Maja Jerala, ABC Accelerator: Innovative Energy Startups Have Very Specific Needs
Date: December 23rd 2019
Author: Alenka Lena Klopčič
“Slovenian startups are clearly recognising the need for sustainable innovation, whereas innovative business models are proving to be a problem. This is because sustainability, in principle, calls for a different perspective in terms of business models and generating profit, since we need to ensure that they are convincing not only to potential investors, but especially to the users. It is the users that can contribute most notably to the increase in sustainable models, which, however, often requires them to change their daily habits,” Maja Jerala, Manager of the Slovenian InnoEnergy hub, ABC Accelerator, and ABC’s Head of EU Projects, told Energetika.NET while discussing the current state of the startup ecosystem, specifically the energy-startup ecosystem. According to Jerala, considering its size, Slovenia has been very successful at attracting investment, whereas Slovenian innovators are proper ‘entrepreneurial tigers’.“Nowadays, finding an investor for a startup company is very difficult. Even if a startup has a highly innovative idea, a well-functioning team, and the right technology, it is still highly likely that it will fail. You must be ready to work up to 16 hours a day or more and be at the right place at the right time for your startup to succeed,” said Dejan Roljič, the founder and Director of ABC Accelerator in his introductory speech at Slovenia’s first national energy startup competition, PowerUp!, which took place in 2017 in Ljubljana. Is this still the case or do you now have a different experience, considering the exceptional rate of change in the startup world?
This is still the case. You really need to be at the right place at the right time and meet the right people, who are prepared to back you and your idea not only with resources, but also with time and know-how. The startup world is an entrepreneurship jungle. Only the most inventive, adaptable, bold, and brave ones survive.
It was at PowerUp! 2017 that Slovenia’s Mebius convinced the judges, earning a spot in InnoEnergy’s Highway accelerator with a special invitation from InnoEnergy’s partner MOL Group. The company went on to develop a catalyst together with the Slovenian National Institute of Chemistry in Ljubljana which can double the power density of a hydrogen fuel cell, surpassing other products on the market. What is Mebius doing now? How has its partnership with InnoEnergy helped the company?
InnoEnergy enabled Mebius to present its activities in Central and Western Europe, at various events and industrial fairs, which are essentially meant to provide a platform for startups to present themselves to investors and industrial enterprises that are looking for new solutions, products, and market niches. It is also in the interest of InnoEnergy to support its startups in more practical fields, such as covering legal costs, helping them conclude their first contracts and deals, preparing business documentation, such as business plans and the presentations for investors, as well as by organising training seminars and courses on specific fields of corporate governance, finding the first clients and opportunities for demonstration projects, and so on. These are also the ways in which InnoEnergy helps Mebius. Additionally, it provided the financial support necessary for Mebius to test the production of its innovative product at an international facility that makes industrial machinery for mass production.
InnoEnergy is also helping the company look for investors in order to set up a serial production of sub-products for hydrogen fuel cells, and recently concluded negotiations on entering Mebius’ ownership structure. Attracting investors can be quite a lengthy process even if you already have ‘the right ones’ in sight so it is good to have professional partners that help you at the right moment by offering advice and information.
According to a recent interview with Jakub Miler, CEO of InnoEnergy Central Europe, which was published in Slovenia’s Svet kapitala, InnoEnergy’s guiding principle is to secure a sustainable future. Would you say that startups are already aware of this – the need to contribute to greater sustainability? What are InnoEnergy’s experiences in this regard? Do we still need to work on raising awareness or are startups already riding the wave of opportunity brought on by efforts to secure a sustainable future?
Let me first note that ABC Accelerator is very proud to be InnoEnergy’s representative in Slovenia, as we are able to work together and actively contribute to boosting innovation in relation to securing a sustainable future. In general, Slovenian startups are clearly recognising the need for sustainable innovation, whereas innovative business models are proving to be a problem. This is because sustainability, in principle, calls for a different perspective in terms of business models and generating profit, since we need to ensure that they are convincing not only to only potential investors, but especially to the users. It is the users that can contribute most notably to the increase in sustainable models, which, however, often requires them to change their daily habits.
The social impacts of InnoEnergy’s activities, which are backed by both public and private funds, are also reflected in its low ‘startup mortality rate’. As Jakub Miller explains in the interview, InnoEnergy’s startup mortality rate “is extremely low when compared to other enterprises, as it is below 10%. You will not find these kinds of numbers with any other investor, as this kind of ratio normally corresponds to the survival rate and not to the mortality rate.” What about Slovenian startups? What has ABC Accelerator, as InnoEnnergy’s local hub, observed?
Due to its combination of public and private funds, InnoEnergy gives the initial impression of a demanding investor, however, since it also has a high critical threshold, the projects and products in which it invest have a high success rate. When taking on a potential startup, scaleup or high-tech international consortium project, InnoEnergy demands a high degree of innovation, administrative literacy, and drive from a young startup. Considering its size, Slovenia has been very successful at attracting investment, which means that Slovenian innovators are proper ‘entrepreneurial tigers’.
At its annual flagship event, The Business Booster, which took place in Paris this autumn (last year’s event was held in Copenhagen), InnoEnergy put the citizen/individual at the centre of the energy transition. When developing their technological ideas and/or business models, do startups also focus on the individual, the future active consumer?
The individual definitely has a central role in establishing overall innovation trends. This is especially recognisable in the context of the energy transition which requires the consumers to change their mindset, their actions, and their everyday lives. The general view is that the future of innovation entrepreneurship will focus on tailor-made solutions, products, and services. I have noticed that Slovenian energy startups still put a lot of emphasis on the innovation aspect of a product or a technological solution, and not so much on tailoring their business model to the needs of the individual. Let me take this opportunity to call on all those developing innovative energy solutions to consider this aspect in their reasoning as well.
What else have you noticed with regard to startups – what kind of support and assistance do they require? Are Slovenian energy startups ready to open up about their ideas – some teams have been known to keep them to themselves until the very end – in return for investment and entrepreneurial support, such as those provided by InnoEnergy?
When it comes to startups and innovation, the energy sector is very specific in several regards: attracting investment is based on MVPs, which essentially calls for greater resources than in other sectors. Additionally, the innovations are normally subject to local, national, and international regulations, while this is also a conservative sector with conservative end users.
All these challenges have been recognised both by the European Commission and by InnoEnergy and we are successfully addressing them together as part of the European projects that ABC is implementing in cooperation with InnoEnergy. Getting the startups to open up about their ideas, especially in Slovenia and especially in the energy sector, is a challenge which we are encountering regularly as a business accelerator.
In these situations, I like to explain to all potential innovators that we, as investors, are not interested in recreating or forging their innovative ideas, we simply want to create a highly profitable solution together with their developers.
ABC Accelerator is now accepting applications for the third edition of the PRIMER programme (until the end of December). What have the 21 entrepreneurs that have already taken part gained from the programme? Will this edition differ from the first two?
Primer presents an excellent opportunity for all early-stage startups, especially energy startups. It is a high-quality programme which is free of charge and which allows the participants to gain business know-how, test their ideas, and see what it is like to give a public presentation to potential partners and investors at the Demo Day. The best ones are then also invited to take part in the Power Up! competition, which is basically a ticket to InnoEnergy’s investment programmes. During the programme, the participants also create their own network of co-participants which often proves essential in their further business endeavours.
And how can Highway and Boostway prove essential for energy startups? What do the companies gain by deciding to take part and are there any specific conditions they have to meet in order to enter?
In addition to the investment, Highway, an investment and acceleration programme for startups, and Boostway, which is meant for scaleups, also help in terms of business acceleration and by offering the participants access to InnoEnergy’s extensive network. This is a unique opportunity, as it allows the companies to win over the strongest European energy player. In addition to a highly innovative solution and business model, companies also need to show that they are reducing greenhouse gas emissions, lowering energy costs, and increasing access to clean energy.
InnoEnergy invests in all three pillars, from education to the individual, by offering Master’s programmes, promoting startups with the help of acceleration programmes, and by offering innovative products and services in the energy market using the startups from its own portfolio. What other activities and events are you preparing now and what are you plans for Slovenia in 2020?
In addition to the Primer pre-acceleration programme, which we are launching in January and concluding in February, we are also planning to start a pilot programme for young innovators in March. The programme, Interreg Danube Energy+, which we are carrying out together with InnoEnergy and seven other European partners, will focus on young energy innovators that are considering entering the business world. Then, at the beginning of April, we are organising the regional PowerUp! competition for energy scaleups and SMEs in cooperation with Slovenia’s Celje Fair. The winners of PowerUp! Slovenia will then also take part in the European competition, which will take place in Krakow, Poland, in May.
Networking between corporations and startups is crucial, as demonstrated at October’s Slovenia Business Bridge, an investment and development conference for private investors, in which ABC Accelerator also took part. However, is this happening fast enough? How could we make it even more efficient?
Networking between corporations and startups is indeed crucial. This was recognised by both the European Commission and by InnoEnergy. ABC Accelerator is therefore also taking part in a tailor-made acceleration programme for energy corporations, Interreg Central Europe, together with them and three other European partners. On the one hand, the corporation identifies its challenges and needs, whereas on the other, the startups or scaleups address these challenges in a targeted way, creating a solution for a specific end user. So ABC, together with InnoEnergy, is attempting to cover all the aspects of energy innovation and find the right path and solution for each individual idea.
This article is available also in Slovene.
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