Free Electrons 2021 Bootcamp is taking place this week, from May 24 to May 27. Four days for the selected startups to showcase their solutions and their teams through a fast-paced pitch event and participate in intense one-on-one meetings with the utilities. Out of hundreds of applications, these were the Bootcamp selected:
Apollo Power is an innovation company in the field of Energy. We use our proprietary technology to produce a flexible, durable, lightweight solar film to solve different energy challenges in a new way, both on water, in the air, for infrastructure, or in the automotive industry.
BLIXT disrupts a 100-year-old industry replacing mechanical circuit breakers with smart digital devices. The Blixt Zero SSCB is x1000 faster, provides circuit level metering and remote real time control of power – all-in-one single device.
bsurance is a B2B2C, white-label insurtech company focusing on Embedded Insurance. The essence of our business model is to provide insurance to the customer the very moment it becomes relevant within the customer journey, inevitably connecting it to the product or service of their interest, without any interruption of their purchasing process.
Camus Energy is building an open source software platform to enable the future Distribution System Operator (DSO). Camus’ platform empowers industry leaders to safely and strategically manage a rapidly changing grid environment.
Electron’s solution is a configurable platform for local flexibility markets. Our software enables companies such as network utilities, municipal suppliers and others to launch and operate markets, communicate with distributed energy resources through price signals, and optimize their combined use of renewable generation or network capacity.
Eliq is the SaaS platform that enables energy companies to deploy applications that help end-customers better understand and manage their energy usage and accelerate their participation in the energy transition.
We sensorise existing installed Fiber Optic cables (usually telco fiber in cities, or for subsea High Voltage lines dark fiber installed along the cable, for overhead OPGW fiber is usually already available).
State-of-the-art artificial intelligence software solutions for the energy market. FSIGHT’s AI technology platform is specifically built to take advantage of the new decentralized energy market and smart metering data to increase revenues and reduce costs.
Gilytics delivers a Cloud GIS-based platform and service solution allowing users to calculate alternative routes for power lines, pipelines, roads, and railways, helping energy, engineering and transport companies save time, money and CO2 with better data, visuals, and communication to grow.
GO TO-U is a platform for electric vehicle (EV) charging management and operations. Our proprietary software technology enables charge point operators to drive 2x higher utilization of charging locations, enhancing EV drivers’ satisfaction and loyalty.
Creates a sophisticated digital twin of your existing and future energy projects, running thousands of simulations in a single click, optimising technology & commercial decisions across far more variables than was previously possible, to drive the best possible environmental and financial outcomes.
Through its unique 3D reality models, AI algorithms, and workflow integration, Clarity delivers benefits in business continuity, knowledge management, cost reduction, remote cooperation, and digital transformation.
Over the years, we have developed pipe-inspection services with ROVs and AUVs and their maintenance and repair together with IoT for water applications, besides a range of underwater inspection products.
An integrated solution that is designed to provide field employees in industries such as Power/Utilities, AEC/ Construction, Industrial Equipment and Oil/Gas and others an integrated experience for real-time collaboration, knowledge management and to leverage remote experts who can better help them get their job done.
An interview with Stephen Comello, director of the Energy Business Innovations focus area at Stanford Graduate School of Business and Free Electrons invited researcher: “Innovation takes time, and it’s about trusting people”
How can we figure out the real organizational and business impact of corporate-startup collaboration in such a large industry as Energy? That’s part of what Stephen Comello, director of the Energy Business Innovations focus area at Stanford Graduate School of Business, explores as invited researcher for Free Electrons – a global open innovation energy platform, managed by Beta-i on behalf of a consortium of 10 utilities that collectively generate over $170 billion/year in revenue and operate in over 40 countries. The Free Electrons program 2020 call for energy startup applications is open until the January 31st (by the way, get to know the amazing alumni from previous years here).
Comello is also a senior research fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy, Policy and Finance at Stanford University, not to mention some other roles you can check out here. His research focuses broadly on energy technology, economics, policy, and innovation. In particular, by applying tools and methods within economics, management and systems analysis, he investigates innovation and competitiveness of low-carbon energy solutions. Together with his colleague Ann-Kristin Zobel from ETH Zurich, they examine how the Free Electrons program is emerging as a unique innovation platform within the Energy industry – a critical sector from both economic and sustainability perspectives. Meet the involved utilities here.
In this interview made in December 2019 at Beta-i hub in Lisbon, Comello talks about how open innovation is a useful approach for large companies to gain new capabilities and build new business models through strategic complementarity with startups, in an attempt to thrive during sectoral upheaval. He also highlights a key component in building innovation for real, no bullshit involved: trust. “Innovation takes time and requires the mindset that this is going to be a dynamic process based – in large part – on trusting people”.
First of all, thank you Stephen for your time. In a nutshell, can you explain what you do?
Thank you for the opportunity! I lead the energy business innovations focus area at Stanford Graduate School of Business, which is a research group that’s looking at how technology, policy and organizations co-evolve to influence the business cases for advanced energy solutions. We conduct lots of technoeconomic analyses on different technologies such as solar-plus-storage, electric vehicles and hybrid energy systems to understand how they become more economic or competitive over time. We also spend a lot of time looking into organizational innovation within the energy sector. What we are keen to understand is how companies – small and large – are gaining new capabilities through acquiring new knowledge and putting that knowledge to work in an attempt to thrive in a new, changing energy ecosystem.
And how did you get involved with Free Electrons?
I wanted to learn a lot more about the process innovation, beyond the simple measure of cost declines due to gains in experience. I wanted to know the people. I wanted to know how organizations make innovation happen. This was something in the back of my mind in early 2016, and it just so happened that one of the founders of the Free Electrons program was someone within the Stanford ecosystem. Upon asking me if I would be interested in exploring the program, I jumped at the opportunity. I believe programs like Free Electrons are something that the energy industry really needs and I was happy, and lucky, to have the chance to follow along on the journey.
These are the 10 leading energy utilities behind Free Electrons
Your whole career seems to be connected to the energy sector, investigating innovation or sustainable practices and models. So what have you observed in Free Electrons that could be framed as singular or unique?
Free Electrons is interesting in how established companies – some operating for over 100 years – think about and change their business models. These large incumbent organizations are being disrupted by the four forces of the energy transition: decentralization, decarbonization, digitalization and deregulation. These are macro-trends all happening at once and they are really changing the makeup and the dynamics of the industry. In the case of the Free Electrons, the electricity industry.
What’s compelling about Free Electrons is it is a way for utilities that don’t normally work together to learn together in an open platform, share experiences and knowledge, and experiment with startups – all in a very efficient way in order to understand the potential of cutting-edge solutions that ultimately will change their business models.
And how could you define the Beta-i role in this process? How do we contribute to make these collaborations happen and to achieve tangible results and impact?
There are 10 utility partners from across the world and 15 startups, each of latter is selected by the utilities to form an annual cohort. Think about all the different kinds of interactions that could happen that need to be coordinated, that need to be managed, that in some cases need to be inspired. A designated entity must take them through a process, create a structure, create a community, bring everyone together so that all participants – utility and start-up – feel protected, safe and able to really put their best minds forward.
That’s what Beta-i does. Beta-i is basically the connective tissue that helps make innovation-forward collaborations happen. It is the connective tissue that helps enable these start-ups and utilities to experiment with each other to explore breakthrough solutions and their assess their potential.
The collaboration between corporates and startups is for sure crucial to accelerate innovation for both sides. But this can be as impactful as tricky, depending on the case. I know you are still investigating and there’s a long way to go, but could you share what you consider to be the main challenge to create tangible results between these two stakeholders?
One of the greatest challenges is understanding that utilities and startups operate at two different speeds. There’s strategic complementarity, where you have a startup that may have a lot of ideas and can be nimble and adjust quickly – they want to help solve the problems that emerge within a program like Free Electrons. At the same time, the utility has immense resources, marketing and brand recognition. However the utility has multiple business and legacy systems to consider, and an organization that needs to ingest these emerging solutions. The utility will move slower than the start-up because of these elements and others. The two groups – start-ups and utilities – operate at two different speeds. The startup really wants to go quickly, and the utility – rightfully so – wants to make sure that there is a right fit.
So one of the main challenges, when a start-up and utility work together, is to bring the start-up along at a reasonable pace while increasing the speed of the utility, but doing so in a mindful way so that no party is worse off. I find that a program like Free Electrons allows that modulation to happen, where it attempts to bring start-ups and utilities to the same level so they can actually speak the same language, spend the time, get really detailed, in order to then explore a solution that can potentially solve real-life problems.
Free Electrons utilities facts & figures
Were you able to identify a key convergence point? I mean, a kind of “aha moment” that is crucial to make this sync happen? Is it when you define the pilots to be developed? Or when you have a model canvas to be designed? Does this point exist?
I think that one way to think about it is that innovation takes time – especially collaborative innovation. I believe a helpful mindset is one which understands that the innovation journey is going to be a dynamic process, where you will never have complete information but you trust the people you’re working with and you can figure it out together; whether proposed solutions lead to useful collaborations or must be cut off quickly because it’s actually not being fruitful. Open innovation emphasizes open communication, sharing as much relevant, detailed knowledge as possible and trusting that the other person is an expert in their field and wants the best for the collaboration.
This is super interesting because we are talking about trust and then being confident about these relationships, in a zeitgeist moment where trust is a weak point in very different relationship levels – being post-truth, fake news, deep fake, greenwashing or any jargon we could use.
What is really helpful in building trust is being open and truthful upfront: “these are the constraints that I feel or that I face. These are the fears that I have. These are the solutions that I might have. These have been my experiences”. Going back to my earlier point, all of this takes time to really exchange that information, to convey those sentiments. This builds the deepness and trust that you need when things become a little bit gnarly – the idea that these people are honest.
In this world of uncertainty, people are going to be dealing with a lot more failure than success, and to be able to keep moving forward you can’t do it by yourself because the solutions space is so large and there is so much unknown, at least initially. You really want to establish trust – because you need others to help you move forward, and others will only stick around if trust has been fostered.
So a collaborative innovation enabler like Beta-i also has a role as a “diplomatic moderator”, a trust-connector in the end.
Yes, because the Beta-i team are the embodiment of the culture. They work with the utilities to design the program and then they implement it, all the while being a steward for the purposes and goals of the program. So not only is the Beta-I team the one helping design the culture, but it also acts as an ambassador for culture in executing the program. They need to personify what Free Electrons ought to be, which is future-looking, open, innovative, trust-building and collaborative.
Building trust with the Beta-i team for Free Electrons 2020: Claudia Ferreira, Mafalda Freitas, Stephen Comello, Assunção Cruz
Your investigation goes through six different layers. The Individual, the Pilots, the Utilities, the Program as a Meta-Organization, the Consortium within the industry and the Industry itself. Which one is raising more interest from your side, as a researcher? What has been more compelling to explore?
They are all interesting! That is why we have six projects, each looking at Free Electrons from a different unit of analysis; from the individual at the smallest level, to the whole industry at the largest level. We have created a research portfolio because the setting is so rich.
As an example – at the firm level – we explored how different organizations such as individual utilities and start-ups… and program managers… work to form common goals for the group, or as we call it, the meta-organization. We studied how in some cases working at the system level for the common “good” competed with what was in the best interest of any one firm. We realized that there is a dynamic process – that certain goals gain prominence over time, then wane, and this is a complex dance of power, persuasion, negotiation and signaling, among others.
Another example – at the individual level, we explored how individuals within start-ups and utilities share knowledge with each other – how they act as boundary spanners, occupying spaces at the interface between their own organizations – internally – and all others – externally. We explored how broadly and deeply individuals share knowledge both internally and externally, and what this means for the shape of collaborations.
Boundary spanning is a crucial skill – and mindset – that is fundamental to open innovation. Boundary spanners need to become experts in the language of their own organization, but they also have to become experts in the language of the external organizations. So if you’re a utility, you have to both speak utility and startup or if you’re a startup, you have to speak both startup and utility. Operating at that boundary requires being open to all the different kinds of information that comes your way – and being able to translate that effectively, all the while understanding how emotion affects all involved as well. Because everything builds upon people. That’s why we are looking at Free Electrons from the individual, “person” level, and then all the way up to the industry level.
I loved two concepts, or practices, you came up with in this investigation: one is “meta-organization”, and the other, the “corporate boundary spanners”. Would you say that open innovation, as a whole, is a key approach to make this meta-organizational design, and this spanner role, grow within the business management environment? Do you believe that open innovation is a key agent to unlock this process when it comes to contemporary business management?
I’d say that open innovation is an interesting and useful way to gain and build capabilities within an organization. There is a lot of knowledge and ideas outside the corporate boundaries, and it is becoming increasingly important, I believe, to be able to harness those resources, and at the same time transmit your own knowledge into the world. How a firm goes about intentionally acquiring, transmitting and making use of knowledge and ideas across its organizational boundaries is an important capability in and of itself. That is a skill set within the boundary spanner mantra. The practice of open innovation is a strategic resource that all firms ought to seriously consider building.
This is made even more important now because of digitalization, which is causing many traditional industry verticals to become increasingly intermeshed. Digitalization – the rise in use and sophistication of data science, analytics, the cloud and so on – is a horizontal force, allowing for new business models that span sectors. This is a highly dynamic environment. There’s a lot of knowledge being created and there’s a lot of factors emerging such that any one organization, any one individual, will simply not know.
We are running the 2020 edition of Free Electrons. Can you share your goal regarding this year’s edition? What are the outcomes you want to achieve as a researcher?
The high-level research theme for the 2020 edition is about impact. We now have a history; we have 2017, 2018 and 2019 cohorts. In what specific ways have the start-ups that have been through the program benefited? To what extent? What might be design changes that could be implemented that increase the benefit to the start-ups? What might it take to implement such changes? Other questions we will explore have to do with the design changes to the program already. A critical resource being developed in Free Electrons in not only the start-up to utility collaborations, it is the knowledge created through multiple interactions and examinations of solutions, pilots, etc. How has this knowledge been captured and transmitted, and how has this changed? In what ways does the knowledge make the actors – both start-ups and utilities – “better” at open innovation? These are the kinds of questions we’ll be considering for 2020. I find this is very exciting.
Amazing. Would you like to add something more?
I have to say that I’m very thankful to be here in Lisbon at Beta-i. As an academic, it’s always a bit of a struggle to get information from practitioners. Especially when you’re in the social sciences, you rely heavily on other people to provide you information – whether it be in form of documentation, interviews, direct observations and other forms. The openness that Beta-i has shown my team and me has been fantastic. Beta-i has a true learning culture and vast experiences as open innovation shepherds. My team and I have been able to learn meaningfully from each and every Beta-I team member. Beyond their expertise, they are a really fun group – which makes our work all the more pleasurable!
About to complete its third edition, the program will kick off the Module 3 on September 16, in Lisbon – welcome to all the participants!
Free Electrons is the first global energy startup accelerator program created to connect the world’s most promising energy startups with leading utility companies.
Free Electrons is a unique opportunity to bring global perspectives to local challenges via real, meaningful, face to face interactions.
The Module 3 will be the peak of the interactions that have been developing since the 19 edition has started.
During their days in Lisbon, the 15 startups and 10 utilities will meet to align and define the next steps of their possible commercial agreements, once the program is concluded. They will also deep dive into the work that has been performed over the program between participant startups and the partner utilities, the pilots.
By the end of Module 3, the startup winner is to be announced and awarded with the Free Electrons 19 World’s Best Energy Startup worth 200,000$.
The Shin Akimoto Award, initiated in 2017 in memory of Mr. Shin Akimoto, will also be handled to the candidate that best impersonates the values of this award:
is a Free Electrons Ambassador (has got the Free Electrons Spirit and pushes the program to succeed);
is proactive and innovative (presents an anticipatory, change-oriented and self-initiated behaviour and embraces change and whether there is continuous improvement and innovation throughout the business);
is people driven (always ready to help and collaborate with others, lifts everyone’s spirit up and brings good energy to the group).
As a truly global program, focused on deal facilitation and pilot driven, the program has been addressing and solving real problems, namely generating business, investment and disruption within the energy sector.
In fact 2019 edition has originated a pipeline of 58 pilot projects so far, among the 15 startup finalists and the 10 partner utilities – all utilities have found several innovative solutions that can be adopted and integrated into their businesses.
Setting the grand finale in places like Maat and Academia das Ciências, the Free Electrons welcomes all the participants to Lisbon, and couldn’t be prouder of what the program has been accomplishing.
This is arguably the most exciting Open Innovation Program for the Energy industry in the world. Free Electrons, now in its third edition, has conquered the reputation of contributing to significant advancements in the Energy industry and boosting the growth of the startups that participate in this global program.
The track record is unparalleled, both by the innovation injected in the utilities and by the growth achieved by the startups that become part of the big Free Electrons family.
So it comes with no surprise that the third edition, that wrapped up its third module last week, is already set to break some very high Free Electrons standards.
During this last module, startups and utilities had the chance to present the first pilots, after the match that took place in Module 1, with an impressive 27 pilots announced. Startups solutions are now being applied to utilities business challenges.
While on the second module of the program, Utilities and Startups also, based on the progress made on the first pilots, kicked off the development of new pilots and moved towards potential commercial agreements and/or investment contracts. Seven new pilots were announced by the end of Module 2, making the total of ongoing pilots of Free Electrons a mind blowing 41.
Free Electrons Utilities and Startups will now continue to work on their remarkable solutions that will be presented in an open day in Lisbon, on September 19 at Academia das Ciências. Hope you can join us there!
One of the characteristics that make Free Electrons a huge opportunity for startups is that it is truly global: the startups joining the program will get a chance to work with 10 global utilities, with experience and big markets under their belt.
Let’s get to know two of the utilities that are part of the Free Electrons utility alliance.
Electricity Supply Board (ESB)
ESB is Ireland’s leading energy company, operating across the full spectrum of the electricity market: from generation, through transmission and distribution to supply. In addition, ESB extracts further value at certain points along this chain: supplying gas, using their networks to carry fibre for telecommunications, developing electric vehicle public charging infrastructure and an international consultancy arm which has worked in 120 countries globally.
We spoke with John Mckiernan, Head of external collaboration at ESB, who gave an overview of ESB’s participation in Free Electrons: it’s their third edition, and they are still working with the startups they piloted with in the first two editions – working with both towards low-cost, low-carb energy – as their customers expect.
John highlighted the sharing of information between all the utilities as a key factor to the success of Free Electrons:
No utility has a monopoly on wisdom. So, we’re actually comparing and contrasting, shoulder to shoulder, with the other utilities. It’s the proof of the pudding. It’s another facet of Free Electrons that is allowing us to see more and understand more.
As an advice for startups joining open-innovation programs, John advised them to “learn as much as possible about the partner” and their needs to make the matching easier and “keeping it simple”.
Watch the whole interview here:
Energias de Portugal (EDP)
EDP is an energy producer, distributor and retailer with around 12 million customers in Portugal, Spain and Brazil. EDP is also the 4th largest wind power producer in the world. The renewable power business is present in 14 countries including the US, Brazil, Spain and the UK.
We spoke with Luís Manuel, Executive Board Member at EDP Innovation, who told of EDP’s journey at Free Electrons. In the first edition, they were still learning the process, but by the second edition, they had doubled the number of deals made in the program – they amount to over 12 pilots by now.
What he says has been consistent in the editions is the fantastic community spirit that is lived in Free Electrons, that they have embraced fully:
I think, above all, what we try to make sure is that as much opportunities as possible for our business units’ people to interact with the startups. We believe that is key – engaging people is really what makes business happen.
He believes that what is changing in the industry is that is looking towards things that are not usually associated with the energy sector: data management, artificial intelligence and digitization processes. So, EDP is looking for a mix of solutions – between traditional energy fields and this technological revolution.
Watch the whole interview here:
The second module of Free Electrons is arriving – it will happen on the 25th – 28th of June in Hong Kong. In this module the teams will deep dive into the details of each others’ solutions.
We also expect to see a better definition of the scope of potential pilot projects, and a strong connection with the local ecosystem as the module offers an immersion in the world’s leading cleantech innovation ecosystem, connecting startups to the epicenter of the technology world.