The role of innovation in achieving the sustainable energy transition

Elena Bou, Innovation Director at EIT InnoEnergy, spoke to The Innovation Platform about the role of innovation in achieving the sustainable energy transition, amongst other issues.

EIT InnoEnergy’s mission is to build a sustainable, long-lasting operational framework amongst the three actors of the knowledge triangle in the energy sector: industry, research, and higher education, while ensuring that the integration of the three is more efficient and has a higher impact on innovation (talent, technology, companies) than the three standing alone. This, of course, has been made more challenging as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, InnoEnergy has continued its work, bringing stakeholders together and boosting innovation.

As one element of a media partnership between The Innovation Platform and EIT InnoEnergy’s flagship conference, The Business Booster (TBB), which took place digitally on 4-5 November, we spoke to the organisation’s Innovation Director, Elena Bou, about such issues as challenges facing start-ups in the energy sector, InnoEnergy’s expansion to the USA, and the role of innovation in achieving the sustainable energy transition.

What impact has the global COVID-19 pandemic had on start-ups within the energy sector? What are the main challenges they have faced?

Like most, energy industry start-ups are finding the pandemic tough. But there is an added pressure that if we lose these innovations or dampen Europe’s entrepreneurial spirit, we will delay our progress on the energy transition – potentially by several years.

COVID-19 has put on hold expected sales, capital increases, and previous commercial agreements for most start-ups, while many have fallen between the cracks of state-led support. Understandably, they do not have access to the same resources that more well-established companies can tap into either, so one of the main challenges is liquidity. With many early-stage start-ups in our ecosystem, it was not a surprise to find that around 35% required urgent support, not only financially but also to close commercial deals. As a result, and in addition to our own funding and resources, we mobilised €7.3m from the European Institute of Innovation & Technology (EIT) to support energy innovators through COVID-19.

How can energy companies support and collaborate with start-ups to ensure continued innovation within the energy market?

In the past, energy companies may have been seen to help start-ups as a favour. However, in today’s sustainable energy ecosystem, both types of organisation mutually need each other. Start-ups need energy companies’ support to gain access to the market and benefit from their financial and commercial muscle, but traditional energy companies now need to reinvent themselves. And for that, they need to accelerate innovation and consider new business models for tomorrow. These are the benefits that start-ups provide to industry incumbents. It is a win-to-win situation. That is partly why this year, despite all the difficulties, we have taken our flagship event – The Business Booster – online to host TBB.Connect! The energy transition undoubtedly needs innovation and that needs energy companies and start-ups to meet and act together.

What opportunities do the European Green Deal and recovery plan present for innovation within the energy sector?

In the words of the European Commission itself, ‘conventional approaches will not be sufficient,’ – if Europe is to become a net-zero continent by 2050, innovation has a significant role to play in scaling up and accelerating our efforts to date. Key areas for innovation include the electrification of transport, the decarbonisation of industrial heat, and an increase in the penetration of renewables coupled with storage solutions, to name but a few.

EIT InnoEnergy recently announced its first move into US markets, opening an office in Boston. Why did you choose Boston as the launchpad for your expansion and how will the new office help entrepreneurs to develop their innovations and reduce time to market?

We completed an extensive search across the US, and it was clear that the northeast, and Boston especially, is a hotbed for clean energy innovation. The area already has an active start-up community as well as a vibrant local network of research universities, institutions, and investors to act as a springboard. On arrival, we were warmly welcomed by representatives of their innovation community including by the Northeast Clean Energy Council and our new partner, Greentown Labs.

We have a trusted process to improve innovation and reduce time to market for start-ups which is underpinned by our ability to offer unrivalled access to new markets and resources including investors, educators, and talent – every start-up’s dream. Adding the US to our existing ecosystem will increase our ability to identify the best innovators and support them to reach a global market independently of where the idea was born. Climate change and the energy transition do not understand borders, so we need to break barriers down for talent, impact, and sustainability, too.

As well as the move into the US, late last year EIT InnoEnergy launched its first global call to support start-ups offering pioneering solutions that can contribute to ‘global carbon reduction targets’. How important is international collaboration in solving the decarbonisation challenge and does EIT InnoEnergy have any plans to move into new global markets?

With the effects of climate change already being felt, we no longer have the time to chase after niche clean energy solutions; we need scalable ideas and actions that are widely applicable. This focus on scalability naturally means we need to encourage solutions to the decarbonisation challenge that transcend borders. With that, international collaboration becomes a must.

While we may not have offices globally, we certainly have a global mindset and are increasingly forging connections with resources and people all over the world. The clock is ticking, so we will crowd in whatever it takes for an innovation to make the biggest possible impact on the global stage – wherever it originated.

Thinking globally also gives us another great reason to take The Business Booster digital. Last year, we hosted over 2,000 face-to-face business meetings; now, in a digital format, we can connect people from all over the world while showcasing innovations from 150 start-ups and delivering a stellar conference. It is a win all round.

Elena Bou
Innovation Director
EIT InnoEnergy
Tweet @InnoEnergyEU

Please note, this article will also appear in the fourth edition of our new quarterly publication.

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