How our Dynamic Demand Challenge Prize helped this now award-winning energy start up

Written on 19 February 2016 by:
Dr Graham Oakes
Dr Graham Oakes

Every time you flick a switch, somewhere a power station has to work a little harder.

If too many people flick a switch at the same time, then the grid’s got problems.  It simply can’t afford to keep enough power stations sitting around waiting, ready to turn on when we need them.

I’d never really thought about this.  I use electricity like the rest of us – it’s just there, a fact of life.  I know I could do things to use it more efficiently: insulate my house, turn off lights when I don’t need them, and so on.  I’d never really thought about the timing, the fact that peaks and troughs in the energy flows can have a big impact on the grid.

That all changed in August 2013, when I came across the Dynamic Demand Challenge, run by Nesta and sponsored by National Grid and the National Physical Laboratory.  They were looking for ways to encourage people to shift their energy use away from peak times.  If we could do that, we’d reduce stress on the grid, letting it run more cheaply and reliably, and with fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Sounds like a great goal to me.

So I sat and thought about it for a bit.  Could we find a way to store energy when the grid isn’t too heavily loaded, then use that stored energy to relieve stress at peak times?

As I sat there, I started to think about the backup power supplies on computers and other equipment I worked with.  They had loads of batteries that were almost never used.  Could we use those batteries to address the challenge?

So I submitted this idea to the challenge.

It was one of 79 entries.  The judges filtered out about half.  Then they did telephone interviews and filtered out some more.  Eventually, my idea made it into the final 10.  I was invited to a hackathon at Imperial College London, to demonstrate what we could do.  Could we actually make this work?

I brought two developers with me, guys I’d worked with on a previous project.  It was still just a wild idea, a chance to have a bit of a laugh.

We came to the hackathon.  We went 40 hours with very little sleep.  We developed a simple prototype of some cloud software to control those backup power supplies.  We developed a quick business model.  We pitched.  We made it to the final 5.

Then the real work started.  This casual afternoon’s idea now had £10k of prize money behind it.  We had to develop a more formal prototype and a business plan.  The developers focused on the prototype and I developed the plan.  I met with people across the supply chain – National Grid, an energy supplier, several manufacturers, people who owned backup power supplies.  Eventually it all came together – we could see a way to make a viable business out of this.

So we went to the grand final in June 2014, with our refined prototype and our business plan.  A couple of the ideas there were better developed than ours; people had been working on them for years before the challenge prize.  So we didn’t win the main prize.  But we’d demonstrated enough potential to win entry into the EU’s Climate KIC acceleration programme.  That gave us €75k to further develop the idea.

Soon after that, we won more funding.

The work we’d done on the initial business plan was enough to persuade Sharp, Siemens and the University of Manchester that our idea was worth backing.  So they joined us in a consortium to bid for £580k of funding from Innovate UK.  This was no longer a casual idea.

That was in July 2014.  The idea has snowballed further since then.  We won a place on the Clean and Cool mission to San Francisco in January 2015.  Then the Department of Energy & Climate Change offered us another £300k of funding, to develop an “open innovation” model to develop algorithms.  Several universities are now interested to work with us on that.  And we started to win awards.  That all culminated in January 2016, when we were listed in the Global Cleantech 100 Under the Radar list in San Francisco

Upside is now raising £500k of seed funding.  We have 12 staff.  We have plans to raise another £2m later this year, and to launch a commercial service in the UK in 2017.  None of this would have happened without that original challenge prize.

The Dynamic Demand challenge prize gave us four things:

  1. It alerted us to a problem, one that’s worth solving.  That’s invaluable.
  2. It gave us some funds to begin developing our solution.  At such an early stage, a little bit of funding goes a long way to help test if there’s really something there.
  3. It gave us confidence to keep going.  There have been plenty of stumbles on the way, plenty of setbacks; but the feedback from the judges and mentors tells us that it’s worth persisting.
  4. It gave us credibility.  We can’t solve the grid’s challenges on our own.  We need to partner with universities, other startups, existing firms, regulators, and so on.  The challenge prize helps us win credibility with those players.

So thank you to Nesta and the sponsors, and all the people who’ve supported us along the way: you’ve kicked off an exciting journey for me and my team.