Western Diversification and then with the Department of Public Works. It was in that latter role that he saw a vast and profitable opportunity in improving the energy efficiency of buildings.

The department managed 700 million square feet of office space, and Mr. Helliwell takes some credit for initiating programs that saved Ottawa $15-million a year in energy consumption in those buildings. But he also found the public sector frustratingly slow to move and adapt.

Six years ago, he seized the opportunity to start a business with Vancouver tech mogul Greg Kerfoot, who had led the rapid growth of information-technology startup Crystal Decisions before it was sold for $1.5-billion in 2003. Combining Mr. Kerfoot's expertise in IT infrastructure and Mr. Helliwell's experience in energy efficiency, they launched Pulse. The company offers software to monitor, display and analyze energy consumption, and compares individual buildings against industry norms and high performers.

The software collects data from a building's meters and sends it to the Pulse Engine, a custom-built computer that can slice and dice the data in a variety of ways. It can compare the per-metre energy use over a period of time to the building's previous history, and to a specific portfolio of other buildings. The software then alerts building engineers when there is a deviation in energy use so that they can identify and fix problems. Hundreds of buildings in North America, including the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, use the system.

Pulse says it can save 15 to 25 per cent of energy consumption in a typical building, and the required investments typically pay for themselves in two years or less. The biggest hurdle, he says, is capturing the attention of senior management to address the energy efficiency of their buildings.

Pulse is an early actor in the field - and that adds to the pioneering sense of excitement. It also helps to attract top-notch computer scientists and engineers who are eager to push the boundaries of the transforming power industry.

"If you are doing something in quantum physics, you've got to spend 10 years finding something that is new or different," he said. "But here, so little has been done that in six months you can revolutionize the calibre of work that is being done. So that's a really neat thing for us."

Curriculum vitae

Personal

Born April 5, 1972, in Vancouver. Eldest of two boys, of father John, a well-known University of British Columbia economist, and mother Millie, a nurse and stay-at-home mom.

Fourth-generation Vancouverite. Named for his uncle, David L. Helliwell, who rowed for Canada and won a silver medal in 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

He and wife Nancy, a civil engineer and consultant on municipal infrastructure, have two daughters, 6 and 3.

Education

Graduated from the University of British Columbia, with a BSc in geophysics; competed on the cycling team. Attended Harvard University for a year as an undergraduate visiting student.

Received an MBA from L'École Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées in Paris.

Mentors: His father, economist John Helliwell; family friend and former Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci; and B.C. business executive and environment advocate, Milton Wong.

Career highlights

Worked as an oil industry geophysicist in North America and Australia, exploring for oil and gas, and minerals.

Paris-based management consultant with Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, advising on strategic planning and merger and acquisitions.

Concluded a deal with B.C. Hydro, as a key a partner in its PowerSmart program. Had Pulse Energy selected to do energy monitoring and efficiency analysis at venues for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Other interests

Professional windsurfer, competing in world cup events around the globe. Rides his bike to work.

Director of Vancouver Board of Trade, and member of the B.C. Technology Industry Association and Canada Green Building Council.

Book on his night table: End of Energy Obesity, by Peter Tertzakian.

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