Sympower – founded to help achieve a low-carbon future by making electricity usage flexible in real time -, has been recently ‘graduated’ from the Rockstart Smart Energy Accelerator programme in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Read the interview with Simon Bushell, the half-English/half-Dutch co-founder of Sympower, who spoke to us about the idea, the milestones they have already reached, the team and their motivation.

How did you come up with the idea? What was the problem area you identified?

Georg and I, the two founders of Sympower, first came up with the idea during the Sustainable Energy Futures master’s programme at Imperial College London.  After the masters we both started jobs in the industry before deciding to turn the idea we had at Imperial into a business. Once we felt we had figured out a business model, we decided to quit our jobs and start Sympower!

The idea tackles two problem areas: how we can transition to a low carbon energy system, reducing climate change, while also ensuring that the electricity system is kept in balance. The supply and demand of electricity on the grid must be exactly balanced, second-by-second, to prevent blackouts from occurring. Ensuring this balance is becoming increasingly difficult with the rise of renewable energy sources because the wind and sun cannot be controlled. The electricity system operators currently pay power plants to be in ‘reserve’ – ready to increase or decrease production rapidly in order to smooth out unexpected problems, such as a sudden fault in a transmission line, or a sudden increase in demand. The cost of doing this is over €80 billion per year, worldwide. In order to move to a low-carbon future, it is necessary to take those fossil fuelled reserve plants offline. The need for reserve is becoming the main obstacle in the energy system that we are working on improving at Sympower.

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What happened so far? What are the milestones that you have reached?

Georg is originally from Estonia, which is where we first founded Sympower. In Estonia, we were lucky enough to take part in the Climate-KIC Climate Launchpad programme, as well as the Climate-KIC mini accelerator. This gave us the chance to further develop our idea and we were able create a prototype. In February 2016 we moved to Amsterdam after being selected to join the Rockstart Smart Energy Accelerator programme. Since then our team has grown from the two of us to five (soon to be seven!) full-time members, as well as a number of freelancers.
We’ve started a world-first pilot project in the Netherlands with TenneT (the national grid operator), Stedin (a regional grid operator) and ENGIE (an energy company). We’ve developed our software platform, which is the core of our business, and have connected a number of clients in Finland to it.

What are your next goals? Long-term plans? 

In the short-term, our software platform will be going live in the Netherlands in January 2017. This will generate our first stream of revenue. The following years we will work on expanding our client networks in Finland and in the Netherlands, as well as tapping into other European markets.

In five years’ time, Sympower will be the leading platform for providing demand side flexibility to the electricity system. We will also help to stabilise grids in emerging economies that are struggling to cope with rapid increases in electricity demand.

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Describe your team!

I’m proud to say that we have the most incredible team we could possibly hope for! Mikael is our COO in Finland, a superstar salesman. He has all the experience needed to run the operations in Finland. Neeme leads the software development and has over 16 years of experience. Laura runs the Dutch pilot project and heads up our communications. Her passion and “can do” attitude keep us going and motivated! Georg is the other founder of Sympower and CTO.  A physicist by profession, Georg is a classic entrepreneur who is constantly looking for more efficient ways of getting things done. While we’re individually all superstars, what really sets us apart is that we are a very effective team and also great friends!

What makes you rocket?

I think the most important thing is that we have fun as a team, and we all really enjoy working towards our goals. Every single one of us is incredibly passionate about what we do, it really is the thing that gets us out of bed in the morning. Most importantly, because of those two factors, we’re all incredibly dedicated to the cause – I’m constantly amazed by how hard everyone works and how much we get done as a team!

What was the biggest difficulty in your business that you had to cope with so far? What are the areas that are the hardest to handle as a startup?

The biggest difficulty has been going from an idea to a product – you don’t want to start building your product too early, before you have customers, but it’s also very hard to get any traction if you don’t have a product. It’s a classic chicken and egg situation! There are also difficulties that every tech startup encounters such as issues with coding or prototyping that initially doesn’t work as expected. We recently encountered one of those problems, where we started testing and soon discovered compatibility issues with the 3rd party hardware we were using. At times like these – especially because everything is on deadline at this phase-, you really need to work well together as a team, and we did!

How do you see the startup ecosystem in your region?

First of all, the “region” of Sympower spans Estonia, Finland and the Netherlands and we might be tempted to include the UK as I am half British! Both Tallinn and Amsterdam have very strong startup scenes. The scene in Tallinn is a bit smaller than that in Amsterdam, but it’s a very close-knit group of startups who all support each other and are very proud of everyone’s achievements. We’ve also got some amazing success stories (think of Skype, Transferwise, Skeleton Technologies) to aspire to! Sympower benefitted a lot from the excellent support for startups in Estonia, as we were really helped off the ground in our first few months by Startup Estonia and Climate-KIC Estonia, with free mentoring and a great community. We met several fellow entrepreneurs there with whom we continue to be great friends.

Here at Rockstart, where we are based in Amsterdam, it is all about common development through everything from expert sessions with mentors to bumping into people at the coffee machine. Amsterdam is becoming a huge hub for startups and has a large local investor scene. Amsterdam is known for it’s globalised mindset, and that really helps give startups the right environment to expand internationally.

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