Engie had been on our radar before, but never to a large degree. It’s a giant energy company — one of the largest in the world, with a presence in 70 countries — but it’s not been one of the first companies you think of when you think of solar energy, wind energy, energy storage, or EVs.
Then, in January, Thierry Lepercq — Executive Vice President of Engie in charge of Research, Technology and Innovation — made some eye-popping futuristic claims which grabbed a lot of attention. A short time later, I was in Abu Dhabi at a gigantic IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency) meeting of ministers from many countries around the world. To kick off a big ministerial, there was a CNN-moderated panel discussion with top people from IRENA, Statoil, EDF, IEA (the International Energy Agency), and Engie. Thierry was at the table.
Since we had just published that article with Thierry’s astounding claims about the future of energy, I knew to watch him closely. It was a giant, packed room and I was in the midst of interviewing a few people, but even if I hadn’t made it a point to keep an ear up for anything he said, I think I wouldn’t have missed his segments. His spunky, energetic voice — which spikes like the notes in Happy (… or pick your tune) — can’t be missed, and the content behind those spikes is more powerful, much more powerful.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have the camera rolling on him when he first started talking in Abu Dhabi. I quickly scrambled to get the camera set up as I realized I should be doing more than listening when it comes to this guy — he is a performer, a cleantech rock star, and actually gets it. He’s made for CleanTechnica‘s camera.
Naturally, Thierry is in a better position to judge what “it” is than I am, but there are many high-rolling execs that make a few more bucks and have a lot more influence than this here cleantech blogger. Unfortunately, many of them seem to be steering their gigantic ships toward an iceberg. Our readers know it, people who have studied technological change and market disruption know it, and heck, maybe many of those execs even know it, but they are nonetheless guiding billions or trillions of dollars in the wrong direction. Thierry Lepercq is no such man.
I should probably backtrack a little bit: Engie may be an unfamiliar name to you because the company was called GDF Suez for ~150 years prior to the relatively recent rebranding. The rebranding goes deeper than the name. During a long interview with the fresh (since 2016) head of tech disruption at Engie, I forgot to ask Thierry how much money he has at his fingertips to steer Engie into an even bigger global role in the 21st century. Of course, he probably wouldn’t reveal any precise figures anyway, but who knows — he’s a cleantech journalist’s dream, as he doesn’t act like a big corporate exec, doesn’t position himself like one, and doesn’t seem locked in the conventional handcuffs and mental prison bars that many top executives seem locked in. He’s open, says things he probably “shouldn’t,” and is more than willing to talk about disruption. I couldn’t keep myself from repeatedly thinking about Elon Musk during his presentation and during our interview afterwards. Thierry may or may not be happy with the comparison, but my mind didn’t keep surfacing the Silicon Valley grand wizard of the cleantech world by chance.
Indeed, Thierry didn’t come from the world of corporate chutes and ladders. That’s why he presents like he does. That’s why he participates in interviews the way he does. And that’s why Engie is primed to become the biggest energy disruptor in the world.
Okay, I’m simplifying a little bit for literary effect. It’s not only Thierry who is to highlight. In his presentation at rEVolution 2017 a few hours after mine as well as in his one-on-one interview with me, he was quick to give praise to Engie’s CEO — incidentally (or not), the only female CEO running one of France’s 40 most powerful companies.
Isabelle Kocher apparently realizes as well that the energy market is at the early phase of a transformation that is bigger than anything since the Industrial Revolution, perhaps even bigger than the Industrial Revolution. Thierry said in his rEVolution presentation that Isabelle has stopped using the term “transition” and favors “revolution.” EV-Box apparently had the foresight (and perhaps the long-term vision) to use the same for its new annual conference. If you’re a regular CleanTechnica reader, you’ve probably made another connection — our conference series is titled the “Cleantech Revolution Tour” (and will be the “Cleantech Freakin’ Revolution Tour” in North America). Maybe it is my own bias because of style, language, or a similar vision — maybe none of us are right — but I think Isabelle, Thierry, and the leaders at their latest acquisition all “get it.” Revolution is just part of that, but it ties into the human element that I focused on during my presentation. (It is not all that surprising to find out — as I did seconds ago — that Thierry actually got a doctorate in Social Sciences, and from the school where I got my graduate degree nonetheless — the University of North Carolina.)
This is not a game of incremental steps, as Thierry emphasized. This is not a game of small moves (even though many the small moves do make both the monster and the hero). The world is changing, and it is changing very fast.
As our friend José Pontes of EV Volumes, the EV Sales blogspot, and CleanTechnica highlighted during one of our Cleantech Revolution Tour conferences that big corporations often move slowly and thus often have a fatally challenging time adapting to quick change. Smaller, nimbler companies are the ones that usher in and benefit from new markets or dramatic changes in existing markets. And that finally brings me to the key focus of the article and why Engie has become one of the most exciting companies on the planet for me.
Engie has been acquiring top startups in the various arenas it considers to be the biggest playing fields of the future. In energy, there are 5 “tsunamis” or 5 disruptive trends they see occurring all at approximately the same time:
- Super-competitive solar & wind energy bringing energy costs (and prices) closer to $0.
- Battery storage technologies in a solar-like cost and volume race.
- Electric and digital mobility in an exponential drive.
- The internet of things and big data turning homes and buildings into active participants in the energy system.
- New hydrogen technologies and the incoming substitution of fossil fuels.
There is nothing super unique about the idea (large corporations are routinely focused on acquiring startups that they think can lead them to market leadership in new or transforming markets), but Engie’s vision, process, and choices to date put it in a different realm to my eyes. Much of that comes down to the leadership.
As I understand it, Engie’s process is simple: Acquire top startups, and then let them keep operating as startups. Provide them with overhead support for greater efficiency, but don’t interfere with what has made them successful to date. Large, mature companies need to be very careful to not stifle the innovative, nimble, fluid nature of startups they acquire. Engie seems to understand that very well. And one of the biggest signs was putting Thierry in charge of this entire side of Engie’s work.
I noticed straight away in Abu Dhabi: he is not your typical corporate exec. Others I talked to after the summit highlighted the same thing (without my own instigation). Monica Araya — a speaker from Costa Rica who I found out is a longtime, passionate CleanTechnica reader and is now working to bring the electric revolution to Latin America — brought this up immediately when we started talking about Thierry and about Engie’s acquisition of EV-Box. Thierry mentioned during his presentation (see above) that he was a serial entrepreneur for many years before joining Engie in 2016. As soon as he did, Monica and I both had that “aha” moment. No wonder he doesn’t seem like “one of them” (a conventional corporate exec) — he isn’t one of them!
It may sound like a superficial matter, but anyone with a bit of experience as an entrepreneur knows the startup world a very different world than working your way up a ladder at a big corporation. It actually requires different skill sets, different expertise, and different personality traits.
If Engie is going to succeed in incubating cleantech startups, these startups need the oversight of someone from that community.
In a conversation a few days before the conference with longtime cleantech (especially solar, wind, and storage) advocate, entrepreneur, and consultant Remco van der Horst, Remco highlighted this point in an entirely separate conversation. He was noting the repeated mistakes big and growing corporations (in particular, in the energy and EV sectors) make when they head up their operations with “qualified” people from the corporate exec world. It happens time and time again, including to hot startups that grow fast and transform in various ways to try to handle that growth. It happens in positions throughout these companies. They select someone who looks great on an application, whose CV is superb … but who doesn’t have the revolutionary spirit or vision. It’s how many revolutionary companies lose their momentum and sometimes even crash. It also affects the largest corporations in the world to some extent or another.
Engie seems to have its game plan in order, though. It seems to have the revolutionary spirit and effective strategy for innovation despite the ancient, conservative nature of its core business. Perhaps this relates to some aspect of Engie’s creative French culture. Perhaps it is simply vision and leadership that fits the time and place.
When the Tesla Gigafactory launched, I wrote an article that the big deal was not actually the superb, amazing, eye-popping stats of the Gigafactory. It wasn’t even the idea that this was just the first version of the machine that makes the machines — which is what Elon was most excited about during Tesla’s 2016 annual meeting. The big deal was … oh, well, just read the article — I can’t do the message justice in one word or one line.
The big deal that’s present at Tesla also seems to be present at Engie. It’s in Isabelle Kocher and it’s in Thierry Lepercq. Be forewarned.
Here’s what I caught of Lepercq’s words in Abu Dhabi: