Energy startups find positivity in pandemic

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Last month, I had the pleasure of chatting via phone call with five stakeholders from our Initiate startup program in the US. I was curious to find out what the impacts of COVID-19 feel like for players in the energy startup world, how they are navigating during uncertain times and what is their outlook for the future. I was prepared for doom and gloom answers; however, I was surprised to learn that the future does not look as bleak as I thought.

First, I spoke with Andi Littlejohn, Director of EPIcenter Energy Incubator and Accelerator, based in San Antonio, TX. EPIcenter has been a partner with Initiate since the beginning and I have learned so much from their team. Andi has been working in the startup world for several years and has a passion for helping these startups succeed. As an incubator and accelerator, Littlejohn explained that she has learned so much during this pandemic. Due to the influx of new stimulus bills and opportunities, she feels the need to be ready to answer questions from curious startups. Besides versing herself in the new stimulus bills, Littlejohn has also been encouraging her family of startups to think more creatively. For example, with more people working from home, people might be more interested in energy efficiency in the home. Business owners might have to consider different options, while their buildings sit empty for weeks on end.

Creativity seems to be at least one positive outcome of this pandemic, especially for my next stakeholder, Annie Eaton, CEO of Futurus, a future technologies company based in Atlanta, GA. I met Eaton at POWERGEN International in 2019 and she also been involved with Initiate since the beginning. Eaton said that there have been some changes; nevertheless, the pandemic has forced herself and her team to think outside of the box. Last month, Eaton and her team decided to fund an internal video game development project for public release. Eaton explained that high pressure situations are when people are most creative. Her team members have been able to showcase their talents and abilities in a different way. She also commented that there many ways to make a positive difference and help innovate. Eaton is very optimistic and is constantly looking ahead, despite the uncertain circumstances. She stated that some companies, like Futurus, are finding opportunities to pivot and anticipate work impact in Q3 and Q4.

Another stakeholder thinking about the future is Paul Cheng, CEO of FuseRing. I met Cheng at POWERGEN International last year and he is a bright light in the energy startup community. Cheng is extremely positive and is confident that challenges of the pandemic won’t last forever. If you know Cheng, you know that he is rarely home; he is constantly travelling while showcasing his patented solid-state fusion technology, FuseRing. However, because of the virus, Cheng has had more time at home to think and “spend time with his sweetheart.” Because Cheng travels almost every week, you might think quarantine might really affect him. On the contrary, he was actually very excited to speak with me because he finally had time to file more patents. While Cheng misses the face to face interaction, much like us at Clarion, he believes the main priority is the well-being of others – making sure our neighbors, family and friends have the supplies they need.

Marit Lyngbaek, Senior Business Development and Partnership Manager at Plug and Play Tech Center, has also been focused on her neighbors, and in this case, many of her neighbors in Silicon Valley are energy startup companies. Much like the other stakeholders in this article, Plug and Play has been an essential partner for Initiate. I feel honored to have a relationship with them and have learned an incredible amount from Lyngbaek and her team. Plug and Play has very strong live events, showcasing thousands of startups each year at their many events. As result of the coronavirus, they have moved to virtual events for the time being. In retrospect, Plug and Play did not skip a beat when transitioning to webinars and webcasts. Lyngbaek is currently planning an industry wide open webinar on remote work and startups that enable at-home work; they will showcase the top 10 startups that can help. Instead of focusing on what they can’t do, Plug and Play is focusing on what they can do to help people, especially those in the startup sector.

Lastly, I spoke with Winston Lazar, IoT Product Marketer at Itron. Itron has been an integral part of DISTRIBUTECH International for many years. They have introduced a Smart Community Challenge “that calls on the world’s leading IoT technology providers and problem solvers to develop innovative technology solutions for utilities and the communities they serve,” according to the Itron website. I resonated with Lazar’s insight throughout our conversation. Itron has moved to virtual events and has also postponed their Smart Communities Challenge. Their challenge focuses on creating innovative solutions to serve the communities and right now, these cities and utilities are focused on crisis response vs. long-term innovation. One question that really stuck out to me was, “how do we stay relevant during this time?” I think all these startups, accelerators and incubators have asked themselves that brave question. Lazar followed suit with the rest of the stakeholders, concluding that challenges which startups can help solve are even more relevant during the pandemic. People are thinking in ways that they have never would have thought before, both creatively and strategically.

After speaking with these five stakeholders in the Initiate program, I honestly feel much better about our current global state. It is reassuring to hear front line leaders presenting positive messages. Maybe this positive outlook is because they have the technology and the solutions to change our world for the better. I, like so many others, do not want to go back to our “normal”. I envision a more innovative future, one that propels creativity and connects the community on a deeper level. We can all grow from these months in quarantine and now is the time to reflect and consider the future.

Will the energy sector flourish or diminish? The choice is yours.

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Sarah Toews is responsible for the Initiate program at the 3 energy events in the US: DISTRIBUTECH, POWERGEN, and HYDROVISION. She launched the Initiate program at POWERGEN in 2019 and has been integral to the growth of this relatively new program in the US. Sarah has been at Clarion Energy Events for almost one year and before that, she was a Spanish educator. She loves working with startup companies in the energy sector and enjoys meeting innovators from around the world.

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