High Speed

Innovation: Beyond the buzzword

When you meet someone, especially in Silicon Valley, and tell them your job is to oversee innovation, they tend to get a bit of an attitude. They either think the word’s overused, or else that you think you’re smarter than they are.

As Vice President of Innovation at National Grid Partners, I have a very specific – I’d even say, unconventional – definition of “the I word.” My mission is to search out thinkers, inventors, techies, scientists and any other individual (or company) eager to develop new ways of delivering customer-friendly, cost-effective, future-forward clean energy.

My team is the newest and largest within National Grid Partners, which National Grid formed in 2018 with a critical mission: To disrupt ourselves before we’re disrupted.

National Grid is one of the world’s largest investor-owned energy companies, delivering electricity and natural gas to millions of customers in the UK and northeastern US. But with change sweeping the energy industry, the company took a $250 million leap of faith and formed the utility industry’s first Silicon Valley-based investment group – National Grid Partners.

National Grid Partners has already taken stakes in 19 startups of all sizes. My team focuses even further upstream, identifying ideas and technologies that haven’t been turned into companies yet – but have the potential to be.

Those ideas can come from any corner: National Grid colleagues, smart startups or gigantic companies with technology they haven’t yet commercialized. And there are plenty of ideas to choose from; the challenge, and the fun part, comes from deciding which ideas hold potential to solve the biggest problems our industry faces.

For decades, utility companies were fortresses built to keep the lights and gas on, reliably and affordably. Innovation wasn’t part of the mission. Now, with deregulation and the imperative to develop and scale carbon-neutral energy sources, we must look for all manner of third-party technologies to overlay on our existing systems. We also must become nimbler, more open to change and more customer-focused than ever before.

I describe National Grid Partners’ form of disruptive innovation as creating something that doesn’t exist today – but that, if it did exist, would have a significant impact on our company and customers. But the even more passionate vision is for National Grid to become a magnet for innovators and their brain works – benefitting not just our customers and shareholders, but society and our environment.

We’re looking for green innovators to bring us green ideas and green business models that bring benefits commercially as well as to the planet. National Grid is already investing more than $1.6 billion a year on the transition to clean power.

Now my team and I are on the hunt for ways to expand those green innovations more broadly and aggressively. We want anyone and everyone who’s serious to bring us useful concepts that will add to the overall Innovation ecosystem. Projects on my team’s dashboard would, among other things, keep gas workers safer in the field and put more electric vehicles on the road.

Those projects also include partnering with our existing businesses to innovate. Just this summer, National Grid’s upstate New York business asked regulators to approve a proposal developed with my team that would help lower-to-middle income communities buy electric school buses. Diesel buses each year create more than 5 million tons of emissions in the U.S., but fewer than 1 percent of school buses are electric – mainly because they’re three times as expensive as diesel.

If the plan is approved, participating school districts in upstate New York could buy an electric bus for the same cost as a diesel bus. The difference in price would be covered by the new funding requested as part of our company’s rate filing. The goal: Cut emissions in communities where pollution levels and resulting health problems are often at their worst. Each electric bus also would save tens of thousands of dollars in fuel and maintenance costs, money school boards could instead put toward teacher salaries or new programs.

Some of these ideas may not be ‘investable’ today in the way a venture capitalist might traditionally look at them. But we believe they’re not only critically important to our customers but will, over time, become financially self-sustaining – and then profitable. All while making our planet cleaner.

Doing this work means searching out ‘innovation people’ to hire and partner with. The 14 members of my team have more than 250 years’ collective experience at National Grid and outside groups, including Deloitte, GE and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

But we’re looking for much more than impressive credentials. For inspirational guidance, I keep handy a text from a mate of mine at Google X, the search behemoth’s innovation unit. Google, my friend told me, wants to work with “creative and weird souls”. That’s inclusion at its best.

And National Grid Partners promises to make a home for the incredible concepts coming our way. We cannot reject them like antibodies. If the pace of change on the outside is faster than the pace of change on the inside, we’ll fail.

We’re here to let great thinkers and their ideas flow in, so we can say: “You are a part of our DNA now – and we’re ready to do some great work together.”

by Brian Ryan, Vice President of Innovation, National Grid Partners

Brian Ryan is Vice President of Innovation at National Grid Partners, the innovation and investment arm of multinational energy company National Grid. Previously, Brian led innovation efforts at New Zealand’s largest distributor of gas and electricity and transformed its culture to be recognized internationally as a leader in energy, environmental, social and commercial innovation. He holds an Engineering degree and an Honours MBA from the University of Cork, Ireland.