“Houston needs a Tesla. Without Tesla and Google chasing automated cars, do you think GM would care?”
Entrepreneur Kirk Coburn in an interview with Xconomy, Texas
You tend to hear a lot less about startups and entrepreneurs in the energy industry than you hear about in tech or biotech. Why is that? The reasons have been well documented by a LinkedIn pulse post earlier this year: “Why Are There No ‘Unicorn’ Energy Tech Startups?” In a nutshell, the post explains that regulations that provide a barrier for smaller entitities, behavioral economics and policy resistance are to blame. In light of all these barriers, there are those – like the author of that post Seyi Fabode – who are pushing the envelope and against all odds following their passions to innovate and disrupt the energy industry. We take a look at five of those energy disruptors.
Helping people live a better life
The Washington Post reports that Chinese experts estimate that one tenth of China’s cooking oil is “gutter oil” which is has been found to contain carcinogens and other toxins harmful to humans. Shutong Liu wants to help put a stop to this illegal re-selling of cooking oil as well as create sustainable transport fuel from it with his company MotionECO. MotionECO has received backing by Shell Oil, and their website reports that: “In Shanghai, more than 100 buses have been running via B5/B10 blended biodiesel produced from locally collected ‘gutter oil'”. Speaking at TedXSuzhou he describes how in 2011, inspired by reading news of the first KLM flight using biofuel, and armed with a Masters in Environment and Energy he visited the SkyNRG offices to grill them with questions. Liu’s assertiveness paid off, he ended up working there. Liu explains how biofuel can be used “without changing engines” and how it reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 90%. How to solve the high cost? Liu postulates that supply chain transparency can be the key to making the biofuel ecosystem work. In a Chivas Regal Venture Finalists video, Liu relates his company’s mission: “Our solution can solve not only social, but environmental issues in China. We’re helping people live a better life.”
The Internet of Beings
Another Shell-funded startup entrepreneur is on our disruptor list – Laurence Kemball-Cook, founder of Pavegen. His ideas bring “outside-the-box” to a whole new level, in fact his ideas are right under your feet. Pavegen uses technology to transfer the kinetic energy from flooring into actual energy. Founder Kemball-Cook’s LinkedIn profile tells us that: “Nike, Coca Cola, Heathrow Airport, Siemens, Schneider Electric, Diageo, Lexus, Ford Motor Company, London 2012 Olympics, and Europe’s largest shopping centre, Westfield” are using Pavegen. So how exactly does it work? I will defer to their website for that: “As people step on the tiles, their weight causes electric-magnetic induction generators to vertically displace, which results in a rotatory motion that generates off-grid electricity. Additionally, each tile is equipped with a wireless API that transmits real-time movement data analytics, whilst directly producing power when and where it is needed.” So essentially our steps both provide energy and help conserve energy by providing data to make sure we’re utilizing energy efficiently. But, you ask, how does this translate exactly? A recent Forbes article explained how Washington DC Department of Transportation is using Pavegen right now: “During evening rush, about 1,000 people will shuffle their way across these grey triangles. As they do, the ground below them will flex and press down on the Pavegen system to turn their movement into usable power. Some of that power will be seen immediately – there’s an array of white lights set up for those walkers in need of a little instant gratification for their services. But most of the charge created by pedestrians will get stored in batteries, and then (more pragmatically) used at night to keep the lights on in a small plaza at the circle. The system is completely off the grid, so if there aren’t enough walkers during the day… the lights at the park might be a little dimmer at night.” Laurence Kemball-Cook has even coined a catch-phrase “the Internet of Beings” to sum up how he sees the potential of Pavegen’s technology in our smart cities of the future. As our cities are putting more and more funding into getting smarter, this technology just may become commonplace.
Converting liabilities into assets
Every year CNBC puts out their Disruptor 50 list, and for the past two years, Bloom Energy has been in their top 10. What does Bloom Energy do? They use fuel cells to convert natural gas as well as biogas into electricity. If you’re not familiar with fuel cell technology, apparently you’re late to the party. Early this year GreenBiz.com wrote: “A recent report by the Fuel Cell & Hydrogen Energy Association (PDF) said that 9 percent of Fortune 500 companies and 23 percent of Fortune 100 companies are using fuel cells in some aspect of their operations.” The third “disruptor” on our list, Bloom Energy founder KR Sridhar was led to discover the tech Bloom Energy uses after successfully “convert(ing) Martian atmospheric gases to oxygen for propulsion and life support” for NASA back in the 1990s. When funding for that program was cancelled in 2001, Sridhar continued his work and created the technology Bloom Energy uses today. Their website describes what their technology entails: “Derived from a common sand-like powder, and leveraging breakthrough advances in materials science, our technology is able to produce clean, reliable, affordable energy… practically anywhere… from a wide range of renewable energy sources or traditional fuels.” Dr. Sridhar told TheHindu.com: “In the future of 10 billion (person) planet, there will be huge amounts of human, animal and plant waste which will be one of our biggest liabilities. Or, it can be converted into an asset, by locally converting small amounts of it, to electricity.” Dr. Srindhar also told TheHindu.com the Bloom solution is both affordable and flexible needing “neither huge power grids nor water; and occupies far less land compared to alternatives like solar power”.
Helping an industry that’s starving for diverse talent
The fourth person on our list is disrupting the gender gap in the Energy industry with her organization Pink Petro. A veteran of big oil companies such as Shell and BP, Katie Mehnert has taken up the call to support and inspire women, as well as men, with an organization she describes as: “creating a new culture for workforce and supply chain transformation in the energy sector. It’s a community bringing digital learning and focused relationship building to a new level in an industry starving for diverse talent as the sector undergoes massive transformation.” That “starving for diverse talent” in a rapidly changing industry has helped Pink Petro create partnerships with Halliburton, Shell, KPMG and Jive Software. Mehnert recalls what inspired her to start Pink Petro to Hilary Burns of Bizwomen: “It was 2013, and Katie Mehnert was waiting for her plane to take off after a business trip in London. The flight was delayed, and the man sitting next to her turned and asked the question she hears all the time: ‘Where is your husband?’” and Pink Petro (or at least the seeds of an idea for it) was born. The for profit organization has members from over 500 different companies in 36 countries; you can find out about joining here.
My personal passion is transferency
Systems engineer/entrepreneur Seyi Fabode has worked in the power industry as “an operations analyst (and later commercial analyst) for one of the largest privately held power plants in the United Kingdom” and most recently he founded and subsequently sold Power2Switch a “consumer focused energy marketplace”. Fabode also has the claim to fame for having “designed and built the first aggregated utility bill” in 2012. He’s currently an Operating Partner at VestedWorld, a Partner at Asha Labs, a writer and business consultant. Tech Cocktail spoke with him back in 2012 and asked him what some of the challenges were that he faced working in the energy field. Fabode responded: “People only think about their electricity for about 6 minutes every year (outside of when they pay bills or complain to their utilities). We’re moving towards a world where decisions about your energy usage will be made for you based on your usage profile, how you behave normally. Using analysis of people’s usage to help make better decisions for them. When smart meters kick in those decisions will be made on your behalf. That’s where things are going in the energy industry.”
Fabode gave this advice to entrepreneurs starting out: “Find what you’re passionate about. My personal passion is transferency, information provision to ‘people who don’t know’. If I didn’t have expertise in the energy space, I would be doing the same information provision in a different space and that keeps me going.”