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3 Startup “Aha!” Moments from the Heart of a Retired Coal Plant

July 21, 2017

· 4 min read
Amanda Denney
Author: Ryan Kushner
Last week, my Elemental Excelerator (EEx) teammates, Dana, Aki, and I worked with executives from eight utilities across seven countries, and startups from more than 15 countries. In a nod to energy past, we spent the week inside of a retired coal-fired power plant in Lisbon, working to reinvent how startups and electric utilities work together, structure deals, and strive to decarbonize the international energy landscape. This was the second of three Free Electrons modules – a global utility accelerator program backed by some of the biggest names in energy innovation: AusNetDEWAEDPESBinnogyOriginSingapore PowerTEPCO, and CalCEF

The program kicked off in March with the collaborative selection of the initial 12 startups (from a pool of 400 applicants across the globe) and in May we hit start on an epic five-month sprint, which will culminate in Singapore in September. EEx is facilitating strategy and structure around this work by contributing our experience at the nexus of startup/utility deals that have been forged across three countries, with millions of dollars deployed in dozens of pilot projects.

The poetry of re-inventing our energy system from inside a coal plant, with the individuals leading the creative disruption from within their legacy institutions, was lost on no one. In fact, it led to realizations that produced Free Electrons’ first pilot agreements two months after the parties initially met.    

1. What startups are selling to utilities is not what they’re selling to their executives. EEx facilitated a workshop where startups shared their value proposition and metrics and then compared their results with the utilities’ list of the same, and there were significant misalignments. For example, a couple companies were including safety and performance metrics at the top of their pitch, which only caused the utilities to question the products as they were assuming that safety and performance were a given. As a startup, make sure you’re selling what customers are buying. 

2. You’re peeling an onion, not cutting a carrot. We’re in the energy world, and the legacy players have been around long before any of us were born. Entrepreneurs are going to be navigating multiple departments and business units to scale and find capital. Startups within Free Electrons first meet with innovation departments to pitch and attract interest…but that is just the first step. From there it’s on to business units to operationalize the pilots (investments are different).  For some tips on pilots, see Greentech Media’s round up of a recent Rocky Mountain Institute report

3. Always follow up…and not just when you need something. Your original point of contact gets busy, goes on vacation, or maybe moves on to something else, and you don’t hear from them for weeks. Keep pushing, always be nice, and sometimes it might fall to you to come up with creative workarounds (yes, you, the entrepreneur). For example, if you’re trying to put together a pilot, get your client’s pilot template form and fill it out for them – make it easy for them, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.  A positive attitude and persistence in clearing up roadblocks is what has brought Israeli startup Driivz some early successes in the program

BONUS: Ubuntu rings true, an African proverb meaning “I am because we are.” Part of our philosophy at EEx is building trust into the ecosystem by creating cohorts of entrepreneurs, and we have worked to embed this into the Free Electrons program as well. The last day of the module was expertly hosted by ESB (Ireland’s  utility) in Dublin. The day consisted of a pitch competition with the audience and a panel of judges selecting one winning startup to receive a cash prize. Unbeknownst to the program facilitators, the participating startups hatched another idea: whoever won the competition would contribute the $25,000 prize money to a charity the startups collectively selected. It was a heartwarming display of solidarity and genuine affection among these entrepreneurs from different parts of the globe. 

If hastening change through collective innovation is about people and trust, that’s Free Electrons moving the needle forward.