“Free Electrons allows the modulation between corporates and energy startups“

Stephen Comello
Howdy, Steve!

An interview with Stephen Comello, director of the Energy Business Innovations focus area at Stanford Graduate School of Business and Free Electrons invited researcher: “Innovation takes time, and it’s about trusting people”

How can we figure out the real organizational and business impact of corporate-startup collaboration in such a large industry as Energy? That’s part of what Stephen Comello, director of the Energy Business Innovations focus area at Stanford Graduate School of Business, explores as invited researcher for Free Electrons – a global open innovation energy platform, managed by Beta-i on behalf of a consortium of 10 utilities that collectively generate over $170 billion/year in revenue and operate in over 40 countries. The Free Electrons program 2020 call for energy startup applications is open until the January 31st (by the way, get to know the amazing alumni from previous years here).

Comello is also a senior research fellow at the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy, Policy and Finance at Stanford University, not to mention some other roles you can check out here. His research focuses broadly on energy technology, economics, policy, and innovation. In particular, by applying tools and methods within economics, management and systems analysis, he investigates innovation and competitiveness of low-carbon energy solutions. Together with his colleague Ann-Kristin Zobel from ETH Zurich, they examine how the Free Electrons program is emerging as a unique innovation platform within the Energy industry – a critical sector from both economic and sustainability perspectives. Meet the involved utilities here.

In this interview made in December 2019 at Beta-i hub in Lisbon, Comello talks about how open innovation is a useful approach for large companies to gain new capabilities and build new business models through strategic complementarity with startups, in an attempt to thrive during sectoral upheaval. He also highlights a key component in building innovation for real, no bullshit involved: trust. “Innovation takes time and requires the mindset that this is going to be a dynamic process based – in large part – on trusting people”.

First of all, thank you Stephen for your time. In a nutshell, can you explain what you do?

Thank you for the opportunity! I lead the energy business innovations focus area at Stanford Graduate School of Business, which is a research group that’s looking at how technology, policy and organizations co-evolve to influence the business cases for advanced energy solutions. We conduct lots of technoeconomic analyses on different technologies such as solar-plus-storage, electric vehicles and hybrid energy systems to understand how they become more economic or competitive over time. We also spend a lot of time looking into organizational innovation within the energy sector. What we are keen to understand is how companies – small and large – are gaining new capabilities through acquiring new knowledge and putting that knowledge to work in an attempt to thrive in a new, changing energy ecosystem.

And how did you get involved with Free Electrons?

I wanted to learn a lot more about the process innovation, beyond the simple measure of cost declines due to gains in experience. I wanted to know the people. I wanted to know how organizations make innovation happen. This was something in the back of my mind in early 2016, and it just so happened that one of the founders of the Free Electrons program was someone within the Stanford ecosystem. Upon asking me if I would be interested in exploring the program, I jumped at the opportunity. I believe programs like Free Electrons are something that the energy industry really needs and I was happy, and lucky, to have the chance to follow along on the journey.

Free Electrons 2020 utilities
These are the 10 leading energy utilities behind Free Electrons

Your whole career seems to be connected to the energy sector, investigating innovation or sustainable practices and models. So what have you observed in Free Electrons that could be framed as singular or unique?

Free Electrons is interesting in how established companies – some operating for over 100 years – think about and change their business models. These large incumbent organizations are being disrupted by the four forces of the energy transition: decentralization, decarbonization, digitalization and deregulation. These are macro-trends all happening at once and they are really changing the makeup and the dynamics of the industry. In the case of the Free Electrons, the electricity industry.

What’s compelling about Free Electrons is it is a way for utilities that don’t normally work together to learn together in an open platform, share experiences and knowledge, and experiment with startups – all in a very efficient way in order to understand the potential of cutting-edge solutions that ultimately will change their business models.

And how could you define the Beta-i role in this process? How do we contribute to make these collaborations happen and to achieve tangible results and impact?

There are 10 utility partners from across the world and 15 startups, each of latter is selected by the utilities to form an annual cohort. Think about all the different kinds of interactions that could happen that need to be coordinated, that need to be managed, that in some cases need to be inspired. A designated entity must take them through a process, create a structure, create a community, bring everyone together so that all participants – utility and start-up – feel protected, safe and able to really put their best minds forward.

That’s what Beta-i does. Beta-i is basically the connective tissue that helps make innovation-forward collaborations happen. It is the connective tissue that helps enable these start-ups and utilities to experiment with each other to explore breakthrough solutions and their assess their potential.

The collaboration between corporates and startups is for sure crucial to accelerate innovation for both sides. But this can be as impactful as tricky, depending on the case. I know you are still investigating and there’s a long way to go, but could you share what you consider to be the main challenge to create tangible results between these two stakeholders?

One of the greatest challenges is understanding that utilities and startups operate at two different speeds. There’s strategic complementarity, where you have a startup that may have a lot of ideas and can be nimble and adjust quickly – they want to help solve the problems that emerge within a program like Free Electrons. At the same time, the utility has immense resources, marketing and brand recognition. However the utility has multiple business and legacy systems to consider, and an organization that needs to ingest these emerging solutions. The utility will move slower than the start-up because of these elements and others. The two groups – start-ups and utilities – operate at two different speeds. The startup really wants to go quickly, and the utility – rightfully so – wants to make sure that there is a right fit.

So one of the main challenges, when a start-up and utility work together, is to bring the start-up along at a reasonable pace while increasing the speed of the utility, but doing so in a mindful way so that no party is worse off. I find that a program like Free Electrons allows that modulation to happen, where it attempts to bring start-ups and utilities to the same level so they can actually speak the same language, spend the time, get really detailed, in order to then explore a solution that can potentially solve real-life problems.

Free Electrons utilities facts & figures
Free Electrons utilities facts & figures

Were you able to identify a key convergence point? I mean, a kind of “aha moment” that is crucial to make this sync happen? Is it when you define the pilots to be developed? Or when you have a model canvas to be designed? Does this point exist?

I think that one way to think about it is that innovation takes time – especially collaborative innovation. I believe a helpful mindset is one which understands that the innovation journey is going to be a dynamic process, where you will never have complete information but you trust the people you’re working with and you can figure it out together; whether proposed solutions lead to useful collaborations or must be cut off quickly because it’s actually not being fruitful. Open innovation emphasizes open communication, sharing as much relevant, detailed knowledge as possible and trusting that the other person is an expert in their field and wants the best for the collaboration.

This is super interesting because we are talking about trust and then being confident about these relationships, in a zeitgeist moment where trust is a weak point in very different relationship levels – being post-truth, fake news, deep fake, greenwashing or any jargon we could use.

What is really helpful in building trust is being open and truthful upfront: “these are the constraints that I feel or that I face. These are the fears that I have. These are the solutions that I might have. These have been my experiences”. Going back to my earlier point, all of this takes time to really exchange that information, to convey those sentiments. This builds the deepness and trust that you need when things become a little bit gnarly – the idea that these people are honest.

In this world of uncertainty, people are going to be dealing with a lot more failure than success, and to be able to keep moving forward you can’t do it by yourself because the solutions space is so large and there is so much unknown, at least initially. You really want to establish trust – because you need others to help you move forward, and others will only stick around if trust has been fostered.

So a collaborative innovation enabler like Beta-i also has a role as a “diplomatic moderator”, a trust-connector in the end.

Yes, because the Beta-i team are the embodiment of the culture. They work with the utilities to design the program and then they implement it, all the while being a steward for the purposes and goals of the program. So not only is the Beta-I team the one helping design the culture, but it also acts as an ambassador for culture in executing the program. They need to personify what Free Electrons ought to be, which is future-looking, open, innovative, trust-building and collaborative.

Claudia Ferreira, Mafalda Freitas, Stephen Comello, Assunção Cruz
Building trust with the Beta-i team for Free Electrons 2020: Claudia Ferreira, Mafalda Freitas, Stephen Comello, Assunção Cruz

Your investigation goes through six different layers. The Individual, the Pilots, the Utilities, the Program as a Meta-Organization, the Consortium within the industry and the Industry itself. Which one is raising more interest from your side, as a researcher? What has been more compelling to explore?

They are all interesting! That is why we have six projects, each looking at Free Electrons from a different unit of analysis; from the individual at the smallest level, to the whole industry at the largest level. We have created a research portfolio because the setting is so rich.

As an example – at the firm level – we explored how different organizations such as individual utilities and start-ups… and program managers… work to form common goals for the group, or as we call it, the meta-organization. We studied how in some cases working at the system level for the common “good” competed with what was in the best interest of any one firm. We realized that there is a dynamic process – that certain goals gain prominence over time, then wane, and this is a complex dance of power, persuasion, negotiation and signaling, among others.

Another example – at the individual level, we explored how individuals within start-ups and utilities share knowledge with each other – how they act as boundary spanners, occupying spaces at the interface between their own organizations – internally – and all others – externally. We explored how broadly and deeply individuals share knowledge both internally and externally, and what this means for the shape of collaborations.

Boundary spanning is a crucial skill – and mindset – that is fundamental to open innovation. Boundary spanners need to become experts in the language of their own organization, but they also have to become experts in the language of the external organizations. So if you’re a utility, you have to both speak utility and startup or if you’re a startup, you have to speak both startup and utility. Operating at that boundary requires being open to all the different kinds of information that comes your way – and being able to translate that effectively, all the while understanding how emotion affects all involved as well. Because everything builds upon people. That’s why we are looking at Free Electrons from the individual, “person” level, and then all the way up to the industry level.

I loved two concepts, or practices, you came up with in this investigation: one is “meta-organization”, and the other, the “corporate boundary spanners”. Would you say that open innovation, as a whole, is a key approach to make this meta-organizational design, and this spanner role, grow within the business management environment? Do you believe that open innovation is a key agent to unlock this process when it comes to contemporary business management?

I’d say that open innovation is an interesting and useful way to gain and build capabilities within an organization. There is a lot of knowledge and ideas outside the corporate boundaries, and it is becoming increasingly important, I believe, to be able to harness those resources, and at the same time transmit your own knowledge into the world. How a firm goes about intentionally acquiring, transmitting and making use of knowledge and ideas across its organizational boundaries is an important capability in and of itself. That is a skill set within the boundary spanner mantra. The practice of open innovation is a strategic resource that all firms ought to seriously consider building.

This is made even more important now because of digitalization, which is causing many traditional industry verticals to become increasingly intermeshed. Digitalization – the rise in use and sophistication of data science, analytics, the cloud and so on – is a horizontal force, allowing for new business models that span sectors. This is a highly dynamic environment. There’s a lot of knowledge being created and there’s a lot of factors emerging such that any one organization, any one individual, will simply not know.

We are running the 2020 edition of Free Electrons. Can you share your goal regarding this year’s edition? What are the outcomes you want to achieve as a researcher?

The high-level research theme for the 2020 edition is about impact. We now have a history; we have 2017, 2018 and 2019 cohorts. In what specific ways have the start-ups that have been through the program benefited? To what extent? What might be design changes that could be implemented that increase the benefit to the start-ups? What might it take to implement such changes? Other questions we will explore have to do with the design changes to the program already. A critical resource being developed in Free Electrons in not only the start-up to utility collaborations, it is the knowledge created through multiple interactions and examinations of solutions, pilots, etc. How has this knowledge been captured and transmitted, and how has this changed? In what ways does the knowledge make the actors – both start-ups and utilities – “better” at open innovation? These are the kinds of questions we’ll be considering for 2020. I find this is very exciting.

Amazing. Would you like to add something more?

I have to say that I’m very thankful to be here in Lisbon at Beta-i. As an academic, it’s always a bit of a struggle to get information from practitioners. Especially when you’re in the social sciences, you rely heavily on other people to provide you information – whether it be in form of documentation, interviews, direct observations and other forms. The openness that Beta-i has shown my team and me has been fantastic. Beta-i has a true learning culture and vast experiences as open innovation shepherds. My team and I have been able to learn meaningfully from each and every Beta-I team member. Beyond their expertise, they are a really fun group – which makes our work all the more pleasurable!

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