QS Leadership Scholarship Winner: Building the House of the Future

QS Leadership Scholarship Winner

Each year, we award a QS Leadership Scholarship worth US$10,000 to an MBA candidate who has shown exceptional leadership and innovative thinking. This year’s winner is Eric Bowler, an incoming MBA candidate at SDA Bocconi, for his conception of and work at the helm of ReNEWW House.

ReNEWW, a collaboration between Purdue University and Whirlpool, stands for ‘retrofitted net-zero energy, water & waste’, and is an exploration into how to create a perfectly-sustainable home. We asked Bowler to tell us a little more about the project and his story.

Have you demonstrated outstanding leadership over your career? You can learn more about QS Scholarships here. We’d love to hear from you!

QS Leadership Scholarship Winner

Tell us a little bit about your background leading up to ReNEWW House

As I child, I had always been fascinated with aeronautics and aerospace – evidenced by my love of movies such as Star Wars and Apollo 13. I chose to study mechanical engineering at Purdue so that I could break into the field.  While studying, I completed several internships at UTC Aerospace and Pratt & Whitney. While the work was fascinating, what these experiences taught me was that I was, in fact, more passionate about working on solutions that impacted people’s everyday lives more than an aircraft engine does.

Whirlpool Corporation came to campus and presented a great leadership development program (WERLD) that they had established for engineers right out of undergraduate. Whirlpool is the global leader in the home appliance industry and I saw this as a way to both work on solutions that directly improve people’s lives and work on the downstream portion of the energy system – the utilization of energy – with which I’d become fascinated during my studies. I applied and was accepted.

While on this program, I established a connection between Purdue and Whirlpool, which would see WERLD engineers get their master’s degrees at my alma mater. For myself, however, I found a program under the Innoenergy umbrella called Environomical Pathways for a Sustainable Energy Systems (SELECT), split between the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Stockholm and a partner school, dependent on the student’s specialism.

The first year of the program in Stockholm, which focused on the energy system as a whole and gave an introduction to the various renewable energy technologies, cemented my suspicion that my passion was to move the world to a sustainable energy system as quickly as possible to avoid the worst effects of climate change.  For the second year, I chose to specialize in efficient energy utilization at the partner school Politecnico di Torino (PoliTo).

This choice made sense for me and for Whirlpool which was sponsoring my education. I wrote my thesis on retrofitting the US housing market. A majority of the existing building stock in the US was built before the energy crisis of the 1970s, before any sort of meaningful energy codes – therefore a majority of the housing stock is very inefficient. A major challenge with the US housing market is it is very fragmented – many people live in single family homes which are difficult and expensive to retrofit for energy efficiency.

I was using an energy-modeling program to investigate the optimal pathway in different climate regions and how these retrofits could be financed so that they would be affordable. The idea was to structure a long-term financing option that would make the payments for the retrofit work less than the savings realized on the energy costs – therefore allowing the project to essentially have a 0-day payback period.

A similar structure has since become popular in the United States under the name PACE (property assessed clean energy) financing.

What is the story behind ReNEWW House?

It was while working on my thesis that I first had the idea for the ReNEWW House. Whirlpool has a major influence in residential energy use, which is one of the reason the appliance industry has been so heavily regulated with respect to energy use since the 1970s

From my work in various research groups at Whirlpool, I knew that it was becoming increasingly difficult to continue to make appliances more efficient year after year in a cost-effective manner. I believed that more efficiency improvements could be made at lower cost if appliance efficiency was approached from a systems perspective. For a simple example of this systems thinking, consider that a refrigerator essentially moves heat from inside the refrigerator to the kitchen air (thus the inside of the refrigerator gets cold and the condenser of the refrigerator and air around the condenser gets hot). This heat is not really used in a useful way, but with systems thinking we could think of ways to utilize this heat, for example in heating the water used in dishwashers. In this way both the efficiency of the refrigerator and dishwasher are improved, but to capture this requires a different way of thinking about appliances and their design.

I was fortunate in that the time that I was graduating and moving back to the US was the same time that the corporate sustainability group was just forming at Whirlpool under the direction of a former WERLD engineer, Ron Voglewede. Ron had an engineering background, and had primarily worked in research during his time at Whirlpool and as it turned out, was a big supporter of systems design thinking when it came to appliances.

Ron hired me into the newly formed corporate sustainability team and gave me the mandate to launch what we called the ReNEWW House program at Purdue, once again leveraging my relationship. ReNEWW stands for retrofitted net-zero energy, water & waste house and represents the aspirational goal of the project – to create a sustainable living showcase home that demonstrates that a house can produce all the energy it needs locally from renewable resources, harvest all the water it needs from local resources and send no waste to landfill.

The two main missions of the ReNEWW are to be a live-in research lab for our engineers at Purdue University, and to be a promotional asset – helping Whirlpool attract future bright engineers, educating the public on how to obtain a sustainable lifestyle and attracting other industrial partners to work with Whirlpool on promoting sustainable lifestyles.

We designed and installed a baseline data measurement and management system for the home to monitor the existing state of the unmodified home (originally built in 1928). Over 100 channels of data from air temperature, relative humidity, water temperature, electricity use, etc. are collected every couple of seconds and recorded in a database, making the home one of the most-studied buildings in the US.

I managed the retrofit work and found many industry collaborators to donate the required equipment to the ReNEWW House, such as the geothermal heat pump, insulation etc. We designed a rainwater collection and purification system to capture the rainfall off the roof and filter it to potable quality for use in the home. We also worked with a company to design a greywater recycling system that would treat the shower drain water for reuse in toilet flushing. There is little reason to use water that has been treated to drinking level quality to simply flush the toilet, by reusing shower water we can reduce the indoor water consumption of homes by roughly 30%.

Throughout all of this we showed thousands of students, other industry professionals, professors and local residents through the ReNEWW House. We sponsored many senior design projects of undergraduate engineers to develop solutions in the ReNEWW house that would enable sustainable living. I managed the work of over 10 WERLD engineers over the years who were working on research projects, developing various concepts to rethink the way appliances are designed in order to make the overall system more efficient. I presented at numerous industry conferences, including GreenBuild – the largest industry conference for sustainable building on the progress and learnings of the project. We built a great website that pushes live data every day so anyone can see how much energy the house uses, produces, how much water is captured and how much water is used and reused. There is even a virtual tour on the website where you can use a VR device to walk through the house if you can’t make it to Purdue for a personal tour.

After launching and building the ReNEWW House project for three years I was very satisfied with where it was and I wanted to seek out my next career challenge. I began to think more about trying to work in a different area of the energy system – potentially more on the upstream (energy production) side. At this time my wife, Giulia, and I had been living in the US for several years and we wanted to move back to Europe. We recently relocated back to Italy, where she is from, and I have been working as an independent consultant and learning Italian until school starts in October.


Another aspect of the project I am proud of is our engagement with the WBCSD (World Business Council for Sustainable Development). Through the WBCSD we pulled together numerous industrial partners such as Fossil, P&G, and Ford to investigate how to make sustainable lifestyles more attainable and importantly for consumer facing companies, how to market these sustainable solutions to customers.

I oversaw most of the retrofits during my time managing the ReNEWW House. In the future, the work at the house will be more focused on internal research activities to develop more fully this idea of a future appliance system that is much more efficient than when designing appliances as individual products. The house will be used to prototype and test such a product and will rely on the WERLD engineers who live in the house to work with Purdue researches to develop and prototype the concept.

What have you been working on since then?

I have been working for Oolu Solar, an off-grid solar pay as you go retailer operating in Senegal and Mali. I studied sustainable energy engineering with Vincenzo Capogna, the CTO of Oolu Solar, and while we were still in school we competed – and finished as runners up – together along with several others in the 2012 Hult Prize, the largest social entrepreneurship business case challenge in the world.

It just so happened that one of the main topics of the 2012 Hult Prize was to work on a case for Sunny Money, a solar light retailer operating in Kenya. We had spent the summer before volunteering for a small scale solar installer in Tanzania and became both sensitive to the challenges associated with and passionate about the impacts on development and people’s lives of a lack of energy access. Sunny Money was searching for an effective business model to promote the sale of solar lights to displace the use of kerosene fuel for lighting – which is expensive, dirty and dangerous.

Oolu Solar is a startup that launched out of the prestigious Y Combinator incubator and has become one of the fastest growing off grid energy companies in West Africa. They are building the value chain to serve bottom of the pyramid customers with small-scale solar home systems through a pay as you go method (similar to the concept we presented at the Hult Prize). The home systems are a bit larger than just a light and therefore more expensive. They consist of a small solar panel, a control unit and battery, several LED lights and switches that can be placed throughout a home, charging capability for mobile phones and power output for additional fans or a TV. These products offer customers their first in-home experience with the convenience of modern electricity services.

My work with Oolu has been primarily to build an investor network and help the company raise additional investment. Their business model is very capital intensive as they purchase the solar systems up front to sell to customers on credit and receive payment overtime.

What made you want you want to study an MBA?

My experiences competing in the Hult Prize and launching and managing the ReNEWW House motivated me to return to school for an MBA. In the case of the Hult Prize my team and I were all engineers, so working on a business case was an endeavor for us all. We had to learn a lot about business and what goes into a business case in order to compete with the top schools and I found that building the business case was very exciting to me.

There are different types of innovation that can improve people’s lives – engineers tend to develop solutions: be it product, software, etc. However, business model innovation and figuring out the right way to bring solutions to market is very important as well. The case of the Hult Prize was purely business model innovation: the product, a solar light had already been developed and was available at a good quality and reasonable price – the key was to figure out how to build a market for the bottom the pyramid in sub Saharan Africa.

Through these experiences I’ve found that I enjoy business model innovation very much and I believe that pursuing an MBA will help me obtain the tools that I need to transition out of engineering and into business. In addition to the tools, an MBA will also help me build a strong network in Europe as I’ve recently relocated here after spending some years in the United States. I am very excited to be starting my MBA at SDA Bocconi in Milan in October.

Why did you choose to study at SDA Bocconi?

SDA Bocconi was a perfect choice for me. It is a top business school in Europe and has a long history – I will be joining the 43rd class! Graduates from SDA Bocconi get access to a broad and very diverse network of highly-motivated and brilliant individuals, many of whom remain in Europe post-graduation, which will be very beneficial for me as I look to build my network here. SDA Bocconi also has a particularly strong program in economics and finance, which is an area that I’m very interested in diving into.  It’s also located in Milan, which was perfect for my wife and I as she is Italian and we have been looking forward to me knowing her culture better and finally learning the language fluently!

What are your big plans for the future?

Well first and foremost I’m very excited to start the MBA program in October! The SDA Bocconi MBA is a very intense one-year program so it will be a very busy year. The program allows for an internship during the summer and I’d like to gain an experience in a different area of the energy sector – I’d like to explore a role in infrastructure finance as finance has always been an area that I’ve been interested in. From my experience I believe the key challenge with renewable energy at this point is scale. Technology will continue to improve and the cost of renewable energy will continue to come down even further but the challenge is a matter of attracting more capital to the sector to build out more renewable energy power plants to offset existing fossil fuel based plants as quickly as possible.

In the future, I’d like to work in a business development role with a major renewable energy developer. For example, ENEL is considered to be a very progressive utility in the industry and is headquartered in Italy. It would be exciting to be a part of the leadership team of a global energy player which builds renewable energy plants around the world. The automotive industry is also rapidly changing with all major manufacturers becoming serious about electrification so there are a lot of exciting opportunities in that industry as well as the supporting infrastructure that will be need to be built to support a fleet of electric cars.

What advice would you give to others who want to make a difference in the world?

I happen to believe that making a difference in the world is not a choice, it’s something that everyone does simply by being. Therefore, the choice is not about whether you are making a difference or not; it’s about where and how to make a difference.

For the where, if you have the means try and pursue a meaningful problem that you are passionate about. This is not always realistic, but even seemingly remedial jobs done just to put food on the table benefit society.

For the how, people can choose to focus their energies on pursuits that make the world a

better place or ones that do not. Strive to add value to society, not take value away and remember that how much you earn doesn’t necessarily reflect the value you create (or destroy). The key is to realize that you and everyone else are important in that respect, and through that realization try and be as good of a person to yourself and to others as you can.

Not everyone is going to have the same effect on the world as a Gates, Zuckerberg or Musk and that’s perfectly fine. Sometimes great progress is made by a few in great leaps but more often progress happens through the labor of many in incremental steps. I think then the challenge becomes to stay curious about the world, the problems it has and the people who are dealing with those problems. The reality is, while the world is much better than it was, there is so much opportunity to improve. 


Written by Mansoor Iqbal

Mansoor is a contributor to and former editor of TopMBA.com. He is a higher and business education specialist, who has been published in media outlets around the world. He studied English literature at BA and MA level and has a background in consumer journalism.

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