Manuel Schönfeld: The management consultant determined to save companies millions
Our content series "It All Starts with People" delves into the passions, motivations, and vision of the exceptional founders we have the privilege of partnering with around the world. Read the story of Manuel Schönfeld, founder and CEO of PowerX, on a mission to help businesses waste less energy and money while combatting what he calls "the largest threat to our planet since the meteor wiped out dinosaurs.”
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August 30, 2023
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In an alternative reality, Manuel Schönfeld presides over an environmentally friendly hydrogen-powered scooter empire that has transformed the way people move around cities. After teaming up with a childhood friend in an Antler residency in New York in 2019, the German entrepreneur even designed a scooter prototype which he built and tested in a lab. “A significant problem of the shared scooter space is that the battery only lasts a few days, if not hours. But with hydrogen you would only have to charge it every couple of weeks, depending on usage,” Schönfeld explains.
While Schönfeld remains convinced that hydrogen has the potential to become the fuel of the future for applications like air travel, and a key driver of decarbonizing the planet, he also realized, on top of the element’s explosivity, it would take too long to turn hydrogen scooters into a viable business. Instead, the co-founders shifted focus to their second idea—a smart thermostat Schönfeld describes as “an animated Google Nest for water heating.” Both ideas were united in the idea that you can convert raw power into something (power to x)—be that hydrogen or data.
In this way, PowerX was born—enabling people to save money on utilities while doing their part to cut household emissions. In the turbulent few years that followed, Schönfeld has come a long way since traveling around Europe in a camper van while designing—from a makeshift laboratory—ground-breaking smart sensors that measure electric current and water flow.
Despite losing his business partner due to a family matter, and dealing with the fallout from a global pandemic, Chinese tariff disputes, and the invasion of Ukraine, Schönfeld has taken PowerX to a position of strength and vast opportunity.
Today, the 37-year-old is expanding his hardware-enabled data company into a $100 billion market by tapping into the lucrative quick-serve restaurant space—all while battling climate change and what he describes as “the largest threat to our planet since the meteor wiped out dinosaurs.”
Battling back from the brink to break records
A published author who speaks seven languages including Chinese, Schönfeld is a keen chess player and taekwondo black belt. He has traveled the world while advising governments and private sector businesses on innovative energy solutions through consultancy postings with leading organizations such as McKinsey and The World Bank. All this after becoming a McCloy Scholar at Harvard University—Germany’s most highly endowed scholarship.
Put simply—is there anything he cannot do? “Honestly, I think I suck at a lot of things,” the polymath insists with a self-deprecating laugh. Pushed to elaborate, he admits to being disorganized. “If I have tasks to do, everything piles up and I’m like a horse with blinkers. From a life standpoint, I also used to be a bit intense and a perfectionist.”
His long-term partner Marcela—a World Bank diplomat from Colombia whom he met at Harvard—keeps him grounded. “She’s a huge driver in helping me see the beauty of life in its imperfections. She helps me realize that it’s fine to just do your best regardless of how you perform. It’s a very acknowledging and life-being-worth-living approach.”
Pressed on which of his past achievements he is most proud of, Schönfeld delves 15 years back to his bachelor’s degree in international business administration. Meningitis contracted while teaching autistic children for a global humanitarian aid organization in China—including remote valleys in Tibet—resulted in a lengthy period of recovery in hospital and forced him to defer his desired studies for a year. He filled the gap studying Chinese culture and language in Heidelberg.
“The doctors told me I would likely not fully recover,” he recalls. “Despite fighting the disease for some time, in the end I obtained the highest-grade average at Erasmus University that has ever been recorded at the program since the Rotterdam School of Management came into being—which is several decades and includes hundreds of thousands of students.”
Quest to leave a positive imprint
Schönfeld’s studies and early career saw him travel all over the world from Alaska—where he studied mathematics at Fairbanks University—to Zuunmod—a settlement in Mongolia where he saw out a sandstorm in a yurt with local nomads. The diciest posting he recalls was alongside pirate communities on remote Somali beaches—where he had the protection of local warlords to provide aid to marginalized groups.
Successful roles as an analyst for Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong and an advisor at The World Bank in India and Washington D.C. were followed by stints in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, latterly as an engagement manager for McKinsey & Company with a focus on the energy sector. This “unhidden passion” for travel comes from being—in his words—“born and raised, beautifully and boringly, in the south of Germany in a little town of a thousand people and as many cows.”
The third of four children, Schönfeld’s innate curiosity earned him the nickname The Professor while at school. He was barely out of his teens when he took a train to Moscow from where he picked up the Trans-Siberian Express to Beijing before working in China as a teacher and traveling around Asia and Tibet.
Wanderlust has become part of Schönfeld’s DNA. “While some people get exhausted traveling, I seem to draw energy from it,” he says. Airports are “my in-between home—I love their transcendence. They are very socially interesting places to be in, very full of life and people and desires.”
During his time at McKinsey, Schönfeld had his epiphany. “We had a customer who had put a lot of money on the line to make their processes greener,” he recalls. “Long story short—we nearly flunked the project because we couldn’t find good solutions for this customer.” It was the wake-up call he needed: “I always felt like I wanted to make sure my life left a positive imprint—some form of impact—and the climate crisis is probably the strongest the world has ever faced, and I’m including world wars.”
Having seen first-hand—from postings in places such as India, Papua New Guinea and Chile—the devastating effect of environmental catastrophes on the poorest people and weakest animals, Schönfeld decided there was more to his own life than enjoying the perks of living in a tax-free country and “being part of the problem”.
“Look at how big the reverberations are when SVB goes down. But the climate crisis has unimaginable and far more serious consequences. Our seas will rise, the food chains may collapse. We are losing animals and biodiversity that have been here millions of years thanks to our crazy species wanting comfort and luxury. I was, ‘Okay, you know what, I have to do something about it’. I quit my job two weeks later.”
Building the brand from the back of a van
It took Schönfeld just a few years to put PowerX on the path to making every homeowner a soldier in the war against climate change without having to make drastic changes to their lifestyle. From his time providing innovative energy solutions to private sector clients, Schönfeld was aware there is major waste in how individuals—in a restaurant or overall industry—use energy and water. “I felt that if we could put a value to being able to measure and monitor energy waste in a specific way then we could absolutely make a difference,” he says.
To this end, he teamed up with childhood friend Matthias, a hardware engineer who also harbored hopes of developing a hydrogen-powered scooter. It was with Matthias that Schönfeld did a four-month sabbatical working as a diving instructor in Bali while working for McKinsey in Germany. (“I took a bit of time off as a counterbalance to McKinsey. It was a life of complete relaxation and no worry in the world,” he reminisces.)
The duo remained open-minded during their Antler residency in New York in 2019—going as far as building a prototype scooter with a hydrogen fuel cells—before settling on their idea around water heating, which they had identified as the biggest energy draw in households. As soon as they agreed on their concept of a water “transformer” along the lines of smart thermostat, the situation changed drastically thanks to COVID.
Schönfeld was with Y Combinator in San Francisco and his partner, Marcela, was in Washington D.C. when the pandemic ground everything to a halt. “I caught one of the last flights to Germany to visit my parents. They are both doctors and had contracted COVID among the earliest cases in the country. Similarly, Marcela got on one of the last flights to Colombia. After that, the embassies were closed for visa interviews,” he recalls.
“My house was in the US and my partner was in Bogota; we couldn’t meet because flights were suspended, and her Schengen visa did not permit her entry to Europe. Only after several months, Germany introduced a new temporary visa category, which allowed long-term unmarried partners who were separated due to COVID to reunite. Meanwhile, I found myself living in a truck in Europe.”
This truck was a 30-year-old Renault camper van that Schönfeld bought for $3,000 before transforming it into his mobile office and workshop. “I love being at my parents’ home—we’re super close—but I didn’t want to bother them too much. So, I bought the van, took out all the seats, and installed a lab with a bed and cooking station and an antenna on the roof—then drove through Europe for several months.”
While passing through Italy, Croatia, Slovakia, and Poland close to the Ukrainian border, Schönfeld helped build the PowerX brand. It was almost two years before he could return to the US. But there was a silver lining. “We actually closed the first round of funding from the van,” he admits. “You have to roll with the punches sometimes and that was my way. It was a good time—and I made the best out of a bad situation.”
Pressing on as a solo founder
An even worse situation awaited Schönfeld when his co-founder was forced to step down because of a family matter just several weeks after the company launched. “That was hard because I lost my engineer, so I had to spend half a year teaching myself basic engineering and learning from the ground up,” Schönfeld recalls, matter of fact.
Despite the setback, he pressed on as sole founder and CEO of PowerX. After successful private beta tests, he soon secured the patents for his non-invasive energy and water sensors with AI insights and LoRa (a protocol enabling long-range transmissions with lower power consumption) capabilities. The easy-to-install smart sensors work with 99 percent of buildings and machines to monitor the output of up to 16 appliances.
“The really important part—and where I sometimes see investors trailing off the wrong path—is that we are not a sensor company, or a hardware company,” Schönfeld stresses. “What we do is provide hardware-enabled services and solutions and software to achieve that goal of saving energy, emissions, and money.”
Fast track into fast food
In the first year of sales, the company raised $500,000 in revenue through its D2C sales of several thousand units in the field. Despite this early success, Schönfeld quickly realized he was missing a trick. Exploring the potential of the B2B markets and beyond, he noticed that there was far more to be gained—both financially and environmentally—in the commercial sector, with one restaurant or school equating to the same profits as dozens of private houses.
“Restaurants use up to seven-to-ten times more energy per square foot than the average commercial real estate. We aim to save restaurants a minimum of 10% on their electric bill. This often translates to tens of thousands of dollars in savings per year. Let me put this into perspective,” Schönfeld explains. “I was on a call this week with a restaurant that pays $16,000 per month on energy. If we save this restaurant 15% on their energy consumption, that would be nearly $30,000 annual savings. The impact would be similar to taking 20 apartments off the grid—completely.
“To pursue this opportunity, I pay only a little bit more than I would for a single household. For me, that’s naturally what I will pursue because it’s a manifold benefit. That’s why the focus is now on the commercial side rather than the domestic market,” he confirms. Perhaps the most alluring sector is the quick-serve restaurant space, with Schönfeld declaring: “The industry is so ripe.”
The sheer volume of restaurants and high levels of energy, food, and water waste associated with the sector put PowerX in a position to pounce going forward. “There are tens of thousands of quick-serve restaurants out there and the absolutely stunning statistic is that 80 percent of the $10 billion restaurants spend on energy per year is wasted. That’s a staggering $8 billion of waste—on top of what that means in carbon emissions,” Schönfeld says.
“Our sensors can basically break down the data of an entire building—you don’t need hundreds of sensors attached to every piece of equipment or a $20,000 refurbishment. There’s no other system that’s non-invasive in this way and that can be contained within the circuit breaker panel,” he explains.
PowerX’s suite of products all feature AI-enabled hardware sensors which can disaggregate the load, save energy, and cut down on food and water waste while identifying inefficient appliances and practices. By breaking down the data, the technology provides actionable instructions and ESG calculations which can give users a swift ROI and, ultimately, save them money. And those savings can be millions for major chains.
A TAM of over $100 billion on the horizon
Through pilots within B2B, B2B2B, and B2B2C models—particularly the solar, hospitality, and residential sectors—PowerX is already attracting interest from some of the biggest fast-food chains, high-street sandwich stores, coffee outlets, supermarkets, grocery giants, and hotels groups.
“The total market we can address is $100 billion,” says the bullish Schönfeld. He explains how one American restaurant chain with 1,002 outlets saved $43 million per year through implementing a similar approach to what PowerX has to offer. Using the same metrics, another household name—one of the top three fast food chains in the world, with 40,000 outlets in the U.S. alone—could save $1.6 billion per year. For this, PowerX would charge between $200-300 per month per outlet. This would give an annual recurring revenue of over $80 million from a single client, which Schönfeld expects could rise to as much as $250 million.
“We can see if your AC is running two degrees above the benchmark or is still on five minutes after closing time—changes that bring you the most savings. We also strive to anticipate fridge malfunctions in advance, so we prevent the food waste that costs restaurants thousands of dollars per month and affects service because of shortages. So,” Schönfeld summarizes, “how about we save you $1.6 billion, we prevent half of your food waste, we increase what your customers think of you—and throw in additional benefits like ESG reporting and data in real time. How would that sound to you?”
All this, he reiterates, can be carried out at a decent profit margin for PowerX who incur no additional costs beyond the hardware and marginal software cost. Such opportunities have seen Schönfeld come up with a unicorn valuation for his company—based on penetration that would bring in 50,000 restaurants. Entering the hotel industry would further snowball the valuation. “So add those up, and now include schools, other commercial buildings, senior living—you name it—and it’s more than a unicorn.”
The personal cost of success
The numbers are so dizzying that it’s no wonder Schönfeld is excited. But the founder is also a realist with his feet planted firmly on the ground. He is quick to stress that these are just estimates and nothing is guaranteed. And following his short time at the helm of a startup, he knows only too well how easy it is to get derailed by setbacks.
“From the outside it all looks like you’re on a great path and things are going really well,” he says. “But there were times in the last year or so when I’ve said to myself, ‘I don’t even know how to face this anymore.’” Losing his co-founder was hard enough but it was just the thin end of the wedge. The war in Ukraine saw a PowerX laboratory bombed just weeks after opening and endangered the lives of several contractors. A Chinese tariff surge also saw construction costs rise 35 percent forcing the company to fork out “hundreds and thousands of dollars that I didn’t have in my plans.”
Owing to the fallout from COVID, container costs also rose from $2,000 to $20,000 almost overnight, with travel restrictions prohibiting any engineers traveling in and out of China to liaise on the factory floor. “The craziest and hardest thing was that we built everything around a certain chip—then a chip crisis hit. Delivery time went from 10 days to a minimum of 64 weeks—for a product I had to deliver in half a year.” As a result, the PowerX team had to pick up the skills to build the company’s own chips from within.
“There were dozens of moments like this when I was like, ‘Screw this!’ And I didn’t even have any real customers yet,” Schönfeld recalls. “Our investors are not real hardware investors, so it’s naturally a challenge to understand the complexity of a global supply chain that goes absolutely nuts. We have dozens if not hundreds of individual suppliers for our parts—and if one part is just one percent off the specs, that can kill the entire product.”
The catalog of misfortune became almost unbearable for Schönfeld. “You need to stay emotionally stable while basically seeing your life destroyed every week,” he admits. “Hardware is terribly hard in normal circumstances. And we are building hardware in an already complicated energy sector during the worst crisis the hardware sector has seen in decades.”
Teamwork and doing right in Ukraine
Schönfeld is quick to underscore the importance of Marcela’s calming influence and counsel during the accumulation of struggles. Did he regret not having the support of a co-founder to lean on while navigating these choppy waters? “Absolutely. It becomes mentally challenging when you run into problem after problem and you’re the one who is in the firing line,” he says. “A two-person team wins together and shares the failure. But as a solo founder you fail by yourself. There’s no one who can take away your fears, or even feel your fears. Even my partner—and we’ve been together for nearly ten years now—can only do so much.”
To fill the void left by Matthias’ departure, Schönfeld started to build his leadership team. “In Aki Naito, Liisi Fall, and Nick Wallace, we have outstanding leaders in Operations, Marketing, and Engineering. This team boasts exceptional talent. It took some time and learning to forge such a high-performing team," he admits. "However, this team is unquestionably remarkable. We hold a lot of potential."
Schönfeld is still the closest of friends with his original co-founder Matthias. Last year the pair hiked from Munich to Venice together, over the Alps and the Dolomites. “It’s important to have other people to control your weaknesses,” Schönfeld says. “Having a team helps smooth out those weaknesses because we all think and work differently and we’re able to combine the good parts. It’s not just important mentally and emotionally, but also from a decision-making standpoint.”
Schönfeld’s team ethic is no better portrayed than in his dignified response to the crisis in Ukraine. Describing the company’s Ukraine contractors as “hands down the best we’ve ever had,” Schönfeld pays tribute to their work ethic and insistence on continuing to meet deadlines despite the ongoing war. “They took one day off—the very first day Russia attacked—to get their families to safety. They continued working without any sick days despite being at war, stopping only when their electricity failed or the internet cut out,” he says in awe.
PowerX managed to sponsor some of these contractors so that they and their families could be relocated to the United States. “It was a big financial strain for us, but they have put their hearts into PowerX, work twice as hard as some of our US consultants.” To help pay for their flights, Schönfeld admits that he did not draw a salary for “nearly a year” during a key period of developing the product.
“If an investor tells me that I shouldn’t do this because PowerX is not about humanitarian aid, I will tell them that these contractors save us $50,000 every year for working as hard as they do,” he says. “And if they still say that I am misspending company money then I will pay out of my own pocket.”
Giving a voice to the weakest
Choosing a global supply chain energy market business model requiring expertise in deep tech has not made things easy for Schönfeld. He admits that he could have made more money and perhaps attracted more renown—at least initially—with scooters. “But it was always going to be difficult, as a foreigner, working with something as explosive as hydrogen in the US.” And it would not have scratched the itch that made him leave McKinsey—in short, it wouldn’t have put him onto the path of having the positive impact he craved.
“People haven’t done what PowerX is doing for a reason: because it’s genuinely hard to pull off,” he says. “But it actually may help with climate change, and that’s what draws me back in the end. I didn’t go into this for the money and to be patted on the back. I went into this because I think we really face a crisis. In the end, I regret it for a few days, but then I remind myself that it was the right move.”
While Schönfeld admits that impending fatherhood “definitely” makes the climate crisis more pressing, he is also quick to stress that his stance is not simply about providing a better future for his children. “It’s more that the weakest animals don’t have a voice in this and it’s our inherent responsibility—as human beings, with intellect—to give them that voice, because they didn’t put themselves in this position. We, the human race, did.”
When it comes to squaring his environmental beliefs with his wanderlust, Schönfeld admits to being “absolutely not consistent in that regard.” But it doesn’t follow, he says, that we should all simply stay at home and become vegan. “Rather than radically change everything, I think the solution is to be balanced while trying to solve the problem,” he says.
Regarding air travel, he returns to the idea that he first toyed with. “There are several companies now working on building planes around hydrogen which, in my eyes, is a necessary and sensible thing to do because the byproduct of using hydrogen is water, not CO². Energy density per gram of hydrogen is also very high, making it an interesting, light fuel for aviation.” In this way, he argues, the safeguarding of the environment is less about sweeping behavioral change than designing products that change the impact of what you do. Which is, after all, the exact essence of PowerX.
Light at the end of the tunnel
If Schönfeld founded PowerX with environmental issues very much at the forefront of the company’s vision, and if he was able to draw on his previous work experiences in offering timely humanitarian aid to Ukrainian contractors, the bottom line remains unchanged: his pioneering hardware-enabled data company is a viable business with a tantalizing opportunity to make money while driving positive change.
After all the planning, hard work, and setbacks, the rewards are in sight. “So far, it’s been 99 percent bone-grinding hard and one percent rewarding—but we are approaching the weeks when that’s rising to three, five, 10 percent,” Schönfeld admits. With more sector-leading companies engaging in pilot schemes to add to the growing list of clients already benefiting from PowerX, the future looks bright. “I see the light at the end of the tunnel—a tunnel that was long and dark and full of snakes.”
Is it too soon to talk about future unicorn status? The estimated 10 to 25 percent savings that clients can make are very real—as are the emissions reductions through monitoring low-invasive control, demand response, load shifting and optimizing the cooling chain. “The CO² savings are extremely beneficial for the environment. We have a real opportunity to do a lot of good—and become rich in the process. It’s about execution now. It’s still not easy, but we’re in a really good state. For us, our users, and the environment, it’s a win-win-win scenario.”
To learn how you or your business can save money and reduce energy waste by using the most advanced utility monitoring solution on the market, visit powerx.co.
Have an idea that can solve a meaningful problem for millions of people around the world? Apply to an Antler residency in 20+ cities across six continents. The next Antler residency in the US begins on October 10—apply here.
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