A new approach to energy innovation

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As we know, energy is in transition; innovation in the sector is more crucial than ever to help support this change. Creativity and curiosity are the drivers of innovation, and it is when these values are nurtured that innovative ideas and solutions are developed. So how do we nurture those who are creating real solutions that may prove to be essential in the transition into clean energy? We spoke to EnergyLab Acceleration Program Manager, Riley McAuliffe, to shed some light on how they are tackling this question.

Enter the hackathon

Riley McAuliffe

Hackathons are largely misconceived as events solely for programmers and developers, or hackers. However, energy hackathons have grown to become collaborative events that bring together entrepreneurs from a range of backgrounds who work together to create new, or workshop existing, innovative ideas and solutions to the challenges facing the industry.

As energy transitions into its new era of clean and renewable energy, nurturing innovation and promoting collaboration is vital to make the
transition as smooth and efficient as possible.

EnergyLab is just one of the organisations around Australia that runs hackathons to support new business and technological initiatives that will help the energy industry address some of the challenges it is currently facing. In 2018, EnergyLab ran 50 events and 14 hackathons across Australia and Cambodia.

Ms McAuliffe said that supporting young and old entrepreneurs not only helps kickstart innovation, but allows industry players to get a first-hand look at what’s coming and encourages partnerships with new businesses to achieve their organisation’s goals.

“One of the most exciting, and most essential, parts about our hackathons is getting to work with incumbent players to try and create energy innovation together, because that’s where we see the real solutions happening. We see these young startups working together with the energy industry to achieve mutual outcomes.”

Helping to conquer the hurdles

Ms McAuliffe outlined three key hurdles new startups face that EnergyLab strives to help them overcome. The first and most crucial is the time involved and complexity of creating and developing new hardware, especially when compared to software companies who can produce a working product relatively quickly.

Dave Budge, co-founder at JAunt, giving an introduction to transport and innovation at Melbourne hackathon

“There’s also particular regulatory barriers that add to the time and effort needed. There are many hurdles that pop up easily, and most of the time early in the start-up journey. They can be difficult to overcome on your own,” Ms McAuliffe said.

“Thirdly, there is the fact that the energy industry has many big, incumbent players that startups are competing against, which is a unique aspect of the energy industry.”

EnergyLab’s hackathons and acceleration programs give startups access to industry mentors and coaching, as well as legal and accounting assistance, among the range of services offered. Industry and legal advice coupled with access to valuable mentors and resources reduces the extent of the hurdles that the startups will face.

“In the face of these challenges, we see the hackathon as a beautiful way to innovate in energy, and create businesses and technology of the future,” Ms McAuliffe said.

Getting your head around a hackathon

EnergyLab’s hackathons are high-energy 24-hour events run over two days that focus on one topic, problem or challenge for which participants explore and develop a solution. High-quality mentors provide input into the ideas that the teams are developing over the course of the weekend.

Participants are either put in to teams or can team up with their friends to workshop a business model and solution based on a given topic. The teams are given access to mentors who can provide advice, knowledge and feedback throughout the hackathon.

At the end of the two days the ideas are then pitched to a panel of industry judges who assess the ideas on the merits of its concept and its business potential before a winner is chosen.

“What participants can expect is a really fun, passionate, supportive and inspiring event, whether they come with friends, or colleagues, or people they might have met online, or they come on their own and meet new people. They can create new ideas or work on their own ideas they’ve had before, which in my experience makes participants feel really fulfilled and inspired.”

Serious results

EnergyLab’s very first hackathon produced two new startups; FluxPower from Brisbane, that provides a real-time payment network for the energy industry, and Everty in Sydney, which is paving the way for innovation with e-charging stations.

“During November last year we ran a transport hackathon out of Melbourne that took a very broad view of energy. From that we have another two start-ups we’re working with now, one being Invicta, which develops exclusive eBikes for the corporate market.

“The other is Synergize, which is essentially offering solar and battery packs for the tram substation to offset some of their electricity consumption and lower the electricity prices for the tram network.”

While there is formally at least one winner during each hackathon, EnergyLab picks out any of the ideas that it believes could become successful businesses and moves them into their acceleration programs to continue to provide them with support and valuable resources.

The winning team from The Future of Transport in Melbourne Hackathon, Synergize

Getting involved

Hackathon participants can expect to not only develop new startups, but are also given the chance to meet like-minded people and the opportunity to be creative and curious.

“A lot of people who may be creatively minded, or have a lot of industry experience, may have never considered themselves entrepreneurs and they shy away from that word. An event like a hackathon gives people an easy way for them to test an idea out and to network.”

Another way to help support innovation and foster new ideas as an experienced and involved member of the energy industry is to take part in mentoring, presenting or judging.

“Getting involved in mentoring or judging allows industry members to see up-and-coming talent and ideas, and it allows them to be the first to put their hands up and get in on the ground floor if it’s something that inspires them. Which is something I know our partners really like,” Ms McAuliffe said.

“We’re passionate about providing the opportunity for people to come and develop their curiosity and creativity in a fun and supportive environment. We believe it not only encourages innovation within the industry but also getting young startups working together with the energy industry is a great way to ensure we make it through this transition with the best possible outcome.”

To keep up to date on upcoming events visit www.energylab.org.au. To speak to Riley McAuliffe regarding start-up opportunities, mentoring or other ways to get involved, you can contact her directly at [email protected].

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