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.
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, 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.
“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.
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.”
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.
You might call Chris Nielsen an artisan. His company, Electric Cab of Austin, actually makes things. And as good a tinkerer as he might be, his goal is to shake up Austin’s urban transportation market. That means everything from how you flag down a pedicab to the type of bus you’ll board in 2020.
“We have strong relationships with local businesses and local government decision-makers, which has helped us play an influential role in the definition and development of new ordinances related to sustainable transportation in multiple areas of public policy,” said Nielsen.
To get a sense of the opportunity, beyond rides back to your house from H.E.B., (though he’ll do that too) The World Economic Forum has a startling data point. We’ll need to build the same urban capacity (housing, infrastructure and facilities) in the next 40 years that we’ve built over the past 4,000 years to meet the demand of urbanization. That’s where Nielsen’s vision for electrification becomes more intriguing.
For starters, utilities and city leadership are being pressed on innovation and need solutions for improved infrastructure. Digitizing the electrical grid, improving traffic congestion and reducing pollution are necessities as cities and towns vie for the quality of life spotlight.
Nielsen says he’s approached Capital Metro with a turnkey package that includes his Low-Speed Vehicle (LSV) designs and drivers at a lower hourly rate.
A number of transportation groups across the country have already pulled the trigger on similar projects. One example, covered in Scientific American, looked at scenarios in Washington State and California. Washington’s LINK system mentioned a big piece of the upside.
“It is no wonder LINK is still bullish on the endeavor: Pezoldt says a comparable diesel-powered trolley would cost about $435,000 and each electric trolley built by Downey, Calif.–based Ebus costs significantly less at $370,000. On top of that, diesel fuel for the same trolley on the same route runs about $1,200 per month, whereas the inexpensive and green hydropowered electricity used for the Ebus trolley comes in at approximately $100 per month—less than one tenth the cost.”
While Electric Cab’s Low Speed Electric Vehicles (LSVs) have been fully permitted since January 2012 for Austin’s Low Speed Vehicles for Hire Ordinance, there’s more to the model than just moving tourists from hotel lobbies to hot spot bars. They want to kill gas-fed routes that originate from all sorts of businesses and government entities. School campuses, prisons, retirement communities and a host of others come to mind.
But that’s the bigger picture. The nice thing for potential investors is the fact that Electric Cab already operates at full speed (OK, half speed until additional funding) with some key alliances in the works. The current model has two components. The first one targets short-range fares, which Nielsen says are often denied by cab drivers. The other segment is the pedicab market, which has its own challenges when it comes to longer routes and safety issues. The company generates revenue by leasing vehicles to drivers for a flat fee, selling on-vehicle display advertising, and by delivering customers to commercial businesses, much like a mobile concierge.
Nielsen wants the additional capital to expand his clean fleet to 25 LSVs. He says each LSV is roughly $9,500, and has an earning potential of $3,500 per month. And returns can be quick, with some units paying for themselves within the first 7 to 10 months under normal circumstances. Just as notable, the maintenance associated with LSV’s is usually very low, while their lifespans are lengthy. According to his figures, an LSV can net an investor more than $40,000 over a 4-year period.
Strategic partners are key as well. The company is in talks with Pflugerville’s Community Cars, a company now run by Austin attorney Stacy Zoern after it merged with Hungary-based Kenguru Services KFT in early 2011. Zoern’s industry knowledge and the need for additional manufacturing and supply chain expertise has both companies eager to explore joint opportunities.
A few other things might also play out in its favor. Austin Energy has significant grant funding to deploy an electric vehicle charging grid, which could expand rapidly as other regional developments take shape. Pecan Street’s visibility doesn’t hurt either. They’re also exploring a partnership with Formula One to help it utilize large passenger EVs for logistical support and passenger transportation. Apparently, there’s different seating configurations to allow fans to move around the track for the best views.
But perhaps most indicative of its broad appeal, the company is currently working with the Texas Senior Mobility Project to provide alternate modes of transportation. Electric Cab says Capital Metro has decreased service to that demographic and says its newly available ADA compliant shuttle bus would be the perfect for senior citizens.
I may be a bit biased, but the more I learned about Electric Cab’s business, the more I was intrigued. Whatever the case, with fossil fuel subsidies losing favor, gas prices consistently rising, and more pressure on cities to reduce carbon emissions, what’s not to like about cleaner and more affordable transportation? And besides, we all know another website isn’t going to solve the world’s problems.