By @SimonCocking. Interview with John McKiernan, Head of External Collaboration at the ESB. See more here ESB Group Ireland’s leading energy company. Innovator and investor in smart and sustainable energy solutions.

What is your background?

Previously I was a partner at Greencoat Capital for 5 years. Greencoat is the adviser to ESB’s €200m Cleantech venture capital fund investing in 3 areas of rapid change and direct relevance to ESB’s future innovation strategy:

  1. Clean Energy Technologies
  2. Energy saving solutions for customers
  3. Smart energy management solutions

Now I am Head of External Collaboration at ESB in this new role at ESB. The key objective is to identify and onboard innovative tech solutions and new business models to build new revenue streams for ESB beyond low cost power.

We work with partners from large OEM’s to startups. We have several ways to help startups but most significantly, we can give them access to our large customer base to quickly grow their revenues through a single market channel. We don’t design or manufacture products ourselves. We are keen to bring the best and most innovative products and services to our large customer base so there is a perfect synergy with technology developers.

We have recently run an oversubscribed Big Energy Hackathon as part of our open innovation strategy. This builds upon our crowd sourcing collaboration with partners Enterprise Ireland & SEAI which brought the first Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) funding to Ireland.

What is the most exciting thing about your current role?

The primary goal is collaboration with these companies to expedite the testing and perfecting of a range of new offerings to our customers. The Energy, IT and Telecoms sectors are merging in a perfect storm of new opportunities. We are looking for innovative partners with genuine potential to disrupt and carve out future niches in smart energy and low carbon technology markets.

We are already rolling out everything from smart mobile heating controls and gigabit fibre wifi, to no-money-down rooftop solar power for our customers, but we are still only scratching the surface of the myriad of opportunities in the smarter cleaner living and working markets.

The requirement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 is driving unprecedented levels of investment in the energy sector. There are some fantastic propositions emerging that save time, save money and will save the environment for future generations. Our team discovered a number of exciting new propositions at Web Summit which we will be examining in more detail over the coming weeks.

The best solutions deliver emissions reductions whilst improving our lives e.g. a simple example is the Electric car revolution. eCars eliminate tailpipe emissions and pollutants that are toxic to our health. As the battery range increases, the low running costs will drive sales faster and faster. The “fuel” is increasingly made locally in Ireland from clean indigenous sources like wind power and hydro and solar is coming. We displace imported oil and clean up our environment at the same time. ESB is already building the infrastructure to support this transition to low carbon transport with the help of technologies developed by Irish SME’s and early stage tech companies.

Startups are inventing the future, but we can help them deliver it faster, safer and at scale to our customer base. It’s a clear win-win with the end customer being the biggest beneficiary of all.

What is the ESB Spark of Genius Award looking for from those taking part?

The ESB Spark of Genius Award provides a platform for high potential technology start-ups who have been in operation for less than three years and have received under €1 million in funding. Entrants are judged on the uniqueness of their idea, their level of development thus far, and their potential for future growth. This years winners OpenBack really stood out for their scalability and their innovative approach to solving a problem we can all relate to.

We were looking for a business who can disrupt the market, has scalability and strong intellectual capital on their team. OpenBack demonstrated all these capabilities to our judging panel and more. OpenBack means apps can deliver personalised notifications at the right moment and manage them afterwards, creating powerful and relevant user experiences.

Why do ESB sponsor the ESB Spark of Genius competition?

The ESB Spark of Genius Award represents ESB on-going commitment to Innovation. The sponsorship is part of ESB’s dedication to innovation which spans renewable sources of energy, smart networks, future energy, smart homes, electric vehicles and investment in clean tech. This is the sixth year of ESB’s sponsorship of Web Summit’s Spark of Genius competition.

How can startups disrupt smart low carbon economy?

This sector is still emerging and the market is vast and global. Any successful Irish startups can export readily as all EU nations face the same challenges. NEST is a poster boy as it was acquired by Google for $3.2billion. But Climote is an Irish success story and is already exporting to Scotland and beyond. There are several more on our radar both in Ireland and beyond which with the help of their friendly power utility can scale faster.

Will we see the off the grid scenario play out? – Is that something ESB are in favour of?

Distributed generation is already happening and we are delivering no-money-down solar power solutions to our customers already. This is inevitable. But keeping an existing grid connection is smart as it’s still by far the most cost effective solution for reliable power whether you have customer generated power or not.

What types of innovation is ESB using internally?

We have a credible engineering pedigree nationally and internationally and a track record of incremental innovation over the past 89 years. However we are now upping our game & seeking step change opportunities driven by ESB’s first Innovation Directorate. We are using a range of techniques and programs including Design Thinking and Open innovation to develop new solutions.

Our doors are open for new propositions…so if any of your readers have a bright idea, please drop in for a coffee and a chat to see if we can help make it happen. We will be unveiling a global collaboration program in the not too distant future so entrepreneurs be vigilant for a world first! Can’t say any more for now…but perhaps a future scoop for Irish Tech News?!

For further information on ESB’s commitment to innovation check out

If you would like to have your company featured in the Irish Tech News Business Showcase, get in contact with us at [email protected] or on Twitter: @SimonCocking

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