The nation’s energy leaders converged on Chicago for the Energy Thought Summit (ETS) yesterday to discuss ways to navigate the new energy frontier. While leaders offered different ideas on ways to foster energy innovation, there was one resounding consensus: Chicago’s energy ecosystem is extremely more robust than it was 10 years ago, and that ecosystem has become a major portal for innovation in energy.
Ten years ago, Chicago struggled to maintain any energy ecosystem whatsoever. Many panelists reiterated the same narrative that we often hear from technology startups, which is that to find any sort of funding in the energy sector 10 years ago, you had to go to Silicon Valley. But that’s no longer true.
Today, the energy ecosystem is burgeoning in Chicago thanks to the arrival of energy venture capital firms, investors, research universities, incubators and the participation of large corporations. But the most important part is connecting these dots, says Matthew Summy, Comcast’s head of Civic Engagement. “The glue that these entities have created is what forms the ecosystem,” Summy said.
Supporting and developing new ideas in energy, especially clean energy, is the crucial first step in innovation. Energy Foundry, an energy venture capital fund founded two years ago in Chicago, invests in the most prominent startup ideas in energy, and then gives theses startups the tools they need to get their ideas off the ground.
As it turns out, Chicago is filled with new ideas in energy. Energy Foundry sees about 350 new companies or ideas a year, said Jason Blumberg, CEO of the venture capital fund. That’s roughly a new idea a day. So the challenge is not the lack of ideas. The challenge is that, “Innovation is not just a new idea, but also being able to capitalize on that idea,” said Summy. The challenge is bringing that idea to market.
And that’s exactly Energy Foundry’s goal, to see ideas through from inception to market. But while innovation was once linked predominantly to the world of startups, large corporations are becoming leaders in innovation themselves.
Corporations have distinct advantages when it comes to innovating. They have the capitol to take bigger risks and they also have more assets to leverage. Companies such as Comcast and Direct Energy have recognized this intrinsic ability to foster innovation. Robbie Wright, Vice President of Innovation at Direct Energy, emphasized the ability of corporations to connect startups to resources. “You have an inherent advantage to startups,” Wright said. “You have a built in customer base.”
It’s this open connection that forms through bridging the gaps between different entities that has played an important role in Chicago’s energy ecosystem. “Connectivity is key,” said Michael Soileau, Comcast’s vice president of Competitive Planning & Strategy.
Both building the literal connectivity, in terms of the grid, and the connectivity among our communities, has catapulted innovation in energy. “Connectivity is what’s needed to manage, track educate and motivate,” Soileau said. “As we’re innovating, we ask, ‘Does it alleviate barriers to connectivity?’”
Because if the answer is yes, if the answer allows us to connect more dots, then it’s likely the right direction.