Accelerating energy innovation: uniting startup agility with corporate expertise

Accelerating energy innovation: uniting startup agility with corporate expertise
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People’s interest in energy is no longer as simple as wanting it to heat their home and keep their business running. They can generate their own electricity, monitor how much they are using in real time and even share it with their neighbours.

EnergyAustralia is tapping into the best minds from across the globe to accelerate the development of high impact innovations for the benefit of customers and the broader energy industry in Australia.

Working with international accelerator partner, Startupbootcamp, EnergyAustralia has recently completed its second cohort which saw eleven startups brought to Australia to partake in the intensive program that culminates in the action-packed Demo Day attended by industry experts and investors looking for the next ‘big thing’.

Global minds to solve local problems

In the past two years, EnergyAustralia and Startupbootcamp have visited 28 cities and assessed over 4000 startups to consider if their ideas can contribute to the transformation occurring in Australia’s energy sector. 

EnergyAustralia’s Head of NextGen Innovation, Anthony Wiseman, explained why the company decided to launch this first-of-a-kind initiative for the energy sector. 

“We’re excited to be part of the accelerator program because it gives us a unique insight into the state of tech globally, it brings the best and brightest to Australia, and establishes an energy hub here for innovation.”

Participants are selected via a global prospecting and search process undertaken between July and November. Up to 25 companies are then invited to Melbourne for two days in early December where they pitch to a group of industry experts, potential mentors and investors. 

Ten startups were accepted in 2018 and eleven in 2019, with a 12-week journey formally commencing in January. 

The program is already reaping benefits for many of the startups involved, with over $61.3 million capital raised so far and several companies establishing offices in Australia. 

Each annual program has key focus areas. The 2019 program asked for startups who could help solve problems in grid transformation, customer empowerment, data monetisation and electric mobility and robotics, among other areas. 

Mr Wiseman said these areas were carefully selected to meet a need in Australia’s energy sector. “We know people want greater control over parts of their life; energy is no different. But everyone is busy so we want to find the smartest technology so it’s easy to use and people love it.

“We need to make energy use less carbon intensive, and we’re making changes within our business to reduce our carbon footprint. We offer our customers the ability to make their own usage carbon neutral, but there are other ideas out there which can reduce emissions from the energy sector,” Mr Wiseman said. 

Richard Celm, Program Director – Startupbootcamp Melbourne, said innovation is a contact sport where ideas are shaped, tested and developed. 

“Corporate startup collaboration is hard work, with most startups impatient, resource poor and needing everything now. Whereas the things that have traditionally served corporates well include great planning, rigorous decision making and great systems, processes, execution. 

“That’s why it so important to bring people together to solve tough global problems through a program like this startup accelerator. People need to fall in love with the problem, not the solution, and saying no to some opportunities so you can focus on the right problem is so important,” Mr Celm said. 

The startups are only limited by their own imagination and creative nous; and the innovative ideas are wide and varied:

EnergyTech Ventures is harnessing the world of Big Data to help large businesses turn their energy consumption into actionable insights with which they can improve their energy productivity. For example, EnergyTech Ventures are working with the iconic Melbourne Royal Children’s Hospital to collect the hospital’s data in real time and use EnergyTech Ventures’ algorithms to provide insights about what it can do to reduce energy costs and prevent the failure of key assets. 

Ucapture provides customers with the opportunity to save dollars at their favourite shopping outlets and do their bit for the planet. For each customer who signs up to the UCapture app and makes purchases from retail partners, UCapture funds carbon offset projects to combat climate change. UCapture also provide customers with updates on where their support is going and how many kilograms of carbon dioxide they have helped offset. 

WePower has created a one-stop-shop technology solution that joins businesses with renewable electricity producers and enables them to contract digitally. Their unique platform helps business understand their electricity consumption patterns and then, once signed up, monitor generators as they are built and start generating electricity. In 2018 WePower raised $US40 million, making it one of the most successful Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) of the year. 

Learning is a two-way street 

Throughout the 12-week program, participants experience a crash course in business development, receiving hands-on mentorship from over 100 industry experts. They learn and test ideas and get free office accommodation, seed funding and access to a global network of investors. 

EnergyAustralia alone has provided over 40 mentors with backgrounds in fields such as finance, strategy and legal, sharing their advice and experience with young entrepreneurs.

A highlight of the 2019 program was an ‘Ask Me Anything’ session with EnergyAustralia Managing Director, Catherine Tanna. The questions came thick and fast and were as simple as “How do you manage your day?” to “What’s the one piece of advice you get that you don’t take?” 

“Some of these entrepreneurs turn up with great enthusiasm and ideas but they have never run a business of any size before, so we help them understand some of the basics, such as procurement or building a culture to get the best out of people each day,” Mr Wiseman said. 

And the learning isn’t all one way. “Startups have a greater pace of development, as well as different approaches than big companies like ours do. We have to learn from that if we are to lead the clean energy transition.”

The 2019 Startupbootcamp cohort.
The 2019 Startupbootcamp cohort.

Innovation continues to drive the clean energy transition 

It’s never been more important to have new ideas in the energy sector. The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), forecasts that one-third of total NEM generation (around 70TWh), mainly coal plants, will retire by 2040. AEMO predict that these generators will be replaced by a mix of solar (28GW), wind (10.5GW), storage (17GW and 90GWh) and flexible gas (500MW). 

The total investment bill to transition Australia’s generation fleet is estimated to be between $8 billion and $27 billion1.

Growth in small scale solar generation is also having a significant impact on the grid, with over 20 per cent of households and business now creating their own electricity2. This has seen the electricity grid go from a one-way system – large generators supplying the whole system – to a bi-directional one with a number of distributed systems sending electricity two ways. That creates challenges for an electricity network that was largely built in 1970s and 1980s. However, it also creates opportunities to use new technology to make the system work more efficiently and safely. 

EnergyAustralia is investigating or trialling a range of technologies that will likely play a role in our future energy mix. This includes two large scale batteries connected to the distribution network in Victoria, helping the company learn how best to integrate this technology with other generation sources, and seawater pumped hydro in South Australia, which is an Australian-first. EnergyAustralia is also investigating using non-recyclable household waste to power its Mt Piper power station in NSW; another Australian-first. 

Startupbootcamp complements EnergyAustralia’s innovation program perfectly. “Australia is at the forefront of integrating large amounts of renewable energy into the grid, having some of the best renewable resources in the world. It makes sense to use some of the best entrepreneurial minds to help solve the problems this creates,” Mr Wiseman said. 

EnergyAustralia continues to have working relationships with several of the Startupbootcamp participants as just one of the ways the company is leading and accelerating the clean energy transition for all. 

“Our sector is changing and we have a choice on how we respond to that. We can either sit on our hands and wait to be disrupted even further or we embrace it and work with the best entrepreneurial minds on the planet. We are rapt to be leading the Startupbootcamp program and being part of delivering a clean energy revolution for our customers.” 

EnergyAustralia, which owns and operates more than 5000MW of electricity generation and services around 1.7 million electricity and gas customers, is taking action to modernise Australia’s energy system in several ways, including3

  • Delivering two large scale battery projects in Victoria, providing much needed power to support the grid
  • Undertaking a demand response trial of over 9,000 customers and 50MW of load to test and learn how customers can move their usage during times of peak demand
  • Writing offtake agreements worth almost $3 billion to underpin the development of over 800 MW of new renewable generation capacity
  • Investing in its existing fleet to make it more efficient
  • Investigating new generation options, such as gas and pumped hydro, to deliver affordable, reliable and cleaner to replace closing coal stations
  • Partnering with Startupbootcamp to shake up the energy market in Australia

1 Australian Energy Market Operator, Integrated System Plan 2018, July 2018, p.5

2 Clean Energy Regulator, Media Release – ‘Australians Install Two Million Solar PV Systems’, 7 December 2018

3 For more information on EnergyAustralia visit www.energyaustralia.com.au/about-us/media/fact-sheets

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