St. PAUL, MINN – From building homes in Colorado to rebuilding after an earthquake in New Zealand, Zahra Iliff has always been interested in making a difference. Her dedication to creating a better world has taken her from a focus on building efficient and clean residential homes in Colorado to an energy storage device that she hopes will fill a gap in the current marketplace.
Energy storage startup
Charging into the clean energy future
Around the world and back to Merriam Park
Zahra Hargans Iliff grew up in the Merriam Park neighborhood of St. Paul, MN. Though her work took her to many different places, including time in Illinois, Colorado and New Zealand, she again found herself living in the same neighborhood she was raised in. In fact, she and her family live in the same house she grew up in. Her deep roots in the community, her family and her determination all contribute to her entrepreneurial spirit and working to make the world a better place.
A history of building from the ground up
Unique from most people in the tech startup space, Zahra’s background is in construction. She describes often being the only one in a room full of engineers. However, it was her start in construction that ultimately led her to Vessyll. In Colorado, she owned a construction company and from the start was interested in energy efficiency and sustainable buildings. It started with wanting to learn and use the best materials, she prided herself in providing a quality product. Then she moved on to learning about all of the systems that go into building a home and how those could be more efficient. These building blocks are the unique foundation of the startup she would found years later.
Zahra also learned a lot about earthquake-proofing homes during her time in New Zealand. She lived in the country at the time of the major earthquake in Christchurch, which leveled the city. She felt called to move there and help in the disaster recovery efforts. That is a whole world in itself she says. Wanting to raise their family in the Midwest, Zahra and her partner Adam moved back to Minnesota in 2014.
The path to Vessyll
“My background in construction allowed me to see energy storage and clean energy as just a natural evolution. This is similar to how we used to think about efficient water heaters and furnaces. Energy storage is just that next stage and it makes us enjoy our homes more and is good for the Earth at the same time,” said Zahra on the origins of the startup. To launch a new product, an extensive amount of research has to be completed first. Zahra started with an idea to get into electric vehicles, but as she kept digging deeper and deeper, she couldn’t drop the idea for energy storage.
Even when thinking about electric vehicles, she knew that you’d need storage to go along with it. Thinking about how everything plays together is a product of the amount of time she spent building homes. It instilled in her a strong understanding of how systems and materials all work together and what kept leading her back to energy storage. Adding energy storage devices to homes and businesses to capture energy is as natural in her mind as adding plumbing and electricity. After a lot of time and research, Vessyll was launched, in a living room, in March of 2020.
What is the Vessyll
“I’m very passionate about building so I’m so happy to be in the manufacturing arena building something tangible. I think that’s where I got a lot of my love and pride for construction putting my time and attention into something and then you can physically touch it, obviously, the added benefit of clean energy is that you’re part of a bigger purpose that’s not only serving the needs for us but also our world,” says Zahra.
Vessyll is a next-generation energy storage system combining the latest in hardware and software tech that can be useful in homes and commercial buildings. The Vessyll can monitor both the grid and a clean energy power source to always have enough energy on hand. It can even track weather and climate data to help predict when outages may occur! “What the Vessyll can do is regulate your energy use throughout the day. It can kick in so you don’t ever have spikes that the utility company will designate as high usage. It will significantly help with your bottom line and your energy costs,” Zahra explains.
It can hold up to 60 kilowatt-hours of power, more than three times the storage of Tesla’s Powerwall. This place in the market, between the size of a Powerwall and utility-scale, is where Zahra saw a gap and is working to fill.
The Challenges of Entrepreneurship
Despite having an amazing concept and partner to work on Vessyll with, entrepreneurship is still an incredibly difficult path to pursue. About this, Zahra says, “You have to have the resilience to push a product forward. You will have a lot of roadblocks and you have to have creative solutions to go around them and keep pushing. Even when you feel like you’re not making much progress, as long as you just keep attempting you will get there.”
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome is funding. Money cannot fix a bad idea, but it can definitely help speed the process to market in many ways and finding funding streams can be a daunting effort. This requires extensive networking and pitching of your ideas, grant applications and more networking. The results of these efforts have started to pay off for Vessyll. The company has been selected to receive several state grants and they were selected to participate in the 2023 Grid Catalyst cohort. They also work out of University Enterprise Labs (shown above), an incubator for early-stage companies.
The Vessyll in action
The first Vessyll unit deployed at Colusa Casino is tied to two large standby generators. These generators take minutes to start up and deliver power, and Vessyll acts as a bridge to deliver power immediately between the microgrid and other large power sources onsite. In the next couple of years, the Colusa Indian Community needs to replace their huge uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system. While this currently consists of lead acid batteries paired with inverters, by using multiple Vessyll units paired together, they both reduce their UPS footprint by over 50%, they also increase the serviceable life from 7 years to 15 years and greatly reduce all safety hazards.