Originally published on Energy Post.
By Karel Beckman
At a “business booster” event in Barcelona, sixty European cleantech startups supported by KIC InnoEnergy, presented themselves to the world. They offered an impressive variety of new technologies and market innovations, ranging from new storage devices and solar chips to energy saving techniques, financing models and consumer engagement platforms. In this article we present to you some of the gamechangers of our future energy system – all made in Europe.
“The future looks good,” said Diego Pavía, the CEO of KIC InnoEnergy, one of the three companies set up by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) in 2010 to make innovation happen in Europe (the other two are Climate KIC and ICT Labs). Working with a dozen top universities, over 150 industrial partners and the top-10 cleantech venture capitalists in Europe, KIC InnoEnergy offers educational programmes (Master programmes), supports innovation projects and actively helps create new businesses in Europe.
Speaking in Barcelona on 23 October at KIC InnoEnergy’s annual Business Booster event, Pavía had every reason to be positive. At a time of budgetary constraint, his organisation has €700 million to “mobilise” until 2020. And he was surrounded by no less than some 130 entrepreneurs from 60 cleantech startups eager to present their innovations to private investors and representatives from the big European energy and engineering companies.
All of these startups are “early stage”, but they have all gone through KIC InnoEnergy’s highly demanding selection process, explained Pavía, which means they have a credible value proposition, a feasible business plan and an adequate management team, among other things. Thirty of them are already selling into the market, said Pavía. Typically KIC InnoEnergy takes a 10 to 20% equity share in the startups it supports.
Many of the startups in Barcelona were looking for additional financing, either from private investors or from established energy companies. Or indeed from both. One of the private investors present at the event, Gina Domanig of Emerald Technology Ventures, based in Switzerland, stressed that there is nothing wrong for start-up companies to seek cooperation with “corporates” . On the contrary.
“Most corporates are open to partner with startups and venture capitalists like us”, Domanig said. “That’s part of the Open Innovation trend that you see worldwide. They are looking for growth opportunities. They want to regain market share or pre-empt competition. They are also often looking for a missing piece of their strategy puzzle. It makes perfect sense for startups to make use of those opportunities.”
Taking on the incumbents is all very well, said Domanig, but “you need a lot of money to do that. They have so many ways to block you out of the market. There are easier ways to go about life.” That does not mean “you should lay your technology at the doorstep of a big company”, she added. “Not at all. You should get a fair share. We have seen many examples where that’s worked out.” Domanig’s own company, Emerald, which has invested €370 million in 53 startups over the last 15 years, often “exits” an investment by selling it to an incumbent energy company.
Domanig described the mood in the venture capital market at the moment as “the new Reality”. “When we started in the early 2000s, we were one of the very few venture capitalists in the cleantech market. Then in 2005-2006 everybody got onto the Cleantech Superhighway. That ended with the crisis. They all took the last exit before the highway ended. Today we are in what I call the New Reality, shaped by the crisis.”
She noted that not only did a lot of the wilder VC’s (venture capitalists) leave the cleantech market, “unfortunately a lot of institutional investors retreated as well”. In this situation, “it is difficult for entrepreneurs to raise money”. Still, the market “is getting better. 2014 looks good in terms of capital being raised. We are back at the level of 2007.”
So what are some of the investment trends? In the early years, said Domanig, most of the money went to generation technologies, such as wave, wind and solar power as well as biocoal and biogas. Those investments often had disappointing results, particularly in solar and wave power. “Wave power has been a disappointment for me”, said Domanig, “but I have to admit we were simply too optimistic. I still see a huge market opportunity there, but it’s too early for private investors. Governments need to step in if they want that industry to exist.”
Today, said Domanig, more money is going into materials technologies, emission control, IT-related technologies e.g. in monitoring of networks, and logistics. Wind power is “no longer a VC sector”, it is more or less mature. Energy storage, she said, offers “a huge market potential” but that still has to be largely developed. “It would be fantastic to see innovation in large-scale grid storage, but we have not found anything yet we really like.” Domanig said she was convinced “there will be virtual power plants”. The “integration of renewables” will also continue to be “a big topic”.
According to Diego Pavía, there are three highly promising sectors at the moment to invest in. The first is offshore wind. Secondly, he said, “where we see real gamechangers is in the convergence of heat, gas and electricity”. Today, Pavía noted, “those energy carriers are viewed separately. In the future they will be more and more combined, as for instance in power-to-gas applications.”
Thirdly, Pavía sees a “critical mass” emerging in “business model innovation”. “We see companies that are ready not just to create new businesses, but new markets. They are rethinking the energy system. They will completely change the game.” Pavía did not want to elaborate on this, but he said that KIC InnoEnergy would soon announce a new initiative involving various startups that would “change the rules” of the market.
For the established utilities, he said, it’s extremely important to make use of the opportunities offered by new market models. “They are now losing in all scenarios. We want to help them invest in different scenarios.” Domanig concurred. “Utilities have lost their right to make money on electricity. They are looking for different ways now to capitalize on their customer base.”
So who are the startups that were present in Barcelona and what do they have to offer? All sixty gave a six-minute “pitch” about their company and its prospects. Here we can do no more than present a limited selection, based on a number of the pitches we heard and a number of additional interviews we did. This certainly does not mean that the companies we don’t mention are not promising. Far from it. For a complete overview of all the ventures supported by KIC InnoEnergy please visit their website here. If you are interested in energy innovation, it’s definitely worth having a look. We have arranged the companies under four different themes:
- Renewable energy technologies
- Energy storage technologies
- Energy efficiency and saving
- Market/business model innovations
RENEWABLE ENERGY TECHNOLOGIES
It’s appropriate to start with this Dutch company, since they won the pitching contest in Barcelona, which means they were selected by a jury as the most promising startup at the event.
Sensus Energy has introduced a new approach for the optimal design and dimension of solar systems. Following this philosophy, Sensus has invented an electronics system that makes it possible to construct cells in solar panels in parallel connection instead of series-connected as is usually the case today. That results in a much higher performance of the panels, particularly when part of the panel is in the shade or is soiled.
The company’s CEO, Rolf Huiberts, explained the invention, the brainchild of COO Callie Peters, as follows. “In series-connected systems the output of the weakest panel determines the output of the system”, he said. “If one panel is in the shade or soiled, the performances of all the other panels drops dramatically. Although recently new technologies were introduced that harvest energy at panel level, which have a better performance, we go a big step further: we harvest at cell level. This enables us to connect the individual cell clusters in parallel. That means other cells are not affected when some of them are in the shade. With our technology, we already reach 5% more efficiency in the full sun . But in shaded or soiled conditions, the output is as much as 20% higher than for mainstream technologies!”
Sensus’ technology also makes it possible to better integrate solar cells in building structures and to build much more efficient offgrid systems, such as solar charging systems.
Asked why the industry is not already using parallel connections, Huiberts noted that “although the solar industry is still young, many producers tend to be quite conservative in their methods. Due to the fact that solar panel production is more a matter of quantity than of quality, the panel manufacturers have not been too keen on implementing innovative technologies.” However, slowly but surely, people start to understand that new technologies, like ours, can drastically enhance the performance of solar systems. He also says the industry tends to think in terms of prices per Watt-peak rather than per kilowatthour. “This is just a matter of definition, and turns out to be quite confusing. In fact, the only thing that bottom line counts for the end-user is the price per generated kilowatthour. And then we are a lot cheaper.”
This company from France produces printed solar cells that can be fitted into the design of many different products, such as phones, GPS systems, lamps, camping equipment and so on. It offers “organic and/or electroluminescent photovoltaic modules based on the materials used by a client”.
The two men behind the company, Brice Cruchon and Bernard Calisti, are both scientists. Calisti is a professor at the EM Lyon business school.
Rather than making technological improvements, the Portuguese company RVE.SOL has cleverly combined existing renewable technologies into a “turnkey solution” that offers communities a complete system for heat, electricity and potable water. This “utility in a container”, called Kudura, provides clean water and energy to communities, typically in developing countries, that currently have to rely on polluting technologies such as diesel generators and traditional biomass.
Kudura, which combines solar, wind, biomass, gasification and hydropower techniques, tries to “fill the gap between small products, such as solar-powered gadgets , and large World Bank projects”, marketing manager Maria Burpee said. The complete Kudura system costs between €40,000 and €150,000 and can serve an entire community. Two units have been running reliably in Kenya for three years, said Burpee. The company is now looking to place seven new units in Uganda.
Yet another very different proposition was made by CorPower Ocean. This Swedish company aims to establish “the next generation of wave power for utility-scale generation”.
Wave power has been one of the slow starters in the renewable energy scene, but given the huge amounts of energy contained in ocean waves, it remains a tantalizing prospect. CorPower has developed a new compact, high-efficiency Wave Energy Converter that is actually based on the pumping principles of the human heart and is said to be five times as efficient as existing converters. The inventor, Stig Lundbäck, is a former medical doctor.
The new device is now being developed further in cooperation with Spanish energy company Iberdrola. CorPower aims to deliver wave power energy at 15 cts per kWh and 8 MWh per ton, the company has said.
ENERGY STORAGE TECHNOLOGIES
This French startup, which has already raised €2.5 million, won second prize in the pitching contest in Barcelona. It offers quite a sensational product: an ultrafast, long-life green battery to complement or replace batteries in applications where absolute uninterrupted power supply is needed (think of data centres) as well as for mobile applications (e-buses, trams).
CEO Pascal Boulanger explained that Nawa’s battery is an ultracapacitor that offers the energy density of a battery. Ultracapacitors normally have a lower energy density than batteries, but longer life cycles and they are more reliable. Nawa’s product is based on two breakthrough technologies, said Boulanger: the material itself (structured nanocarbon which the company has altered at the nano-level) and a low-cost manufacturing technique. It can store 3 to 5 times more energy than existing products, Boulanger claimed.
Also from France, this company has developed a long-term storage unit based on hydrogen technologies. This can be used to store excess renewable energy at sites where there is no grid connection available. It is in fact a hybrid system, based partially on battteries for short-term storage and hydrogen for long-term storage.
This Dutch company has invented an underground storage vessel with an integrated heat exchange system. The system is designed to be integrated into a hybrid smart microgrid and consists of energy generation through cooled photovoltaics, storage (both heat and electric) and a smart control system that enables net balancing by taking off peaks in energy production and storing the energy (mainly as heat) in the underground vessel.
According to company founder Aris de Groot his vessel can store energy up to 90 degrees Celsius over the season with an average loss of less than 10%.
ENERGY EFFICIENCY AND SAVINGS
Daylight Solutions is a Dutch company that has developed a product which seems really useful indeed: synthetic, electrostatic blinds for windows that let sunlight in but keep heat out. As Roald Vandepoel, business developer for Daylight Solutions said, people generally want to let sunlight into their building, but not heat. They usually either have to cool the building, or keep the sunlight out.
The way it works is that a special material is inserted into double or triple glazed windows, which filters certain frequencies of sunlight, for example 80% infrared and 20% visible light in the case of office windows. This means energy savings, but also more comfort, less dust and maintenance, as the old blinds can be done away with.
Optimair, another Dutch startup, has developed an airconditioning system (cooling and dehumidification) that does not use refrigerants, but water. According to the company, the system uses 80% less energy than normal airconditioning systems – which sounds pretty revolutionary.
Cooling with water is of course an attractive option, as water is a natural refrigerant and readily available. The problem is that water needs dry air and that to dry air takes a lot of energy. Optimair has now invented a new dehumidification material, together with the Technical University Eindhoven, that overcomes these problems. The product, says the company, is ready to market and the first systems have already been sold.
This Portuguese company offers intelligent lighting systems for industrial and commercial buildings, underground parking lots, hospitals, and so on. According to the two founders, Jaime Sotto-Mayor, a geophysicist by background, and Carlos Rosario, an electrical engineer, their system, which constantly monitors the space to provide just the right amount of lighting, leads to savings of between 20 and 70%. Lighting accounts for about half of the electricity bill for many companies.
The cost of the system ranges from €2 per m2 in warehouses to €10 per m2 in offices. The payback time is mostly one to two years, sometimes even shorter, said Sotto-Mayor. No smart meters are needed – the sytem is easy to install and can be managed with a smart phone or similar device. IsGreen is already successful in Portugal and is now looking for expansion abroad. “We are particularly aiming at industrial plants, warehouses and other big places”, said Sotto-Mayor.
MARKET/BUSINESS MODEL INNOVATIONS
This French company, founded by a German entrepreneur, Manuel Emig, aims for nothing less than “the democratisation of solar energy via an innovative financial mechanism that provides people with risk-free access to solar PV systems”.
You may have heard what American company SolarCity is offering to consumers in the US: they can get solar panels installed for “free” (that is, without having to make an investment), guaranteed for 20 years. The financing is taking care of by SolarCity on the basis of the revenue stream from the panels.
The same offering is made by Solorea in France – but not copied from SolarCity, says Emig. “We have been working on this independently for three years. But I am glad SolarCity is doing the same, because that shows our offer is realistic.”
There is an interesting story behind it. When Emig came to France he discovered that the French feed-in-tariff is actually higher than in Germany (currently 28 cts per kWh against 12 cts per kWh in Germany). But, unlike the Germans, the French appear to be not very enthusiastic about solar power.
Emig discovered the reason for that. “In the past”, he says, “installers did not do a good job in France. So people distrust solar power. They think it doesn’t work. In Germany they know it works.”
That’s where Emig saw an opportunity. He has created a commercial package, in cooperation with a bank and a trustee company, which allows households to get solar panels without having to put up any money. The installer gets paid on the basis of the FIT, guaranteed for 20 years. Solorea has started selling a couple of months ago and has already sold over 100 systems.
But for Emig this is just the start. He is talking with big French energy companies about collaboration. “The FIT won’t last forever”, says Emig, “but we already planning ahead to roll out our system in other situations.”
Another interesting product was presented by the Spanish company OpenDomo Services which offers “a centralised solution to analyse energy consumption in facilities to detect inefficiencies and automatically solve them.”
The OpenDomo systemt consists of software as a service (SaaS) and a set of interoperable hardware that includes energy monitoring, gateway, gas, water and third party measurement devices and automation devices. A monitoring tool is added to the solution to enable manual and remote controlling capabilities.
OpenDomo claims to be able to achieve 50% energy savings at a very low cost (starting from 400€ per point of sale). The payback period is less than 12 months. OpenDomo targets energy consultants, facility managers and utilities.
CEO Elisabet Cuenca noted that the energy efficiency sector in Spain is worth €900 million currently. For the whole of Europe it is €41.4 billion annually, according to Navigant Research – and growing. OpenDomo wants to expand in the UK, Chile, Mexico and Italy. In 2016 it wants to enter North America.
Swedish startup Watty, which won the third prize in the pitching contest, offers an “information solution” for energy users, which “pinpoints where energy is being wasted in buildings” and comes up with the best measures to save energy for each home. CEO Hjalmar Nilsonne said “we have invented all the cost-effective energy saving technology we need, people just don’t know enough about their energy use to know what to buy right now.”
Watty, which employs ten people and has already received €1 million in funding, claims it can be “ten times cheaper as competing systems” thanks to the minimal use of hardware and powerful software analytics. The way it works is that “after installing a single sensor in a building, Watty receives real-time data, which allows us to track energy use. We process this data with unique algorithms to determine where the energy is being used, for things like heating and cooking, and tell you what is using too much energy. We then go on to identify cost-saving actions and alternative applications. With Watty it is possible for anyone to save money, energy and our climate.”
To repeat, these are just a few of the companies supported by KIC InnoEnergy. There are many other interesting ideas and technologies out there. You can find them all through KIC InnoEnergy’s website.
Reprinted with permission.