Freerk Bisschop, Director Smart Energy at Rockstart, and Evert Jaap Lugt, Managing Director at Yes!Delft, talk about what they look for in contenders for the New Energy Challenge – and for their own startup programs. They also spotlight some of the trends going on in energy innovation and call on established industry and policymakers to get more involved with startups. “Everything is changing so fast. Things like smart meters are already based on obsolete technology.”
“What we look for in startups is an innovative concept and a good team with complementary skills. In fact, we’d rather have a good team with an average concept than an average team with a good concept.”
Freerk Bisschop, one of the three jury members of the New Energy Challenge, a European startup competition sponsored by Shell, is Director Smart Energy at Rockstart, which offers accelerator programs in energy and a number of other fields, such as artificial intelligence and digital health systems.
Every year around 10 smart energy startups from across the globe are given the opportunity to go through Rockstart’s program in Amsterdam. Here they are supported by a team of mentors, industry experts and other partners, who help them launch their company.
For more information on the New Energy Challenge, click here.
The deadline for contenders is 19 July. Winners will be selected at the StartupFest 2017 in Amsterdam on 28 September.
See also our interview with Geert van de Wouw, Managing Director of Shell Technology Ventures, published on 5 July: The surprising New Energy side of Shell.
At this moment they include startups from Nigeria and Uganda which have developed new sales and financing solutions for solar energy, a company from Australia which is building a radically different tool for energy companies to sell solar energy, using machine learning on satellite imagery, a company from the Netherlands which has developed a self-learning building management system that takes care of heating and comfort by combining renewable energy sources, and half a dozen others.
“We specialize in energy solutions that make use of IT and digital technology”, says Bisschop. He feels the focus in the energy sector is sometimes too much on hardware solutions. “The possibilities of new services, applications and business models are often overlooked. Energy miracles are welcome but we don’t need them to make the energy transition work.”
“When there is only one person on the team that’s not enough”
Some examples of successful companies that have gone through the Rockstart program are ZonnepanelenDelen.nl (‘Sharing Solar Panels’), a Dutch crowdfunding platform which enables people to invest in solar panels even if they don’t have space of their own to install them; Bundles, which provides subscriptions to Miele washing machines, tumble dryers and dishwashers and helps consumers achieve optimal energy use; and Sympower, a flexibility provider which works with Engie in the Netherlands, and in Finland with owners of greenhouses.
What trends does Bisschop see taking place in energy innovation? “Storage applications are very hot. I don’t mean new forms of storage, such as new battery technologies, but new ways to use it. There is also a lot going on in IoT (internet of things) in the industrial sector. IoT is often associated with households, but it’s really taking off in industry.”
Bisschop’s fellow jury member for the New Energy Challenge, Evert Jaap Lugt, who has just started on 1 June as Managing Director of incubator Yes!Delft, agrees with Bisschop that the quality of the team is one of the most important criteria for selecting startups. “When there is only one person on the team that’s not enough.”
Lugt, better known by his initials as “EJ” – he is one of the most successful internet entrepreneurs in the Netherlands, who sold his company Nimbuzz for €137 million to a British telecom company in 2014 – says he also looks for “a clear vision of what problem the company is hoping to solve”, and whether their solution is scalable.
Yes!Delft, which has existed for 12 years now, has more of a focus on hardware than Rockstart, although Lugt says this is one emphasis he would like to change. “At Yes!Delft we tend to focus on complex technologies, but you can’t see those separately from software.”
“Industry has got to come out to startups and students. They should at a very early stage put on the table what they need”
Two of the most important technology trends for the energy sector, says Lugt, are blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI). In particular AI, which requires mathematical solutions, is crucial for developments in the energy sector, such as self-driving cars. “The connection of Yes!Delft with the University of Delft provides an excellent source of ideas and people in this area.”
Yes!Delft typically spends 12 weeks with a startup on a “validation program” to prepare the company for a market introduction, after which it goes into the incubation phase, during which the company is legally established.
Some successful companies that went through the Yes!Delft program are Ampelmann, which developed a high-tech personnel transfer system for the offshore industry that has already made it into Wikipedia; Physee, a company that makes double-paned windows that convert light into electricity; and Nerdalize, which uses waste heat from computers to heat houses.
Intelligence and drive
Both Bisschop and Lugt emphasize that it is crucial that the established energy sector makes more connection with startups.
That includes regulators and policymakers, says Bisschop. “Take the smart meter. This is now being rolled out in many countries, but it’s based on technology which is already obsolete. It is possible nowadays to make direct connections between the internet and appliances, so you don’t need the meter for many applications. These kinds of changes are happening so fast that you need to be closely involved to keep up.”
“Being a startup is serious business. It’s not a playground”
Bisschop fears that regulations will hinder progress in the energy market if they don’t take in the latest developments.
Lugt says: “Industry has got to come out to startups and students. They should at a very early stage put on the table what they need. Why should students have to approach companies with ideas?”
Lugt and Bisschop agree that lack of capital is not a problem. “What is needed are good ideas with highly motivated people”, says Lugt. “To achieve success, intelligence and drive have to come together.”
Lugt adds that “being a startup is serious business. It’s not a playground. It requires enormous dedication and commitment. Too many people, especially in Europe, view it as a lifestyle thing, something they can be cool about at parties. That kind of attitude won’t work.”