It’s electrifying! New Zealand’s energy incubator

Got thoughts on energy management? Get set. Today Creative HQ, New Zealand’s widely acclaimed and long-running startup-commercialisation base in the city of Wellington, puts spark to a tinder of ideas for the electricity industry. “We’ve noticed various industries in which a faster innovation environment could have real impact,” says Nick Churchouse, CHQ’s head of customer engagement. “We particularly want to encourage future focus in the energy sector.”

In partnership with Callaghan Innovation, the research-funding and development arm of New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, CHQ is launching its first two-part power play.

This features a fast and furious Energy Innovation Challenge designed to bring simply electric homegrown ideas out of the woodwork; to be followed by a four-month intensive, full-time business-accelerator program, giving energy-focused startups the benefit of CHQ’s format known for putting nascent companies on the map .

Contestants in the Challenge may or may not proceed to the Lightning Lab Electric accelerator—they may choose to take their prize package of up to NZ$40,000 and run with their idea.

And while nimble international businesses have been known to move to New Zealand to participate in Lightning Lab programs (a welcome that applies to LL Electric, too), only New Zealand residents may enter the all-new Innovation Challenge—registrations open Feb 1.

GE is among five sponsors circling in the Challenge ‘shark tank’, and also taking part in mentoring startups in the accelerator. The other benefactors: Westpac New Zealand, which is keen to foster sustainability in the sector; Genesis Energy, an innovative gen-tailer (electricity generator and retailer); Unison Networks, a proactive player in electricity networking; and Z Energy, a forward-thinking transport fuel provider.

GE’s New Zealand leader, Kevin Hart, says the company brings deep domain expertise to mentoring and development of participants and their ideas. Its footprint in New Zealand stretches from power-generating gas turbines, to fundamental grid infrastructure and management systems, to electricity distribution equipment and software systems.

Photo courtesy of Transpower

GE technology underpins such innovations as New Zealand’s world-first deregulated wholesale electricity market, introduced in 1996; and the national grid operator Transpower’s recent implementation of electricity Demand Response, a digital system which enables consumers large and small to participate in managing demand on infrastructure, and be rewarded for lightening the load they put on the grid.

“Our technology spans a broad spectrum in New Zealand’s energy sector—it’s a quiet achiever in innovative legacy systems and forward-thinking digital applications,” says Hart.

“The biggest issues I hear about in the energy space are: How can we manage our assets more efficiently. How can we defer capital expenditure? How do we lower our operational costs?”

As a sponsor and conduit for GE mentors who will share their expertise with participants in CHQ’s 2017 program, Hart is particularly keen to see digital energy innovations flourish.

He points to disruptors in the energy sector, such as “startup electricity retailers that have come into  the market using the internet to deliver their services; they don’t run assets, they’re not traditional utilities, they’re entrepreneurs,” Hart says. “We’re no longer viewing electricity as a commodity, but as a service, and that affects the downstream utilities and traditional asset owners.”

He sees digital opportunities both among the disruptors and for asset-heavy players.

“The biggest issues I hear about in the energy space are: How can we manage our assets more efficiently. How can we get more out of those assets? How can we defer capital expenditure? How do we lower our operational costs?”

The answer to all those questions, he says, lies in better understanding asset performance and making actionable sense of the data that pours from sensors embedded in energy infrastructure.

Chris Thomson, energy sector manager at Callaghan Innovation, agrees, “The growth in connected devices—IoT at the consumer and the grid level—is allowing greater visibility, control and insights to enable more efficient operation of electricity grids, and consumer benefits.” On the consumer side, he says New Zealand has one of the highest rates of smart-meter penetrations in the world.

“Data analysis and digital services are playing an increasingly important role in the electricity sector,” says Thomson, “and we expect a number of innovations in this area to come through the Lightning Lab Electric program.”

Hart’s tip for the energy minded: “There’s no such thing as a bad idea. The energy market is up for grabs, and the traditional concepts are not going to be how the market evolves. You might have the solution of the century without realising it.”

Applicants for the LL Electric accelerator program should consider their team composition, says Brett Holland, head of acceleration for CHQ: “We look for teams that have four main roles covered: visionary, hacker, hustler and designer. We don’t take teams of one, because the workload is too great…” He says that team members must also be “willing to take in new ideas, challenge them and continuously iterate on their product and business model”.

Mentoring is structured to develop teams’ entrepreneurship, and functional and domain expertise, and connect emerging businesses with critical partners, customers and investors. In addition, CHQ provides “materials, methodologies and coaching to help the LL Electric teams engage with customers in discovery and pilot programs,” says Holland.

Churchouse attributes CHQ’s outstanding track record to implementing recognised best practice of other organisations around the world. He says, “Half of every group of companies that goes through the program is successful in raising follow-on funding; on average they’re raising half-a-million Kiwi dollars of growth funding.”

Hart is excited about the prospect of working with one or more of the groups when the accelerator program is complete, in August this year. “First we look forward to working with other sponsors to mentor these innovators to commercial success, and ideally we’ll continue to work with some of them to take their initiatives further.”

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