Brighter Planet, Founded in Vermont, Sees Brighter Future in Bay Area

It’s another win for the Bay Area’s formidable social networking cluster. Brighter Planet, a provider of online and offline products that aim to help people and businesses reduce their carbon footprints, is downsizing its Vermont offices and expanding in San Francisco, company CEO Pattie Prairie says.

The startup, which was formed by students and a faculty member at Vermont’s prestigious Middlebury College in 2006, is moving out of its headquarters in Middlebury, VT, at the expiration of its office lease this month, Prairie says. The CEO and the company controller plan to stay in the Green Mountain state in a smaller office just south of Burlington, but more and more employees, many of whom are Middlebury College alumni, are moving to the firm’s San Francisco office. News about the firm’s move to San Francisco first appeared late last month in Middlebury’s Addison County Independent newspaper.

Brighter Planet has found that California has a more fertile business landscape than Vermont’s rolling green hills. The firm, which launched a social Web app for the environmentally conscious set last year, is following in the footsteps of other social Web firms—most notably Facebook and Twitter—that are based in the Golden State. California is also one of the most progressive states in taking measures to combat climate change, enacting some of the strictest rules in the U.S. on minimum gas mileage for automobiles and carbon dioxide emissions.

While living “green” in Vermont is more the norm than a lifestyle choice, it almost goes without saying that the small state cannot compete with the scale of sustainability-oriented business activity in California. For Brighter Planet, having a base of operations in San Francisco also brings it closer to a large number of potential customers. according to Prairie. The company started out by supporting Brighter Planet-branded Bank of America credit and check cards that enable consumers to purchase carbon offsets (the financial instruments that clean energy developers sell to fund their projects) with the points they accumulate every time they buy something with their cards. Last year, the company launched a new social Web app that gave people online tools—including a personal carbon emissions calculator—to reduce their carbon footprints.

The company began to evolve into a bi-coastal entity about six months ago, when the firm’s director of business development, Robbie Adler, moved from Vermont to San Francisco, according to Prairie. More recently Ian Hough, a staff scientist at the startup, shipped out to San Francisco to room with Adler and work for the company there. Now Andy Rossmeissl, a company co-founder and product design director, is mulling a re-location from Vermont to the Bay Area office, Prairie says.

There are now three full-time employees of the company on the West Coast, and it’s now recruiting a fourth to be its chief operating officer. With three other employees working for the company from Jackson Hole, WY, Princeton, NJ, and Michigan, the majority of the 9-person firm’s work force is now operating outside of Vermont. Yet many of the firm’s investors, like FreshTracks Capital, and advisors such as the author Bill McKibben, a leading voice in the climate change movement and scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, are in Vermont. (Prairie says she plans to rent space in FreshTracks’s office in Shelburne, VT, to house the small remaining staff.)

Still, the focus at Brighter Planet nowadays is more on business growth than business location. Prairie says the firm is now focused on a major new opportunity for its carbon calculating technology for use by large organizations that are going to have to report their greenhouse gas consumption to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency come next March, due to new regulations from Washington aimed at combating global climate change. (Here’s a link to the EPA’s announcement about the new regulations.)

Brighter Planet, which estimates that the new regulations will affect 10,000 facilities, is looking into what it would take to develop a software-as-a-service product that, say, would enable a large transportation company to calculate how many tons of carbon dioxide its fleet of trucks or jets are emitting into the atmosphere.

The company’s carbon calculating technology is unique, according to Prairie, because it accounts not only for the number of miles a person drives but also for the types of products they consume. But the firm, which has raised $3.7 million in two rounds of financing, would have to raise more money to develop a version of the carbon calculator software for large businesses. Selling the software to businesses on a subscription basis would offer a whole new revenue stream for Brighter Planet, which now makes money mainly from brokering the sales of carbon offsets.

Whether to develop the product, Prairie says, will depend on interest from potential customers and investors. She anticipates there will be a decision one way or the other by sometime this summer. Either way, the CEO says she’ll be making more business trips from Vermont to California than before.

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