Going outside to innovate from within


The second evolution of the world’s first dedicated energy start-up accelerator, Free Electrons, has finished after an exciting and successful programme over the past year.

The objectives were simple, but the concept is profound: reach the start-ups that are developing industry-leading solutions in mobility, clean and smart energy and IoT – and help them grow.

After a thorough and exhaustive selection process reviewing the 500 applications received for the 2018 programme, only the most promising start-ups from over 65 countries were selected to the cohort of 15 finalists. The winner was set to win $200,000 in funding, as well as potential development contracts with ten of the world’s largest utilities.

“It’s a perfect match,” remarked Stefan Padberg, managing director of German utility Innogy New Ventures. “Smart start-up ideas meet a transforming corporate that is re-inventing itself and has established lean and agile structures that speak ‘start-up’ and ‘corporate’ language alike. We can help startups scale fast; start-ups can help us with the best possible products.

“We go outside to innovate from within.”

The utilities that launch Free Electrons are active in 40 countries, and 70 million consumers have contracts with the eight partners. Thus, start-ups can profit from a significant customer base.

The modules

The 15 finalists of this year’s Free Electrons programme were decided on based on the results of the initial boot camp held in Lisbon, Portugal in April, with the big winner being awarded during the final module in Berlin, during early October.

With three start-ups the United States has the highest representation on the final list, followed by Portugal and the United Kingdom with two start-ups each. In total, the programme comprised a very diverse mix of nationalities from countries like Switzerland, China, Bangladesh, Norway and Germany.

Greenbird Data Integration Technologies, one of the final 15, saw value in gaining a better understanding of utility business models. Said Thorsten Heller, CEO of Greenbird: “The utilities we’re working with are more like partners – they want to teach us how they work.”

“Dancing with elephants – that was exactly what we were there to learn, and Free Electrons gave us the dance floor, and the opportunity to understand how these companies dance.”

When asked about the Lisbon module, Manuel Tanger, co-founder and head of open innovation at Beta-i, one of the participating companies, had the following to share: “The first day, we had utilities pitch the start-ups in a reverse pitch. It was great because the start-ups had the chance to understand what their priorities were, what kind of tech they were looking for and the future they envisioned.”

The next day saw the core of the programme explored – utilities met with start-ups in half-hour sessions, sowing the seeds that would result in the ideas for pilots based on the best new potential smart energy concepts.

Day three in Lisbon saw the ten utility partners meet, look at the next stage of the programme, and consider the start-ups with the most potential for piloting.

“The final day, 30 start-ups pitched for three minutes, with five minutes of Q&A. This gave them a chance to show the final result of their interaction with the utility, what the pilot might look like, and give them the strongest arguments to go through to the next phase,” said Tanger.

Groomed for success

Participants would learn from successful case studies of start-ups and utilities working together, as well as the opportunity to understand utilities and their piloting process. In this first module, start-ups would learn to speak “corporate” and understand the inner workings of large operations, with the objective of matching solutions with concrete challenges, as they sought to define a collaborative roadmap for the remainder of the programme.

“It’s not just about meeting start-ups and going to nice places; it’s about actually getting something done,” said Cameron Briggs, Head of Future Energy at Origin, “and two dimensions make that work. One is, having support at the highest levels for what we’re doing, and then why we’re doing it, and how we deliver. Secondly, you have to get the right people from the business who understand what implementation is all about. We’re fortunate to have both of those elements represented in Sydney Australia.”

Next, the programme made its way to what many consider the home of modern technology – Silicon Valley – for the second module where utilities and start-ups progressed their ongoing pilots and focussed on growth and learning.

In module 1 only one pilot per start-up was recommended, to ensure focus and initial progress, but in module 2, these learnings were shared, and the opportunity for new collaboration was open.

One example of early success was between Verv, the creators of intelligent home assistant technology and ESB, who had already completed a pilot with Sterblue, a software company, and found new ways to apply their solution to wind farm monitoring.

“We wanted a safe, fast and accurate solution to inspect our wind turbines to minimise maintenance costs and generator downtime. Sterblue were superaccommodating of all our requirements. Sometimes we find it can be easier to work with start-ups than larger companies because they are more flexible, enthusiastic and listen intently to their customer’s needs,” says John McKiernan, head of external collaboration at ESB.

“This programme connects us with new companies that we might never otherwise find. It is a tremendous catalyst for accelerating change and innovation at ESB.”

The third day of the module was a high note, with the Level-Up Energy Innovation event. The cohort was able to showcase their solutions to an audience comprising investors and tech experts. The module concluded with the reveal of new pilots and an overview of the roadmap to the final in Berlin.

The time between the module in San Francisco, and the final module bore fruit with an impressive total of 43 pilots and contracts in excess of $3 million, but there would be one clear winner.

The $200,000 prize for Best Energy Start-up 2018 was received by ME SOLshare, providers of a revolutionary community-focussed DC solar micro power grid. The company established the world’s first peer-to-peer solar energy grid in a remote area of Bangladesh in 2015. The country has five million solar home systems, and ME SOLshare technology allows for peer-to-peer electricity trading between off-grid households powered by solar.

The company announced that it had raised $1.66 million in a Series A round of funding subscribed by a fund backed by a consortium of investors that include innogy and EDP.

The winners of the ‘Akimoto Award’ for excellence in fostering innovation were also revealed. Derek Roddy, the founder of Climote and Louise Rogerson, founder of Howz, were popular winners for 2017 & 2018 respectively in a vote by all utilities and start-ups.

Clear winners

The 2018 programme achieved new success in almost every metric, but the start-ups and the industry, in general, were the most significant winners. Sterblue carried out a wind farm blade inspection pilot with ESB, making use of innovative drone technology, as well as a transmission line inspection project with Innogy and were the recipient of investment by EDP. The Portuguese utility invested in four start-ups, with Loqr, SOLShare, and Jungle.ai joining Sterblue. Innogy invested in SOLshare and Fresh Energy, making them part of its Innovation Hub portfolio.

Andy Lund, chief revenue officer at Greenbird, remarked: “It’s been very emotional, with massive highs and lows shared. We are humbled that most of the final presentations mentioned Greenbird. As data integration was a common challenge we were able to assist with and build great partnerships early on with utilities like DEWA, EDP, and start-ups alike that are still ongoing, and bearing further fruit.”

Feedback from other members of the cohort was enthusiastic. John O’Flaherty, CEO of GridWatch, reported strategic benefits: “The experience greatly focused our company’s strategic direction and investment plans and honed our GridWatch products. The programme directly resulted in pilots with three of the utilities, partnering with complementary innovative companies and increased sales.”

The programme also benefitted turnaround times in terms of sales and strategy.

“In an industry known for its long lead times, in just a few months the Free Electrons programme transformed our vision and growth ambitions,” said O’Flaherty.

Tagg Jefferson, founder at Gridcure, said the programme benefitted their organisation on multiple fronts, reporting that sales cycles were shortened by 50%, and expanded their market beyond North America.

“There is a spectrum of readiness to engage with smaller companies, even within the highly innovative Free Electrons utility members. We think that over time all the participating utilities will become increasingly fast and able to better connect the start-ups to the relevant business units.”

DEWA has signed service contracts with Greenbird, GridWatch, and EQuota, and are working on deep learning for the AI Algorithm. Ultimately, the utilities behind the programme conducted concept projects relevant to their future growth strategies, using cutting-edge technologies, and participants in Free Electrons 2018 have benefitted directly from this hyper collaborative environment. S

The utility partners

China Light and Power The CLP Group is one of the two main electric power generation companies in Hong Kong, and focusses on generation, transmission and retailing of electricity. The company is also active in other regions of Asia.

American Electric Power (AEP) AEP has an asset base of $65 billion, and intends investing $18 billion in grid modernisation, and renewables generation efforts through its regulated and competitive companies in the US market.

AusNet Services AusNet is Victoria’s largest energy delivery and services company, delivering $11 billion in electricity and gas distribution assets, serving over 1.3 million Victorian homes and businesses.

Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) is focussed on the delivery of sustainable electricity and water services with a focus on innovation that support sustainability.

Electricity Supply Board (ESB) ESB is Ireland’s leading energy company, operating across generation, through transmission and distribution and supply, whilst also offering gas supply, and fibre transmission for telecommunications and public electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Their global consulting arm has worked in over 120 countries.

Energias de Portugal (EDP) EDP is an energy producer, distributor and retailer serving around 12 million customers in Portugal, Spain and Brazil. With renewable power interests in 14 countries, including the US, Brazil and several European countries. EDP has around 25GW of power production capacity of which 10GW are wind power generation, with 5GW in hydroelectric generation, making the utility the 4th largest producer of wind power in the world, and 3rd in the USA.

innogy innogy SE is Germany’s leading energy company, boasting revenues of approximately €44 billion in 2016, with more than 40,000 employees and activities in 16 countries across Europe. Its activities are focussed on providing its 23 million customers innovative and sustainable products and services.

Origin Energy Origin is an Australian integrated energy solutions provider with leading positions across energy retailing, power generation and natural gas production. Origin has a rapidly growing renewable energy portfolio and is scaling up capabilities in digital metering and data and analytics.

SP Group SP Group is a leading energy utilities group in the Asia-Pacific region. It owns and operates electricity and gas transmission and distribution businesses in the region including in Singapore and Australia, and district cooling businesses in Singapore and China.

Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings (TEPCO) Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, Inc. is Japan’s largest utility, with 34 subsidiaries and 32 affiliates in 8 countries.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International 2-2019.