How incubators find innovation and inspiration
A year ago I was participating in a “speed dating” session at a startup incubator in Hawaii. While I met many exciting companies that day, one company in particular got my attention—eMotorWerks.
The company sells electric vehicle chargers to homeowners. Fast forward one year, and we are now working with the eMotorWerks to supply charging equipment to National Grid employees who drive EVs—of which there are many!
I spend a significant amount of time meeting with entrepreneurs to discover emerging technology trends, find potential business partners, and identify early stage startups for investment. The utility industry has a reputation for being a little insular, a little conservative, maybe a little behind the curve on innovation. But times are changing. Utilities are spending more time on innovation, and thinking about how we can work with startups to complement the highly valuable existing infrastructure we have with new technology that our customers want, like solar and EVs.
Fortunately, there’s no shortage of startups devising technologies and business models that would help us adapt to consumer expectations of decarbonized, decentralized and digitized energy.
Finding opportunities from Massachusetts to Hawaii
I love working with startups. They’re imaginative and nimble, unlocking opportunities to help us make our internal operations more efficient or our user experience more seamless.
We work with more than a dozen external innovation partners in capacities that include mentorship, collaboration, prototyping, and networking with startups and other corporate innovation and investment teams.
Our partners include clean-tech incubators Greentown Labs and Worcester Cleantech Incubator, both in Massachusetts: a state where we serve as a regulated utility. It’s vital for us to support local innovation systems.
But we don’t limit our partnerships to our utility service areas. Elemental Excelerator, a partner incubator that focuses on energy, water, agriculture and transportation, is based in Honolulu. And we support startup competitions, where we can advise early-stage startups while we learn about the latest technologies, from Austin to London.
With all this travel and our early views into emerging businesses, we get insights into technologies well before they’re ready for deployment. This market-sensing generates invaluable feedback to our business colleagues as they consider what’s possible.
With you for the long haul
It sometimes surprises our partners that we don’t just look for opportunities with seed rounds and Series A funding, and then disappear. We’re in this with you for the long haul. Our role isn’t only to invest in your company but to guide you—to do everything we can to make sure you succeed.
Without an insider’s guidance, it’s impossible for any company outside this industry to know how to navigate our complex regulatory challenges and organizational structures.
Most startups I meet view us as unlike any other partner. When we partner with your startup, we bring you our guidance through business mentoring and technical subject-matter expertise. We make introductions to our network of energy companies, equipment vendors and service providers. We know key innovation contacts at utilities around the globe, so we can help you connect with prospects half a world away.
We’re at the earliest stages of strengthening our ecosystem of utilities, startups and incubators that collaborate with each other. Improving the ways we share information will help us all succeed. As for eMotorWerks, we never did invest in them; they were acquired by another utility within days of me meeting them. But this is exactly what we want to have happen—innovative companies getting the funding and partners they need to grow their business while advancing the utility industry. If your startup has a big idea brewing, let us know. We’d love the opportunity to work together and build the utility of the future.
Hilary Flynn is Director of Incubation at National Grid Partners.