Greg Kiessling didn’t think much about environmental issues when he was building his successful software company.
“I was a heads-down entrepreneur. I was working literally 70 hours a week for many years, building my business. I was kind of oblivious, in that state of just go-go-go,” says the former chairman and CEO of Sitraka.
Today, the 52-year-old is tackling global warming, but in an unconventional way. He is the co-founder and executive chairman of Bullfrog Power, which offers renewable energy choices to consumers and businesses.
He has become a social entrepreneur, someone who applies his business skills to environmental and social problems.
After he sold Sitraka in 2002, Mr. Kiessling had time to read and reflect about what he wanted to do next. He came to understand, for the first time, the issue of climate change, and how the consumption of fossil fuels is changing the atmosphere. He also became intrigued with the concept of a double bottom line, the idea that business ventures can strive to achieve measurable social goals, as well as financial ones.
“I like business. I like the rigour of business, and I decided I would like to work on this problem in some way, but within the structure of the business,” he says.
Bullfrog Power, which he started with Tom Heintzman in 2004, has an unorthodox business model. The company persuades customers to pay more than they need for electricity. That premium supports green energy generation.
Electricity generated by wind farms or natural gas from a landfill in Quebec is not delivered directly to their homes or businesses. But the company injects green energy into the grid, matching the amount used by its customers.
Bullfrog Power is very different from a software company, says Mr. Kiessling.
“When I ran a classic for-profit software company, it was much more about ‘here is our product and how do we make our product serve these customers?’ But there is no greater societal movement aspect to it at all. “Social enterprise, on the other hand, is about being part of something bigger.
“We view ourselves much more as a kind of catalyst or facilitator for actions that lots of people want to take. Our job is to create authentic green power choices for people and help corporations that want to take steps of leading in their own domains. … It is very much that we are part of a big community, a big movement,” he says.
There are different ways to set up a social enterprise, and in the case of Bullfrog Power, he says it made sense to establish a for-profit business rather than a not-for-profit organization. It is easier to raise capital as a business. His connections helped, but investors found the idea behind the company appealing.
“There is nobody authentically providing a green power option. That is a market need.”
Bullfrog recently celebrated its seventh birthday and now has 8,000 residential and 1,200 business customers across Canada.
There is starting to be less of a divide between the business and non-profit worlds, says Mr. Kiessling.
“I had always thought there was the business world and a not-for-profit world and they are pretty separate societies. But the blurring of them that is happening now is something that is fairly new.”
So many challenging problems require solutions.
“Business people are saying, ‘Not only can we help in solving them, but that it is easier to run our businesses if we are part of the solution.’ It is more motivating, to all our stakeholders, if we are not just about maximizing short-term shareholder value, but being part of a bigger thing.”
Mr. Kiessling’s private investment company, Up Capital, offers financial support and advice to Bullfrog, as well as other companies, although he prefers to keep the dollar amounts private.
“There is a lot of ingenuity that just needs financing, guidance and help to get to be hugely successful. So there is reason to be hugely optimistic,” he says. Many early-stage clean technology companies can’t get the first $1-million or $2-million of investment they need.
“They can get friends and families, but can’t get to the next stage.”
He was the lead investor, and a tough negotiator on the terms of the new MaRS Cleantech Fund, announced in March, says Tom Rand, the fund’s managing partner.
“He is one of most gentle and intelligent people I have ever met. He is very kind. But make no mistake, when it comes to business, he is as hardheaded and as tough as they come,” says Mr. Rand.
In March, the fund announced it was putting money into GreenMantra, a company that has developed a proprietary platform technology to convert plastics into chemicals and other fuels. It is also investing in Smart Energy Instruments, which is working on low-cost sensors for energy grids.
Mr. Kiessling has also begun work on a new non-profit organization aimed at popularizing the idea that pollution is something that needs to have a price on it.
“How do we transition to an economy where there is a cost to polluting and polluting is not free or really cheap?”
Not all of his efforts are on environmental problems. He is also on the national board of Pathways to Education, a non-profit that has had enormous success in reducing the high-school drop out rate in Toronto’s inner-city Regent Park neighbourhood and is now being implemented in communities across the country.
But his focus is primarily on green issues. He grew up enjoying family canoe trips in Algonquin Park and other beautiful parts of Ontario. He and his wife and two children have continued the tradition and also go hiking and snowshoeing.
He sees the world differently now, however, compared to when he was building his software company.
“I didn’t think about energy. I didn’t even see power and transmission lines. Now I seem them everywhere.”