The pace of innovation in the European energy sector is stepping up. “Energy is no longer seen as a commodity that simply needs to be there. It is perceived as a challenge for which solutions need to be found”, says Elena Bou, Innovation Director of KIC InnoEnergy, a top European company in the field of sustainable energy innovation, in an interview with Energy Post. According to Bou, successful innovation begins with “asking the right questions”. KIC InnoEnergy’s “Business Booster” event in Barcelona on 23 and 24 October features 60 European cleantech startups supported by KIC InnoEnergy.
Wave power at 7.5 cents/kWh? That’s what CorPower Ocean, a Swedish startup, is hoping to deliver with its new Wave Energy Converter (WEC).
The technology for this new wave power device was invented by Dr. Stig Lundbäck, a medical doctor from Sweden who has spent his life studying the pumping principles of the human heart – and has used this knowledge to design a giant buoy that gently oscillates in resonance with the waves of the sea. The new device, which is now being futher developed together with Spanish energy giant Iberdrola, promises to be five times more efficient than competing technologies at a third of the cost.
It is one example of a cleantech startup that found a launching customer thanks to the intervention of KIC InnoEnergy, a company founded in 2010, and owned by 27 shareholders – a number of prominent European research institutes and universities as well as large European energy companies, including Total, Gas Natural Fenosa, EDF, ENBW, Vattenfall and ABB.
KIC InnoEnergy is one of three KICs (Knowledge and Innovation Communities) that were set up a few years ago with the support of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). The others are Climate-KIC and EIT-ICT Labs. According to Elena Bou, Innovation Director at KIC InnoEnergy, who was involved with the company from the start, the KICs were spawned by the EU’s 2005 Lisbon Strategy – President Barroso’s attempt to foster innovation and kickstart “Silicon Valley’s” in Europe.
“The original idea was to create clusters of excellence”, says Bou in a Skype interview from Barcelona, “but it was found that innovative companies were scattered all around Europe and were not willing to move. So then it was decided to set up innovation networks. In 2008, EIT was created for this purpose, and they then launched the three KICs.”
The way it works is that one of KIC InnoEnergy’s scouts spots a promising startup – or, more often, a startup applies to KIC InnoEnergy – and an assessment is carried out. Bou: “We look if the idea is feasible, innovative. If there could be a market for it. If it’s scalable. Also, if it helps to solve one of the three challenges of the energy trilemma: improve energy security, makes energy more affordable, or helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
If the assessment is positive, KIC InnoEnergy supports the venture through its network, which is made up not only of representatives from companies and research institutions, but also of a number of top cleantech venture capital companies. “This means that the ventures we support ventures will already have passed a number of important tests at the end of the acceleration phase, reducing the risks for investors or financiers.”
Thus far, KIC InnoEnergy has supported 70 ventures, of which 30 are already actively “selling”, says Bou. Swedish wave power company CorPower is one of them. “This is an interesting example because the founder walked into our Swedish office and eventually found a customer in Spain, which illustrates one of our strengths: unlike many innovation stimulation programmes, we work at a European scale. So we can make use of the diversity that exists in Europe.”
Most cleantech innovation takes place in two sectors, says Bou: renewable energy and, increasingly, energy efficiency in buildings. An example of the latter is the Dutch company SolabCool, which has developed an innovative technology that uses waste or ecologically produced heat to produce cooling. Founder Henk de Beijer had noted that the heat used in district heating systems – which can come for instance from a waste incineration plant or other factory – is mostly left unused in the summer. SolabCool’s technology uses silica which is heated until the water dampens out and condenses. Then, the water is evaporated again by drawing heat from the surrounding environment: the building that needs to be cooled.
After its start in the Netherlands, SolabCool will also target countries in Southern Europe, where many AC systems are used that produce waste heat which can be used in the company’s cooling process.
On KIC InnoEnergy’s website there are many more examples of similarly innovative ideas of startups, ranging from a new way to produce low-cost thin-film solar cells, new ways of printing solar cells, the conversion of electricity production from renewables into hydrogen, on-site monitoring of offshore wind turbines, new hydraulic micro-turbines, new battery management systems, new types of batteries, innovative renewable energy forecasting methods, smart metering and smart grid systems, heating control systems, energy management solutions, new online platforms to manage energy consumption in buildings, even clean coal technologies and financial methods “to provide people with risk-free access to solar PV systems”.
In other words, the startups are active in a wide range of very different activities. Bou was surprised to “find so many eager entrepreneurs in the energy sector. You expect to find this in ICT, but not so much in the capital-intensive and relatively inflexible energy sector.”
The reason for the enthusiasm, she says, is probably the increasing attention given to energy in our daily lives. “Energy used to be regarded simply as a commodity, which was simply expected to be there. That has changed completely. It has become a major social, economic and environmental challenge.”
There is a difference, though, with a field like ICT, notes Bou: “The typical entrepreneur in energy is senior, a “white-haired” male who has worked in the industry for many years, and who wants to set up a company as the last step in his career, not the first. In energy you have to be very knowledgeable about the system to be able to come up with genuine innovations.”
Bou finds that the established big utility companies are increasingly interested to work with startups. “They know they need to innovate, but in their own company culture it is often difficult to start new things. They are like elephants. Have you ever seen an elephant dance?”
But she will not go as far as to say that the startups will be so disruptive as to be able to overthrow the existing order. “We don’t know that yet. It’s too early to tell.”
She has one suggestion for would-be entrepreneurs. “Too often it is thought that lack of money is the big problem. That’s not true. The problem with many start-up entrepreneurs is that they do not ask the right questions. If you want to be successful, you need to ask the right questions so that you are sure you are addressing real needs in society.”
Energy Business Booster Barcelona
The KIC InnoEnergy Business Booster on 23 and 24 November in Barcelona features 60 cleantech startups who will show their innovations to energy companies and investors. Elena Bou, Innovation Director of KIC InnoEnergy, notes that all startups have been through a challenging assessment procedure that has earned them the support of her organisation. “Their ideas have been assessed in terms of profitability, market potential, scalability, and so on. And the entrepreneurs themselves have been assessed.”
In addition to an exhibition and pitching session, there will be a conference program in which experts from venture capital companies, energy companies and consultants will discuss future trends and technologies in energy.
Access to the event is free and reserved for investors and representatives from the energy industry. To register, click here: http://www.kic-innoenergybb.com/registration-form-new/