Cree co-founded eMeter Corporation in 1999 and serves as its CEO. In 1984 he co-founded CellNet Data Systems, which provided advanced electricity metering data and communications to utilities via wireless networks. Cree has revolutionized the utility industry, bringing much-needed efficiency and vision.
SM: Take me back to where your story begins. What is the genesis of your entrepreneurial journey?
CE: I was born a mile from here at the old Stanford Hospital, which I believe is still operational. My parents moved here from Long Beach. My father was an oil engineer, and in 1962 he became a venture capitalist. He was one of the original venture capitalists in the Bay Area. His name is Bill Edwards. He ran Brian and Edwards, which had mostly family and friends investing.
I grew up in this area. I did prep school in Massachusetts at Deerfield Academy, and them came back here to go to UC Davis. I graduated in 1980 with an economics degree and went to work for Control Data in San Francisco. I did a fairly complex training session in sales and marketing, as well as account management. I worked there for about a year and a half and then moved over to a GE information services company called Geisco.
I was managing major accounts for them in San Francisco, and one of the accounts I was involved in was Pacific Gas and Electric. During that time I went to a conference in Arizona and was introduced to the utility industry as a whole. In that seminar, people talked about inefficiencies in electric utility companies. One was the inability of the utilities to send price signals to customers. Utilities ended up with enormously complex peaking issues. Everything the utilities had to do was around building plant and equipment to cover peaks.
The problem was that this was addressed by building plants and infrastructure to support peaks. The solution, which is extremely simple, is to send a pricing signal. If the commodity is scare you charge more, if it is abundant you charge less. Utilities could not do that because the meter was at the point of sale, and they did not have the information from the meter to price over time.
This was my start in the entrepreneurial world. It seemed simple to me that you would put a computer in the meter and the computer would record at what time energy was used. You could then give that to the utility, which would do what they needed to do to motivate their customers. I saw it was a huge marketplace because there were a lot of meters, it was definitely needed, and you could gain access to the marketplace through a small number of customers. It looked like an interesting business to be in.
I contacted a friend who was a Stanford mechanical engineer. He was actually studying the design of microprocessors. I brought him a meter and asked him if we could just put a computer inside it to gather the information. Three days later he had a working prototype with the old Radio Shack computers.
SM: What year was this?
CE: It was about 1983. Between the time we started this and the point at which we actually built something that was of interest as a company, I moved on to a startup called Octel Communications. They made voicemail systems, and I was one of the very early sales guys there. I spent nine months there learning about startups, what they are, and how they work.