SXSWECO Session: Startups And Corporations: Bringing Clean Technology To Market

Cleantech Group’s Greg Neichin Moderating

Cleantech Group‘s Greg Neichin opened up Wednesday’s panel “Startups and Corporations: Bringing Clean Technology to Market” with an important observation.  The cleantech market, and certainly the broader energy energy space, is a bit different when it comes to getting big companies in the same room with startups.

“For the most part, they tend to get along,” he told a packed session.

The session assembled a good mix of panelists, from a startup and venture capital firm to sustainability executives from Nike and Intel.

Nike’s Dan Cherian described its approach to working with startups, and dispelled the notion that its startup relationships are purely investment-oriented.

“We don’t just do investments, we’re involved in things like licensing, joint development agreements and strategic alliances, ” Cherian explained. “Not all of our innovation happens inside the company, we think of it as strategic partnering and investing,” he added.  As Cherian summarized Nike’s view, it was clear the company sees sustainability as as a growth opportunity, with Cherian saying Nike is “heavily invested” in  helping the company grow through sustainable business.

Intel’s Lorie Wigle and Rockport Capital’s Dhiraj Malkani

Intel’s Lorie Wigle, the company’s GM of Eco-Tech, said much of its startup work is focused on energy efficiency. Specifically, her team looks at the application of technology  and how to grow revenue. Wigle mentioned a joint project with KLG Systal that tackled water management. Through KLG and other partners, Intel was able to see their technology implemented in different ways, underscoring the importance of tightening up your partner network before approaching larger corporations.

On that note, Streetline‘s CEO Zia Yusuf brought some street-level (not intended)  levity to the big company pitch discussion.

“Many startups make the  mistake of thinking ‘we got the meeting’ and the ”number of meetings’ are a good metric for progress,” said Yusuf.  His assertion was those elements have nothing to do with success . “It gets down to can the corporation sell more of their product because of what you do.”

Nike’s Cherian concurred, urging young companies to make their objectives very clear. “If your objectives are clear, we (Nike) have the right people in place for you to interface with”, he explained. He says Nike has three or four areas set up  within the company to address various segments of innovation.

“Even if you talk to the business development group or venture unit, you have to realize they might not have the decision-making capability, ” he said. “When we get a message from a company, we apply that correspondence to whichever filter is the best fit.” Cherian added one other tidbit for the startup crowd: get a recommendation. He said even the slightest nod from a known partner or third-party can help startups in the early cycles with various corporate groups.

Another key discussion was the role large corporations can play in developing industry standards.

Streetline’s Yusuf mentioned their partnership with IBM, where they’ve integrated Big Blue’s Cognos platform. He stressed how important it was to understand the dynamics of the marketplace and who’s pushing open technology.

“Startups should know who leads the market and what products are innovating, ” said Yusuf.  “IBM would love to sell us a bunch of their products, but we know which pieces of their platform help us solve our customers’ problems.”

Intel’s Wigle mentioned the company’s involvement in the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel and how much intelligence it’s captured from the ecosystem as technology is commercialized.  Because Intel has some much infrastructure that startups need, the company established its own incubation program, of sorts.  Technology Days brings together startups in Intel’s portfolio and allows them to make their pitch. Not only can Intel share its R&D practices and standards work, but young companies get a purview of what’s coming down the technology pipe.

The panel bridged some of the standards discussion with a few examples of where data and technology are currently coming together for disruption. All of them agreed the “internet of things” was shaking things up the most around cleantech innovation. With smart sensors, advanced levels of automation, and the move to open data, companies like Fitbit and Nest were cited as two companies capitalizing on the standards push.

If startups should come away with anything, it’s take the time to get your ship in order before approaching the big guys. If you’re focused, have the right partners, and understand protocol, they’re listening.

Recapping CleanTX Foundation’s Solar and EV Event

You might call it big data meets the grid. Panelists from Austin Energy, Meridian Solar, ERCOT, and Pecan Street Inc., came together recently at the CleanTX Forum to pitch the value of cleaner and connected communities. With Austin’s Mueller community as the centerpiece, the discussions focused on the impact of electric vehicles and rooftop solar.
This time, however, the discussion was more than just visionary. This session had real data — from real people.

“Photovoltaic (PV) and electric vehicles (EVs) together drive significant swings in the grid, and we really don’t know what that behavior looks like, we don’t have a laboratory,” opened ATI Co-Director Mitch Jacobsen. “But we do, it’s Mueller.”

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The Mueller community has grown from a novelty to a key hub for companies to better understand just how the smartgrid might unfold. Everything from dishwashers and electric cars are being monitored to track usage, something that’s invaluable to researchers and other groups trying to glean intelligence from the data.

“At Pecan Street the approach is to get to the data first, then look at the solution,” explained Brewster McCracken, Pecan Street’s director. By having one of the world’s largest concentrations of electric vehicles and more than 400 smart homes, the clean energy non-profit’s perspective is almost unique.

That’s helped Pecan Street bulk up quickly. Just last week, GM announced it would supply its OnStar technology and early access to 100 Chevy Volts in order to better understand the impact of EVs on driving habits and the grid.

 

ATI Director Isaac Barchas gave a brief overview of the electric vehicle (EV) market before shifting to solar’s growth. He dismissed the idea that cities might need loads of new infrastructure as early adopters plug in their clean cars.

“The conversation isn’t all that relevant about rationalizing EVs when all you need is a power cord,” he said.

That might be oversimplifying things a bit, but change can happen fast when you have that type of scale. Not everyone has a gas pump, but power outlets are there. The biggest hurdle, as Barchas mentioned, is the price of pure electrics. With most fully equipped models coming in at close to $40,000, they’re tough to justify for most people. The interesting thing is they could be worth more, especially when you figure in the cost of the battery.

“We don’t know what the aftermarket is for EVs, you’re driving around in a Fort Knox,” he said. But like solar, those costs are coming down too. Advancements in the cooling process and the move to more lightweight materials are two areas where engineering is getting a lift.

More Connections, More Data

 

Chris Holcomb, Pecan Street’s data scientist, says the group is working with UT researchers to identify areas where efficiency can be improved to ease the strain on the grid. He presented a behind-the-scenes look at how his team is building out its own internet of things, albeit one with a human element.

Holcomb’s team wants to be able to tell Mueller residents when to use all those smart devices. And as you’d imagine, Austin Energy and ERCOT have a vested interest in pushing more of that kind of intelligence into as many homes as possible.
Turning on the dryer and plugging in your EV at peak times, especially in Summer, is something that not only strains power loads, but isn’t sustainable. That’s the sort of scenario that Pecan Street wants to pound into the psyche of smart grid doubters everywhere. But not in a rolling blackout kind of way, something more grounded in the day-to-day.

 

“Our goal is to figure out what are the things people want to get done, basically, what can we learn from electricity data,” said McCracken.

One of the things they’re learning about is the domino effect of EV ownership in neighborhoods. Holcomb showed how transmission nodes become clustered around the density of a neighborhood, especially as a new EV plugs into the grid. They’re not yet to the point of predicting EV sales in certain zip codes, but not surprisingly, the data shows upticks in adoption when your neighbor plugs in her new Volt.

ERCOT’s Michael Leggat, senior human factors engineer, is also digging into the data. He mentioned an upcoming pilot project with a 3rd-party aggregator that will measure everything from driver behaviors to real-time grid conditions. With things like scheduling algorithms and GPS technology, he described the level of data integration we’re moving towards, as he held up a shiny Nexus 7.

“With Google Maps hooked into your EV app, you could have the capability to be intelligently routed to your next destination, all based on the capacity of your car’s battery,” said Leggat.

As impressive as that sounds, there’s plenty of work to be done commercializing key parts of the smart grid. Austin will load up on that as soon as this Fall, when the Pike Powers Lab opens in Mueller. By giving UT students and local research teams access to its data and infrastructure, the center aims to accelerate commercialization, research and education.

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