EnergyLab joins forces with New Energy Nexus to “set loose” Australian innovation
EnergyLab, one of Australia’s biggest and longest-running cleantech startup accelerators, will now offer fledgling companies easy access to customers, capital, and resources in critical overseas markets after joining forces with US-based New Energy Nexus.
The new international partnership, announced this week, will also provide a pathway for overseas innovators to come to Australia, increasing the two-way flow of ideas and bringing in fresh talent, and potentially funds, at a crucial time in Australia’s transition to renewables.
The decision to collaborate follows the success of a 12-month trial EnergyLab and New Energy Nexus, or NEX, conducted with Infravision, a New South Wales based startup that helps electric utilities accelerate power grid modernisation with drone enabled power line upgrades.
Infravision, which was part of EnergyLab’s startup program in 2021, had an eye on the US electricity transmission and distribution market – and so the idea was born to bring NEX into the picture.
The result, for all parties, has been a great success, including landing Infravision on an approved vendor list for a major North American utility and securing financial backing to help it enter the international market.
For EnergyLab and NEX, the pilot’s success has cemented the need for a conduit between Australian startups and overseas markets that are critical for climate action, such as the US, south-east Asia, and India.
“This collaboration will help us to create a systematic approach to supporting Australian entrepreneurs who want to explore and ultimately expand their startups internationally,” energyLab CEO Megan Fisher.
“We are also beyond proud to share with the global community the amazing startups that have played a role in building one of the most highly penetrated residential solar markets in the world.”
A postcard from the electricity future, with a retrograde policy setting
Since its launch in California’s Silicon Valley back in 2004, NEX has become the world’s leading ecosystem of funds and accelerators for clean energy startups, with operations in China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Uganda.
All up, NEX has accelerated more than 600 clean energy startups, supported more than 3000 entrepreneurs, and leveraged more than $US1.5 billion in investment.
EnergyLab, meanwhile, started up in Australia in 2016, inspired at that time both by a change in the leadership of the then Coalition government and by an outfit in California that had been created by Australian expat Danny Kennedy, who now happens to be CEO of NEX.
Six years later, Kennedy says the decision for the two companies to join forces has come at a similarly promising time in Australia’s transition, politically speaking, just weeks after a climate charged election delivered a much-needed change in federal government.
“Australia’s a postcard from the future of the electricity system, you know: the high levels of rooftop penetration; the sophisticated digitisation; the big batteries; and now transmission and renewable energy zones.
“And as a result, there’s this incredible milieu of learning and innovation, which is actually popping up.
“Weirdly,” he adds, “Australia is not known for that.”
Kennedy puts this down to the federal politics, which for the better part of the past decade has seen Australia labelled as a climate laggard and – despite the nation’s undeniable renewable energy success – a bit of an investment minefield due to an unpredictable policy and regulatory landscape.
“You know, you’ve had this adverse politics and a prime minister ending up in parliament with lumps of coal, and that’s kind of the perception from overseas,” he tells RenewEconomy from the US.
“But meanwhile, this hyper-competitive retail electricity market has meant massive innovation and new offerings and utilising these low cost technologies like rooftop solar at scales that no one else in the world has achieved.
“And yet – to add to the weird – [Australia hasn’t] done the things that America … or even India and markets elsewhere have done with EVs, for example, as a grid asset, because you’ve had this retrograde policy setting.”
“So Australia’s got some really advanced tech, know-how, capacities; and yet, other things I think we can bring in … now that the gates are kind of open, politically, is sort of the indication – we’re hoping – from this recent climate sensitive election.
“We can’t wait to watch the magic happen as all these entrepreneurs are set loose on the US, south-east Asian and Indian markets.”
A change in the political tide
Kennedy says that as well as having had a “retrograde political setting,” Australia is also lacking in experience of entrepreneur support – or as he describes it, the “strategic political will” to build up ecosystems of startups and create markets, such as Israel’s “Startup Nation” strategy.
“Now that we’re swimming with the tide, not against it with the turn of the recent federal election. I’m hoping that starts to happen,” he adds.
“I think … this decade is going to be a time of opening up the funnels for creating entrepreneur support systems … and in this new partnership we are well positioned to bring that to our entrepreneurs, which is what we do, we seek to serve them and their success is our success.”
EnergyLab’s Fisher agrees, noting that on the funding and investment side, alone, Australian startups tend to get “a much smaller cheque” than what they might get in overseas markets.
“It’s always been a challenge to find funding and I’d love to see that change. …There has been funding mechanisms, particularly coming from some of the … state governments,” she tells RenewEconomy.
“It’d be great to see more of those coming in… I think this is a great time and a great opportunity to really see Australia take advantage of the opportunity to become a renewable energy superpower.
“Have we really, truly capitalised and given our startups the leverage that they need and everything on a plate to be able to take advantage and get overseas easily? …No, that’s where we need to drive and grow.”
Of course, this is also where EnergyLab and NEX come in, to address limits around the finance and talent pools needed to build scale, and also to help with some of the basics of sales and marketing.
“So all that is what we hope to bring more formally and systematically through this sort of landing pad,” Kennedy says, adding that the access to overseas markets will by no means be limited to the US.
“[There are] enormous communities just north of Australia in countries like Indonesia, which are 10 times as large and – guess what? – need solar and storage all the stuff that we do really well here.”
“This is an interesting market,” adds Fisher. “And we get some of the most amazing energy companies wanting to come and work inside Australia, which just shows that despite everything that’s going on, we have got a lot of interesting things happening in this market.
“And that’s the other thing that we can start to facilitates as well with with this partnership, is coming back the other way, we can just really get this learning circle going.”
Where the opportunities lie
Kennedy points to Australia’s huge and as-yet largely untapped potential to be “a true superpower” in the battery supply chain, not just based on its huge lithium resource, but the nickel, manganese and cobalt, as well as the smarts that CSIRO and others research hubs have developed over the years.
“So what can we do in that value chain in Australia, bringing people here from overseas to mix with the ecosystem and build it out through ths EnergyLab, New Energy Nexus partnership?” he asks.
“How can Australia partner with their giant neighbour just north of us, you know, they’re producing all the nickel we’re producing all the lithium. Do you think we have to send that to the northern hemisphere to make something out of it?”
Fisher says that the current energy crisis in Australia also provides an important opportunity to drive innovation in energy efficiency and in grid integration – working out how to get huge amounts more of renewables onto the grid as a matter of urgency.
But at the same time, Australia must also keep its focus on the what Fisher calls the “big ongoing opportunities” to help the world shift to net-zero emissions.
“Don’t let the [current energy] crisis get in the way of those long term opportunities for Australia, around being that energy exporter, around … building the things we need for the 10-year plan, so that we can really play our part in the ecosystem around the world,” she says.