Tag Archives: innovation

Nesta Inventor Prize

Nesta, a UK-based innovation foundation, has just launched the Inventor Prize.

It’s a new challenge prize aiming to support and inspire inventors to come up with physical and digital solutions to 4 major challenges in UK society:

  1. Financial Inclusion
  2. Mental Health
  3. Ageing
  4. Air Quality

The finalists get a £5,000 grant and mentoring support to help develop and test their invention. At the end of the competition, the top prize is £50,000.

The inventor must have a working model of their idea and it must have a clear market to improve lives in the UK. The final version will be developed through the prize with extensive user testing.

The deadline for submission of ideas is 11 pm on 22nd October 2017.

If their previous Dynamic Demand Challenge is anything to go by, this new Inventor’s Prize will be a great little initiative to support upcoming inventors.

Upgrading Our Energy System: Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan from BEIS – my thoughts

Early in 2017, the UK Government called for evidence and views on how to move the UK to a smarter and more flexible energy system. They received over 200 responses and I am informed that the vast majority related to energy storage.

The UK Government took the views into account and have produced a plan of 29 actions that BEIS, Ofgem, and industry will take for the future of the UK energy system called: Upgrading Our Energy System: Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan. I’ve sketched out some of my main thoughts on the document below.

Introduction of an energy storage licence to UK grid code

Tantalisingly, the UK Government plans to recognise the overwhelming noise from industry and amend the Electricity Act 1989 to include a definition of storage, but frustratingly only as a subset of the generation asset class. It will be based on the Electricity Storage Network definition and Ofgem will begin consulting on this in the summer of 2017.

The licence changes will allow storage to be exempt from final consumption levies and will de-risk investments that co-locate alongside renewables. Ofgem will improve the connections process and will use financial incentives to make the DNOs do more to help their customers.

In some ways, it is great news that the Government is finally making this move. However, by merely adding it as a sub-set of generation instead of making it a separate asset class, I interpret this solution as a bit of a bodge-job.

Creating a separate asset class would have opened up a much deeper discussion about which organisations can own the asset (i.e. can DNOs? Can National Grid?). By not creating a separate class, it seems that this vital conversation is off the cards entirely. Indeed this is consistent with Ofgem’s view (plainly reiterated in the document) that “network companies should not own or operate storage”, as they think it will “impede the development of a competitive market for storage and flexibility services”.

In my mind, this is the wrong conclusion. For me, DNOs are the perfect customer for energy storage assets. They already own the wires on the network that do the spatial arbitrage of taking energy from places of low price (supply) to places of high price (demand). Surely it follows that DNOs should be trusted to do the same with the temporal arbitrage that storage provides?

If DNOs will be continuing to make decisions about investing in the capital equipment of wires, transformers, and the rest, then surely they should be allowed to own storage at the same time, as it is being lined up as a potential rival for these traditional assets ( one of the major touted benefits of storage being “Transmission and Distribution Upgrade Cost Deferral”)?

Removal of other barriers to energy storage and Demand Side Response (DSR)

Apparently, Ofgem has already consulted on a proposed Targeted Charging Review (TCR). The consultation stated Ofgem’s views that storage should only pay one set of balancing system charges (not two as currently) and that storage should not pay the “demand residual” element of network charges at transmission and distribution level. This is obviously a sensible move as it removes a major source of unfairness and will make the business case for storage projects a lot healthier.

Ofgem are looking at giving aggregators access to the Balancing Mechanism (BM) and clarifying the rules for DSR and energy storage to participate non-exclusively in the Capacity Market (CM). This is really great news for the UK energy market. Firstly, clarification of the CM rules will finally allow the much-talked-about revenue stacking that underpins almost all energy storage projects.

Secondly, allowing aggregators access to the BM will boost DSR and energy storage as it will allow them to compete with traditional generation in the provision of this vital service to the System Operator, National Grid. Professor Goran Strbac of my almer mater Imperial College has frequently spoken about the potentially huge benefits that energy storage assets could provide to the BM, so this development would pave the way for his predictions to become reality.

Removing barriers to smart meters and “time of use” tariffs

The document refers to the UK Government’s commitment to ensuring that every household and small business is offered a smart energy meter by the end of 2020.

To make the most of these hard assets, domestic half hourly settlement of electricity payment has been possible on an elective basis since June 2017 and Ofgem will consult on whether it will be made mandatory. If so, it would be dovetailed to coincide with the smart meter roll-out.

Intriguingly, these two developments would allow me to introduce my PowerCube product idea if I decided to move forward with it, as the smart meter and half hourly metering requirements were the two major limiting factors holding back the product’s successful launch.

The document talks about the need for consumer protection, standards, and cybersecurity protection as part of the smart energy revolution. In an increasingly interconnected and rapidly-changing world, these factors will be extremely important if the benefits are to be safely secured.

Recognition of smart energy entrepreneurship

On a final note, it was great to see the inset case studies of various innovative smart energy startups such as VCharge and Open Utility included in the paper.

It was particularly great to see Upside Energy mentioned, which is a company that formed as part of the Nesta Dynamic Demand Challenge competition that I supported as a mentor back in 2014. Graham and the team were one of the winners, so it’s encouraging to see them still going from strength to strength.

My talk at Hello Tomorrow: The Future of Energy

In November 2016 I had the privilege of being invited to speak an event in Turkey on The Future of Energy.

It was run by Hello Tomorrow, an NGO that aims to empower early-stage science startups, and coordinated by my ex-IEA colleague, Timur Topalgoekceli, at the Sabanci Centre in Istanbul.

It was very exciting to see such a high-level panel of speakers from the Turkish public and private sector, showing that the clean energy revolution has a dynamic future in Turkey.

I was one of a group of innovative energy technology startups that were invited to present to the conference to spark debate about what the future of the energy system could look like, and how could Turkey position itself to capitalise on this and influence the upcoming change.

My talk starts from 59:00 minutes into this video. To be honest, I’m not happy with my performance as it was quite a different stage to the ones I’m used to presenting on!

It was very much a TED-style podium with no lecture to hide behind, so my nerves get the better of me during the talk.

No matter: it was a great learning experience and it was a fantastic event to meet the movers and shakers of the Istanbul clean energy scene.

Amazon and eBay rentals – business model of the future?

Isn’t it amazing that neither Amazon and eBay let users lend and borrow items between themselves? There are plenty of websites chasing the rental market currently, so why aren’t the e-commerce giants chasing it as a business model?

Connectivity = efficiency = sustainability

Connectivity within a system allows for greater efficiency, as it allows different elements of a system to pool resources and reduce the duplication of effort. From a sustainability standpoint, the rise of the internet is incredibly exciting as it facilitates the sharing of resources, meaning fewer items need to be fabricated for human use, which in turn reduces the total amount of effort and investment wasted on items that have a low usage factor.

Prior to the internet, the pool of objects and items that human beings could “leverage” (i.e. use) to achieve their goals without an outright purchase was mostly limited to those held by their within their own network of friends, neighbours and family. This was a pool constrained by the mind’s numerical capacity for relationships, the lack of a complete and quick way to search a person’s hypothetical inventory of items available for use, and also by the ability to convince others of trustworthiness.

Internet marketplaces facilitate sharing

The internet can disrupt this status quo through the use of marketplaces that can be used to connect borrowers and lenders of items. Items could be listed as available for borrowing/renting, and potential users could search for them. Possible features include:

  • rating the condition of an item by both parties before and after the transaction
  • insurance products could be offered to cover the item
  • payment (if needed) could be handled via the marketplace site/app
  • location of the borrowers/lenders could be matched quickly through mobile GPS
  • the option to buy the item could be provided if desired

There are startups working on this very concept as we speak, such as StreetBank in the UK. Watch their company trailer below:

Business case for Amazon and eBay rentals

Given the interest in the rental model by many startups around the world, driven by the fundamental capability shift that has been enabled by the internet, I find it intriguing that Amazon and eBay do not offer their customers the opportunity to search for rentals (with the exception of holiday home rentals on eBay and Amazon’s e-book and online film/movie rentals).

In my mind, allowing customers to lend/borrow in addition to buy/sell would be a source of additional traffic to the site, adding additional opportunity to grow revenue. The rental model itself would also be extremely appealing to the two companies as, in the case of popular items or items rented for long periods of time, it could yield regular cashflow. For example, it would be perfect for those who want to rent big items like TVs or sofas.

This business model would also hedge their position against a potentially disruptive market force and allow them to stay ahead of the curve (and potentially kill any upstarts dead in the water).

But why don’t they want to offer it as a service to clients? There may be a few reasons:

  • They do not want to lose the focus on their primary business model
  • They don’t want to create a new market that could potentially disrupt their current operations
  • They don’t believe their is a real demand for the service
  • They do not believe that the potential revenue streams do not justify the costs of lost sales and investment in their site infrastructure

I believe that the last two are the more plausible ones, as Amazon in particular are not known for shying away from innovation!

One thing worth noting here is the ingenious “Subscribe & Save” feature of Amazon that allows users to create a regular repeat transaction for an item they buy regularly (such as food or toiletries) and save up to 15% of the cost in the process. This is win-win for both parties: customers save money and Amazon gets a regular cashflow. The service is a step in the direction of the rental model and creates much more of a recurring relationship between the parties (making the user of the site a “client” rather than a “customer”).

Disrupting the very concept of “ownership”

Having wider access to use the items around us (i.e. having greater “personal leverage” of your community’s assets) will suddenly change the very concept of ownership. If an item is readily available to be lent or borrowed by thousands of people via an online marketplace, who will really “own” the item? Technology will blur the lines between group and individual ownership and the old definition of ownership being “the moral right to categorically control something” may begin to feel like an anachronism.

The economist and activist Jeremy Rifkin recently wrote an article for the New York Times heralding “the rise of Anti-capitalism”. He argues that the “zero marginal cost economy” being driven by technological mega-trends such as the Internet of Things will increase collaboration. This will reduce the opportunities for capitalists to make profits and increase the relevance of social enterprises and non-profit organisations.

Given how this could represent a threat to megacorporations, this is a concept worth serious consideration.

Business case for rental not sales

In my mind, this highlights the potential business case for companies renting items to us rather than selling. This is the lifetime cost model versus the upfront cost model of a transaction.

Upfront cost model characteristics

  • immediate access to cash = lower risk of cash loss via customer churn or default
  • Lack of cash flow predictability
  • Upfront cost is a barrier to customer acquisition
  • Vendor has no incentive to take responsibility for maintenance or disposal of product = higher margin

Lifetime cost model characteristics

  • Lower initial cost = lower barrier to purchase = more sales
  • High predictability of cash flow
  • Greater emphasis on client relationship = greater emphasis customer service = greater chance of add-on sales/repeat business
  • Responsibility for life cycle of product (maintenance and disposal) = incentive for sustainability = better quality products made and less wastage

Can you imagine a world where, instead of buying a pair of Jeans outright, you would instead rent them? The borrower would sign up for a certain amount of time (say 5 years) and the lender would be responsible for ensuring they last the allotted length of time (perhaps offering a post-back service to have them fixed or tailored).

This business model would reduce the amount of unused, unnecessary items in circulation, would save customers money, and would allow more responsible and competent companies to thrive. I for one would be keen to see this model take off!

Winners of Nesta’s Dynamic Demand Challenge announced

The winners of Nesta’s Dynamic Demand Challenge have been announced at the Finalists Awards Presentation last week.

The winners were Demand Shaper of Exergy Devices with Hestia, a “smart home controller specifically designed for electrically–heated homes, and could save these households over £200 per year. Using Demand Shaper technology, Hestia implements a time–shifting algorithm to subtly alter domestic heating schedules, modulating electricity demand according to the needs of electricity suppliers, or National Grid“.

Hestia Nesta dynamic demand Challenge winners

Hestia (aka Exergy Devices) received their award: Winners of the Nesta Dynamic Demand Challenge

To be perfectly honest, at the Hackathon I didn’t fully grasp understand their offering, as you can see from my previous post on the topic.  However, I should have guessed they would do well as the team have invested significant efforts in their academic research into this field, and already have a history of successful and profitable IP generation for the smart home market.

The focus on an initial target market (or “sandbox”) of electrically heated homes will lead to some impressive benefits:

Hestia could reduce energy consumption by 25% thanks to subtle alterations in domestic heating schedules which match the homeowner’s needs with the supplier’s capacity. The technology offers a peak demand shifting capacity of 1.7 GW if deployed across the UK and has the potential to reduce individual homeowners’ CO2 emissions by around 3 tonnes per annum and save around £200 a year.”

Hestia have won £50,000 in funding on top of the significant benefits and funding they have received from the Challenge already. Congratulations to Dr Peter Boait and his team!

I was also delighted to see that my favourite finalist, Upside, won a place on the Climate-KIC Accelerator which will see them receive €25,000 in funding and “continued support to develop their business”. In addition to this, Upside has recently confirmed their successful bid for funding from the Technology Strategy Board’s Localised Energy Systems Competition, in consortium with Siemens, Sharp Labs, Tempus Energy and the University of Manchester. Graham and his team now have a great combination of validation, investment, and partner support to take the idea forward. Well done guys!

This brochure from Nesta contains information on all the finalists: their progress to date, their future plans and any investment opportunities for those that want to support their work. On a side note, it’s nice to see my PowerCube Tariff idea get a little shoutout in there:

“An ultra low–priced electricity tariff, with a capacity ceiling that is hard wired into consumers’ electricity supply. A smart meter would be installed in house, including a switch, which will feed from the capacity limit that is fed from the smart meter. The Powercube will notify the user via green, amber or red lights and also via text message when they are utilising a surge of electricity. If a large amount of electricity is used at one time, the house’s full electricity supply will cut out for 60 seconds as a warning/incentive for the user to be more wary of their activity.”

I should add that paragraph was not written by me… 🙂

It was exciting to see how far the ideas have come in the 12 months of the Challenge and I’m optimistic for the potential environmental benefits that will come out of this successful initiative. I recommend this as a model project for all those seeking to stimulate smart grid entrepreneurship.

Secret Facebook experiment on users – do emotions spread through networks?

According to this article on Slate, Facebook secretly conducted a psychological experiment on around 689,000 users to see if emotions can be transmitted through social networks. This is an awesome experiment, but some deem it unethical as users did not explicitly give permission for this to happen.

What was the experiment?

The phenomenon of emotional states passing from person to person, known as “emotional contagion“, is a by-product of human empathy in relationships and is discussed extensively in academic literature. However, it had been believed that in-person interactions and non-verbal cues were essential for the transfer of an emotional state from person to person.

This experiment sought to test whether in fact emotions could be transmitted from person to person through their networks, solely via the medium of a written update viewed on a user’s Facebook News Feed page. On Facebook, the constant stream of status updates provides too many for users to see them all, so Mark Zuckerberg’s engineers designed an algorithm that allows the News Feed to filter, select and display status updates that it believes are the most relevant and interesting for the user.

The investigators in this experiment worked with Facebook’s Core Data Science team to modify the algorithm. A group of people saw more emotionally positive updates than usual, some saw more negatively emotional updates, and some saw fewer updates of an emotional content. The status updates of the user themselves were then observed over the next few days to analyse their emotional content in order to investigate whether or not their was a correlation.

Intriguingly, the researchers did indeed see that people were more positive or negative after seeing more positive or negative updates from their friends, and less emotional in general if the emotional content of their News Feed was reduced. The effects were small but measurable and statistically significant.

What’s the problem?

Experiments on human test subjects can sometimes result in physical or mental harm. For an experiment to be carried out in an ethical manner where the subjects know there is a possibility that some harm could arise, the scientists or experimenting agents need to gain “informed consent” from the subjects.

In this case, the permission was not explicitly given by the users for this to occur. Rather, it was taken as implicit from a short clause buried deep in Facebook’s Data Use Policy.

Of course, in an experiment where the investigators are testing whether people develop negative emotions if exposed to the negative emotions of others, this has serious consequences. Apart from the immediate pain that the users are unwittingly suffering from being exposed to more negativity than they would have otherwise experienced, there is the possibility that additional knock-on consequences may have occurred.

For example, the users might have been in a mentally fragile state at the time of using Facebook. The increased negativity may have caused a level of psychological pain that then caused them to behave in a damaging way to themselves or others, such as violence, self-harm, or even suicide.

Is it fair of Facebook to have subjected users to this possibility without their explicit consent?

My personal opinion on the experiment and its ethics

For me, there is no doubt that is an excitingly innovative use of a social network to test a real-world question on how human interactions change their emotional state.

Although the consequences were potentially negative, I personally think that this a fair use of the system and makes a very interesting point that people place corporations like Facebook in an extraordinary position of power.

When you sign up to a service like Facebook and log in to absorb information from your personal News Feed, in essence you are handing over the keys to your mood.

In this case, Facebook did not explicitly gain permission for the experiment, but they were well within their right to do so as their users had already signed over to this possibility.

For those who protest that users will have seen more emotionally negative updates that they usually would have done, the key phrase I suggest needs to be examine is “usually would have done”. This usual state of affairs implied by “usually” is determined by an algorithm that the user has already designated as a key agent in the provision of knowledge. They have given it permission to process and serve knowledge under a variety of conditions, so this experiment is just one of them.

What can we learn from this experiment?

  1. Be happy and positive on Facebook (and in life generally), as it is scientifically established that your emotions are mirrored by the people around you. So if you like people and want them to be happy, be happy yourself!
  2. The content of your personal Facebook News Feed is determined by an algorithm. Given the amount of time that Facebook users spend viewing this information, and the documented impact it has on their emotions, one should think carefully and critically about how much time to spend on Facebook and how much to pay attention to what one sees there.
  3. Pay attention to the small print when you register for websites and think deeply about what the possible implications could be. What uses could the website’s creator possibly have in mind for your data and how could it affect you in real life?
  4. Be selective about the algorithms that you allow into your life and the power that you are given them over your well-being.
  5. On a scientific level, in-person interaction and non-verbal cues are not preconditions for emotional transfer between people: verbal communication is enough for emotional contagion to occur. The effects are small, but statistically significant.

Where can I read the academic paper?

The short paper, published as a collaboration between Facebook,  the University of California San Francisco and Cornell University, can be read for free online here.

PowerCube: a capacity tariff to fight UK fuel poverty

During last year’s Dynamic Demand Challenge Hackathon, the organisers asked me to form an impromptu team with another Roving Hacker. Together we designed a “capacity tariff” aimed at those living in fuel poverty (an estimated 3.5m UK households).

Our idea, PowerCube, is to limit the power that can be drawn by a household in exchange for a deep discount (50% or more) for the price per unit of electricity (kWh) paid by the consumer. This would be achieved by installing a device such as a relay switch on the main incoming power supply that is triggered by the smart meter when the power reaches a certain predefined level. Our pitch presentation at the end of the 36 hour Hackathon can be found here:

Benefits of the idea

The benefits of this tariff are many. Customers would benefit from reducing their outgoings on expensive energy, utilities would eliminate the need to buy electric at peak times when it is expensive by shifting large amounts of demand to off-peak times, and the environment would benefit as it would reduce the need for GHG-intensive peaking plants powered by fossil fuels like gas and oil.

Fuel poor customers often have poor credit history and therefore frequently receive their electricity via a pre-paid meter, notorious for their scandalously high prices. Because ‘Fuel poor’ householders are often in a situation where they are faced with the “heat or eat” scenario, our belief is that the 50% discount of the PowerCube tariff is something that would get real traction.

Weaknesses of the idea

Capacity tariffs are not a new concept and have been trialled on the continent before, to mixed levels of success. We believe that targeting them at the energy poor section of the market, for whom energy prices are a real and priority problem, will give the concept a new lease of life as this application will add real value to this particular market segment.

The PowerCube tariff idea relies on a physical device to give a visual/auditory signal to indicate when the household is close to its limit. Ensuring that this signal is simple to understand and able to inform action is vital.

It is also important to realise that the whole concept of a capacity tariff means that people will need to learn the relative power demands of their devices, which could prove difficult for consumers who are not very tech-savvy. However, a counter argument to this is the fact that non-commercial sailors intuitively learn how to ration their power use on a boat to stay within the fixed capacity limits of their vessel’s battery supply.

Finally, the level of the capacity ceiling will probably need to be fixed and chosen very carefully, as it will be too confusing/undesirable for customers to live in a situation where their allocated capacity ceiling is changing unpredictably. It also might need to be set on an individual basis, which could prove expensive if not an automated solution is not developed well.

Opportunities for the idea

The tariff would provide consumers with savings of around 50% from their electricity bills, which is a significant amount of money (around 5% of their annual income when using the old definition of fuel poverty).

It would also allow the UK to shave a significant amount of peak load if designed correctly. For example, if 5% of the UK’s energy poor households (3.5m*0.05=175,000) were to sign up and reduce their peak demand by 2kW it would be a 350MW saving, equivalent to an average UK natural gas power plant gas.

Threats to the idea

One big threat to this would be a change in the demand of a household, or a consumer switching tariffs after receiving the PowerCube device.

Another threat would be weaknesses in the UK smart meter roll-out, such as low up-take or hardware that is incompatible with the infrastructure of this tariff offering.

Internet of Things: Smart Home Security Systems and Burglar Alarms

Google recently paid $3.2 bn to acquire Nest, the makers of connected smart thermostats and smoke alarms. It is a strategic coup for the company, partly because it brings Nest’s CEO Tony Fadell on board, an engineer with a proven eye for design honed during his time as Apple where he lead the design of the iPod. However, it is also a major move as it positions Google strongly to capitalise on a new frontier: enabling web-enabled devices in the home, more commonly known as the “Internet of Things”.

This is a pretty grand ideal in theory, but what concrete, near term opportunities are there for the company to innovate? Specifically, what are the “low hanging fruit” of the Internet of Things?

Home Security System/Burglar Alarm

A prime example of a pre-digital device that is essentially redundant in its current form is the home security system or burglar alarm. Great though they must have been during an age of tight-knit local communities, the audio signal emitted when an alarm is triggered nowadays is delivered to a largely unconcerned audience. Close neighbours in big cities or even towns are largely unknown to each other, so burglar alarms tend to just add to the cacophony of the urban ether rather than acting as a call to action to apprehend burglars or call the police.

Connected Home Security Systems: the burglar alarms of the future

Features of a smart burglar alarm

A smart burglar alarm would be able to send the signal to the relevant parties by SMS, email or signal to an app on the user’s smartphone, tablet, or other connected device. In addition, GPS trackers on the devices of nominated parties (relatives, friends, and maybe the emergency services) would show the central system of the app when they are near to the house and if they are within a certain response time, they will be also sent an alert by the app so that they can intervene if the householder is too far away to do it themselves.

Nature of pre-smart alarm signal is redundant

Another critical characteristic of pre-smart burglar alarms is that the information carried by the signal is too generic to call for action in a compelling or efficient way. They are binary, with an off state (“silent”) or an on state (LOUD NOISE!!!). This leads to a confusing call to action, as there is too much ambiguity for an actor to investgiate: is there really an intrusion or is it a false alarm? Is the burglar still inside the house? Has somebody already been informed and are they already in the process of dealing with it?

A smart home security system concept

The exponential decrease in the cost of sensors means that a smart burglar alarm could actually convey more specific and hence useful data to the nominated parties, enabling a more effective call to action.

For example, the specific trigger point could be communicated (roof, ground floor windows, front door) so that the alarm points can be investigated quickly and the possibility of a false alarm ruled out in less time. Infra-red cameras could measure if there are people inside the house, counting them and perhaps even identifying them using facial recognition.

The triggering app would allow the user to see who precisely has been signalled, who has acknowledged the signal, who is acting on it, their estimated response time, and their current location.

Competitors and Innovators

Piper’s Home Security System and Mobile app interface

There are some impressive innovations in this field such as Piper and Canary, which are standalone video and sensor units acting as a “mini sentinel” in the home. Piper, which is already available for purchase, also acts as a household device controller and could therefore turn on lights in the home if signalled to do so. They both have the awesome idea of adding video to the equation, meaning that if the motion sensor is triggered, the user could immediately switch to video to see who the intruder is. I imagine the video stream could also be recorded for legal purposes in the event of a burglary.

Home CCTV enabled by Piper

Priced at $239 and $199 respectively for a single basic unit, the issue is that the devices only cover one room each, which makes them an expensive solution for a whole home, although a promising start and a massive leap forward. Canary smashed its request for crowdfunding on IndieGogo so expect to see the first units available later this year.

The miGuard alarm system from Response Electronics uses an integrated mobile phone SIM card to communicate with your phone by GSM/SMS and has a total system cost of £269.95 (about $452). This is a much more attractive price point for a whole-home system, but the technology is not smart enough to capture the full range of possibilities offered by the rapidly decreasing costs of technology and increasing connectivity of web-enabled devices.

miGuard Home Security System – schematic diagram

Other potential players

Of course, this concept is not just a possibility for Nest and the innovators outlined above, as there are other innovative technology companies who are trying to get into the smart home space.

As a Brit and Imperial college alumnus, the most notable example I can think of would be Dyson. My rationale here is that Dyson are one of the great innovators of UK industry and a global pioneer in domestic technology, highlighted by its recent partnership with Imperial College on robotic vision with a view to implementation for autonomous vacuum cleaners.

This is an intriguing partnership, given the promise of Imperial’s recent contributions to the field of Simultaneous Localisation And Mapping (SLAM) in addition to the fact that the unlocked value of Dyson’s disruption of household technology markets runs into the billions.

AlertMe, the British home monitoring controls company could also have a say in the development of this industry on the software side through their Smart Monitoring platform, linking all devices in the home.


A connected home security system is a complex endeavour, given all the possible flows of information and control that are being unleashed by the digital revolution. There is a range of possible ideas already in the market, addressing the various price points that could be considered by consumers.

The advantage that Nest could have if they developed a smart home security device or burglar alarm is that they already have two products on the market that could feed into it, not to mention their experience of successfully designing the necessary user interfaces and hardware for mass consumer uptake. Combined with Google’s expertise with algorithms and handling large data sets, it is a mouthwatering prospect to think what they could do together in this area.

Given the fact that smart burglar alarms will be such an improvement on the pre-digital state-of-the-art, I wouldn’t be surprised if the eggheads at Nest have already been incubating something like this for some time. This guy has even mocked up a great example of how Nest’s existing thermostat interface could be converted into a burglar alarm.

Nest’s Thermostat as a Burglar Alarm

I would not be surprised if there are further acquisitions in this sector in the coming months. These are very exciting times for this emerging technology market.

My thoughts on the Dynamic Demand Challenge Prize Finalists

To recap from my previous blog post on the Dynamic Demand Challenge Prize, the 5 finalists chosen by the judges were:

My favourite idea – Upside

Of the 5 chosen ideas, the most exciting from my perspective is Upside. Their idea is to allow the owners of UPS systems to trigger them to turn on during times of peak electrical demand, saving the customer money and reducing the burden on the electricity grid.

This demand curtailment could be coordinated through a demand response aggregator such as EnerNOC or KiWi Power, meaning that not only could the UPS owner profit on the arbitrage of cheaper energy and enjoy the carbon savings associated with avoiding high-carbon peak rate power, but they could also benefit from participation payments from the providers. Not only that, but it is inherently beneficial for customers to regularly test their UPS to ensure that it will actually work effectively in the case of an actual emergency, so why not get paid for it?

For me this idea is exciting due to the size of the UPS market in the UK. My finger-in-the-air estimate is that there is around 0.5-2.5 GW of connected UPS capacity in the UK currently that is protecting sensitive servers and equipment (a better estimate is probably available via this market study or similar). Even at the conservative end of my range, if this “dumb” capacity could be made “smart” and then mobilised during times of peak grid demand, that would be the equivalent of a virtual gas power plant turning on. Now that is exciting!

It sounds like Upside are currently very busy developing their product and customer base. If it were up to me, they would win the challenge hands down.

My second favourite idea – Powervault

However, a special mention should go to Powervault. Their technology is a battery system that can be simply installed in a UK home via a normal LV socket to allow the household to store any surplus electricity produced in the day by their solar panels to be used later on during times of high-carbon peak electricity demand.

Through the Powervault system, the user would reduce their carbon footprint in a fairly measurable way by reducing their demand at peak times, plus they would presumably save money due to the arbitrage effect of saving electricity generated at a time of low cost for use at a time of high prices (as long as the cost of the electricity lost due to the inefficiency of the storage doesn’t cost more than the marginal arbitrage benefit received).

I like the idea that the technology is easy to install for a household. It is also undeniable that energy storage will be a huge market theme in the coming years, as the UK seeks to increase its resilience to grid volatility as it integrates more renewable power into the generation mix.

The main issue with the Powervault concept for me is the target market. It is great that the team have a very focused target customer, households who own solar panels, and a defined value proposition of “be greener”. This group is clearly so concerned with “being green” that they have already shelled out thousands of pounds for solar panels, so potentially it is a strong strategy.

However, I worry that if the financial benefits don’t add up then the prospect of being greener will not be strong enough to justify the cost of the Powervault system, which I guess would have to retail at somewhere between £250-£500 to be attractive. The system would need to yield an arbitrage income of £25-£50 per year to stand even a modest chance of appealing to customers. Even then, customers will not directly see these savings in their bill, so how will they be convinced of the financial case for the product?

I also wonder if a target market of residential solar panel owners in the UK (or owners of any distributed generation technology) is too small a market to focus on. Presumably there are only around 50,000-100,000 households in the UK that currently own solar panels (my guess), which would yield a maximum serviceable market of £12.5m. Assuming that you can only grab 5% of that market (due to factors like competition and customer apathy), that would give a potential market size of around £625,000, which would yield a very unattractive proposition.

One of the first things I learned in marketing is that fear sells. If Powervault wants to increase its potential market size, and add another really compelling motivation to buy their product, I suggest that the company also targets people who are scared about power cuts and outages that would damage their household equipment and interfere with their quality of life. As someone who has lived through a 3 day blackout in the UK, I can testify that this is something that I would be quite keen to avoid with a potential £250-£500 investment (although I’m not suggesting that they should have a battery that would supply a house for 3 whole days).

My least favourite idea: Community Substation Challenges

One of the ideas – Community Substation Challenges – centred on the use of smart fridge magnets to display information in the hope of motivating households to compete against their neighbours and save energy in their homes.

I am really not a fan of the theory that consumers will enjoy or prioritise the gamification of energy efficiency in their daily lives. Will you really care about how energy efficient your house is when the kids are fighting each other, the stove is boiling over and there’s just been a knock at the door? Will customers really look at their fridge magnet display 1-2 weeks after it has been delivered? When was the last time you really looked at the front of your fridge? Recently there was even a whole hackathon event in Paris, Energy Hack, entirely based along a similar line of thought.

Obviously I’d be delighted if this idea gets built and shown to successfully lead to consistent energy savings over time. However, if I was an investor, I would want to have seen extensive market research or some form of Minimum Viable Product as discussed in the Lean Startup methodology. Good luck to them, but the idea wouldn’t be a priority for my investment capital.


As I understand it, the idea of this team is to use a heat storage medium embedded in the fabric of a house to store heat generated by heat pumps during periods of low demand to be used in the winter when demand for heat is high.

The issues with this one are primarily technical but there are some commercial considerations. Is the heat storage mechanism cost effective to produce, safe to operate and easy to install? Will the market understand the offering and can the team create a product offering in a way that is desirable and easy to understand?

Quite frankly, this one didn’t especially grab me during the Hackathon and there’s not a great deal on the site to understand. However, when you consider how significant a proportion of UK energy demand is in heating (44% by their numbers), it will be a promising finding if they pull something together that is feasible.

Demand Shaper

The guys at Demand Shaper plan to create a service based on a smart home control device that will allow for residential energy use to be “influenced” by their company in order to reduce peak demand.

Demand Shaper business model

Source: Demand Shaper’s Second Blog

It’s a mammoth task and a complicated process, although the potential savings are enormous. Due to its complexity, it wouldn’t be my first choice of project to invest in, as it has various barriers to overcome. For example, they are in discussions with Ofgem and Elexon about making a change to the UK settlement system. Now I am all for the optimistic mindset, but that is one hell of a challenge for a new startup to pursue!

I also wonder whether they have undertaken enough market research to justify the effort they are making. Time will tell – it’s certainly an interesting concept!

Hacking for a smarter grid: Nesta Dynamic Demand Challenge Hackathon

I recently attended a great Hackathon as part of the Dynamic Demand Challenge Prize.

Organised by the Nesta Centre for Challenge Prizes in partnership with the National Physical Laboratory – Centre for Carbon Measurement, the Challenge is co-funded by Nesta (the UK innovation charity) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, with the National Grid as a lead sponsor.

Dynamic Demand Challenge Prize: What is it?

The Dynamic Demand Challenge Prize is an exciting competition set up to encourage innovation in the demand side management sector of the UK electricity industry. Specifically, the goal is to create a new product, technology or service that would utilise data to help households or small businesses demonstrate measurable reduction in carbon emissions by shifting energy demand to off-peak times or towards excess renewable generation.

Imperial College Engineering Department

Imperial College Engineering Department

The Hackathon itself was and hosted by Imperial College London and Climate-KIC, with Judges and demonstrators from OFGEM, DECC, Which?, and KiWi Power.

There’s a great briefing document on the need for demand side management in the UK, written by Marieke Beckmann of the NPL, that is available for free download here.

Why a Hackathon?

10 teams of innovators were selected from the vast number of competition entries and invited to attend a 36 hour Hackathon at Imperial’s Faculty of Engineering to make demonstrable progress on their ideas and to allow the judges to get a better feel for the potential of the both the ideas and the teams.

Although my own idea was not shortlisted, I was invited to attend the event as a “Roving Hacker”, with the task of assisting the other teams in the development of their ideas and adding value based on my experience of the energy sector and demand side management.

However, one of the invited teams dropped out at the last minute and so I was invited to join up with a fellow “Roving Hacker” to form an improvised 10th team to take part in the event. More on that later.

Hackathon structure

The Hackathon was manned by a number of knowledgeable experts (called “Hack-xperts”), demonstrators, and mentors who circulated, adding value to the development process at every stage.

Reverse engineering an electric whisk

Reverse engineering an electric whisk

As well as plenty of free time to go off to the lab or meeting rooms and work on your product, there were several sessions designed to stimulate and inspire the teams.The first of these was a reverse engineering session: each team selected a household object and took it into the lab to de-construct it into its individual constituent parts in order to appreciate the complexity of event the most mundane pieces of household equipment (we counted more than 78 individual parts in a £20 electric whisk!) and get our mindsets into “design mode”.

There was a great “speed-dating” style elevator pitch and feedback session, where each team had 3-5 minutes to pitch their ideas to 2 Hack-xperts and receive feedback before the bell sounded and they had to move on to the next pair. This was phenomenal as it not only forced the teams to practice and refine their elevator pitches,

Smart grid innovation presentation

Marketing and business models lecture

We received expert coaching plus talks on the formulation of business models, on marketing, on the measurement of energy efficiency and power saving claims, and on seeking finance and pitching to investors.

What was your idea?

We developed a “restricted capacity tariff” specifically targeted at the 3.5m UK households living in fuel poverty. By fitting a device into the homes of participating customers that limits the total power that can be drawn by a household, our tariff can give the household a strong discount on their electricity as this predictable load pattern will bypass the need for expensive peak-rate electricity to be bought on the Grid’s capacity auctions. Our idea will be explored in more depth in a further post to come, so subscribe to my mailing list to watch this space!

What happened?

smart grid hackathon feedback and elevator pitch

Impromptu pitch and feedback session

At the end of the weekend, each of the 10 teams pitched their idea to a panel of expert judges and the event’s attendees. The panel then asked the presenting team a series of questions to probe the inherent assumptions and to explore the potential of each idea and team in greater detail. All the pitches were recorded on camera (check out the videos on the Dynamic Demand microsite): perfect for post-event pitch improvement!

From the 10 attendees, 5 finalists were selected by the judges to progress their ideas over a six month period before the Final. Each of the 5 teams won a prize £10,000 of funding from Nesta, technical and verfication support from National Physical Laboratory scientists as well as expert business advice courtesy of Climate-KIC and Imperial College.

The winners

The 5 finalists chosen by the judges were:

Our idea for a capacity tariff was strongly commended by several of the Hack-xperts and judges but unfortunately didn’t make the final cut. However, there was no shame in this as our team was formed at 9am on the first day of the Hackathon, whereas the other teams were formed well in advance by people who had been working on their ideas for months, if not years, as part of their jobs and PhDs. In addition, our team had only just met each other, whereas many of the teams had known their colleagues for years. To be frank, it was incredible that with this competition we were even able to put something notable together within the 36 hours!

To view my detailed thoughts on the five finalists, read this blog post.

What happens next?

The winners of the Challenge will receive a prize award of £50,000 at the Celebration Event in June 2014. Fingers crossed for an invitation…