Following the Sun

A.J. Rossman of Draker LaboratoriesDraker Laboratories grew out of its founder’s tinkering around with solar power

by Janet Essman Franz

A.J. Rossman, the founder of Draker Laboratories at 12-22 North St. in Burlington’s Old North End, started in the alternative energy business as a sideline, hoping to obtain good prices on equipment for himself and his friends. He turned his expertise in making field instrumentation for scientific research into an abiding career.

When Anthony Joseph “A.J.” Rossman started Draker Solar Design in 1999, he proceeded as a scientist should: He tested his theories, gathered data about customer needs, checked his methods and, when customers called back wanting more, he took his ideas to the marketplace.

“I took a risk and exhibited at a trade show in Northern California,” says Rossman, 37, who named the company for his dog, Drake. “I got a call from Minyard Solar Electric wanting a data acquisition system for a 200-kilowatt PV [photovoltaic] array. From there we’ve been continuing to go to trade shows and accumulating customers. Most of our customers are repeat business.”

Now known as Draker Laboratories to better reflect an expanded market, the Burlington company manufactures performance-monitoring equipment, creates software, and provides reporting services for clients who produce energy with emerging green technologies, such as solar electric, wind energy and solar thermal power. 

Customers include renewable-energy power companies, project developers, state governments and commercial farms. 

Instruments are manufactured on-site at 12-22 North St., and data comes to servers located there. Automated monitoring software allows a customer to go to one website to see how all of its systems are performing.

“We put up instrumentation in the field and then measure the natural resources, such as how much solar and wind energy they can expect,” Rossman explains. “We measure the output of the system, either electricity or heat, and quantify that. We also communicate with the power equipment on-site to retrieve status and faults of the power equipment.”

Draker Labs’ genesis can be traced to Rossman’s tinkering around with solar power at his house and the homes of his friends while he worked on his doctorate at the University of Vermont. 

“I started the company as a side business,” he says, “installing residential renewable energy systems. I wanted to get a good price on equipment for myself and friends. I quickly realized that few people had an understanding of how their systems were working. My expertise is in making field instrumentation for scientific research. It made sense to me that I should be monitoring the systems rather than installing them.”

Rossman’s scientific background is in several fields. He grew up near Madison, Wis., and did his undergraduate work at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. He went on to graduate studies in Indiana and Ohio, earning three master’s degrees — in engineering, geology and environmental science. He continues to work on a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering while running his growing company. 

Before coming to UVM, he worked on a fellowship at the Savannah River Site, a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory in Aiken, S.C. Rossman’s role was to set up field instrumentation for scientific research on heating the ground with renewable energy for contaminant remediation.

 “A.J. is a consummate inventor and an engineer who feels a real moral responsibility to the future; he’s constantly inventing in the most grassroots kind of way,” says Amy Seidl, associate director of the Living Future Foundation, a nonprofit organization that operates the 13-acre Teal Farm in Huntington Center. The farm is an ecological preserve producing fruit, nuts and oil-seed crops; its mission is to use perpetual energy systems with minimal fossil fuel combustion. 

Seidle met Rossman through her work as a research scholar at Middlebury College and commissioned his systems to monitor the wind, solar and water resources on-site. Teal Farm used the data gathered to set up solar PV and solar thermal arrays that heat and electrify the barn, farmhouse, kiln and outbuildings, and constructed wetlands to filter wastewater. 

Rob Conboy Rob Conboy, recently hired as vice president for finance and marketing, is one of six employees who live near the company in the Old North End.

“We turned to A.J. to tell us what natural resources are on the farm and how to use those resources to create all the energy we need to run the farm,” Seidl says. “We need the kind of analysis A.J. is inventing to create a renewable energy future for our society.”

Explaining, Rossman says, “We’re substantiating the environmental claims made by the green technology industry.”

Rossman came to Vermont in 1998 for a regional groundwater meeting and decided to stay. “I fell in love with Burlington. It had a very similar feel to Madison, with the water and pedestrian mall. The people here had common sense, and it was clear there was a strong environmental ethic here. These are all things that I enjoy,” he says.

Upon recommendation from one of his mentors at Savannah River, he enrolled at UVM to study optimization of remediation systems. His girlfriend — now his wife — Kathy, followed him. She teaches science at Rock Point High School in Burlington. They have two toddler sons, Seth and Macah, and live four blocks away from Draker Laboratories in the Old North End.

The Rossmans live a green lifestyle. He walks to work year-round, and they air-dry their laundry, use solar power at home and buy recycled appliances and furniture. “Twenty-five percent of our house has come from Recycle North,” he says. 

His commitment to environmental protection is an inspiration to his employees. “A.J. is by far the most authentic CEO I’ve ever met. There’s no facade to what he represents,” says Rob Conboy, Draker Labs’ vice president of finance and marketing. “He lives and breathes energy efficiency and environmental sustainability, no only in his business choices but also in his personal choices. It’s really inspirational to be around that.”

Draker is housed in a solar-powered, energy-efficient building that Rossman owns. Dubbed Burlington’s Green Business Community, its stated mission is “to provide small businesses and individuals with an economically viable way to work in a green office.” Solar panels generate electricity for the building, producing more power than is needed. The extra electricity is sold to Burlington Electric. 

Tenants renting space in the building include an art gallery, home health care company and several environmentally focused small businesses. Rossman renovated the building with reclaimed wood and renewable materials and fitted it with energy-efficient appliances. Tenants share recycling and composting. “We give people an opportunity to work in a green building,” he says. 

The building was erected in 1980 by Moose Creek Restoration as Burlington’s first commercial solar building, Rossman says. “We were able to get it because it overheated in the summer, which drove the tenants out. With changes to the building’s interior we brought it back to being a functional solar building. We hope to achieve the goal of a net-zero office building in the next five years.”

Draker Laboratories employs 10 full-time staff. Six live in the Old North End.

“One of the nice thing about working here is how many of us live in the neighborhood,” says Conboy. “We move in the same circles, our kids go to the same schools and we see each other outside of the office.”

Hiring locals was not entirely intentional. “We put out a national search for employees and posted it on Front Porch Forum, a community bulletin board on the Web focusing on this neighborhood,” Rossman says. “We got more qualified people from Front Porch Forum than we did from a national search!”

Draker staffOn the roof at Draker Laboratories, from left, are Bruce McGeoch, president and COO; Sky Lew, senior technician; John Thompson-Figueroa, application engineer; A.J. Rossman, founder and CEO; Alejandro Delgado, marketing analyst; Adam Bouchard, development engineer; Peter Brown, development engineer; Rob Conboy, vice president for finance and marketing; and Heather Riemer, office manager.

Rossman intends to hire a customer service director soon and will eventually add an information technology director and an installation technician. “These are all things we need, but we have to sell more units first,” he says with a smile. Sales are very good, he adds, so it may not take long to start expanding.

“This year we will hit about $300,000 in sales. Next year we project $1 million,” Rossman says. “We’ve been raising capital to help fund further research and product development and to boost our sales and marketing.” 

Customers buying Draker Labs’ products include the likes of Innovative Design, an architectural firm in North Carolina that builds schools with solar thermal and solar electric arrays, rainwater catchment and reuse systems, and natural wastewater treatment. 

In California, Draker creates monitoring systems for construction and engineering firms and serves as a third party reporting to the California Energy Commission on efforts by the Los Angeles Community College to produce solar power at its 11 campuses. 

In Vermont, Draker Labs developed a kiosk display at UVM’s Aiken Center to show information about the solar setup on the roof, and it created a touch-screen kiosk for the Alburgh Welcome Center that shows the performance of the on-site wind turbine. 

“Almost all of our business is in California,” Rossman says. “The East is a little behind in renewables. The West is further ahead in implementing commercial-scale solar projects.”

In the future, Rossman anticipates becoming more involved in projects that address a broader array of renewable resources. “I can see us putting effort into water catchment and reuse, water conservation and treatment on an institutional, industrial and commercial scale,” he says. 

Draker is also beginning to manufacture equipment off-site. In the first quarter of 2008, it will feature an instrumentation product manufactured by Nathaniel Group Inc. in Vergennes.

Between running Draker Laboratories, traveling to client locations and managing the office building, Rossman does not have much free time. When he does, he enjoys spending it with his family and taking in all that Burlington has to offer. “We walk around downtown to eat, go to the farmers’ market. There’s so much to do here with kids, it’s great.” 

He likes listening to music and enjoys outdoor concerts in Vermont, which provide a striking contrast to many of the locations he visits to meet with customers. The disparity piques the mind of a scientist.

“Last Friday I was on an industrial roof in Compton, California, where you can’t see the mountains through the fog. Then on Saturday I was at Burke Mountain on a hillside, hanging out with my family listening to Grace Potter and Sister Hazel. I find the dichotomy interesting.” •