SME Stories: Clarke Simmons, Founder of Neuville Grid Data
The technology developed by Neuville Grid Data can monitor electricity networks and the assets connected to it at a level of depth never achieved before.
Founder Clarke Simmons explains how the growth of decentralised and renewable energy will require far greater levels of information about the state of the network and connected equipment, and how the Innovator Support Platform provided him with an ’emotional port in the storm’ during tough times.
Business name: Neuville Grid Data
Founder: Clarke V Simmons
Year established: 2017
What is the elevator pitch for your business?
Neuville Grid Data is bringing a technology to market that gathers very high-resolution ‘big data’ electrical measurements off the power grid and associated equipment, such as wind and solar farms. It allows you to scrutinise the behaviour of electricity networks and condition monitor equipment at a level of detail, clarity, and sophistication never achieved before.
How did you come up with the idea?
I was researching energy storage deployment and realised that where you physically place an energy storage system on the grid, and how you dispatch its stack of services, requires information not readily available.
You can put a solar farm where it is sunny and a wind farm where it is windy, but what was lacking was the electrical weather data equivalent for the distribution grid at large. Legacy systems are relatively inaccurate. Utility data is usually unobtainable, often fragmentary, and generally not fit for a range of modern decentralised grid purposes.
Recognising an unfilled market gap – a need for an information-layer or data-platform to help enable all these other things – I set out to design a suitable apparatus.
What is your background and how did this lead to you becoming an entrepreneur?
My undergraduate degree in computer systems engineering is from Carnegie-Mellon University where I attended on a National Energy Foundation scholarship. As I often say, “anything bigger than five-volts DC is very scary to me”. But now I find myself working on 33,000-volt AC grid connections.
London Business School and my graduate studies brought me to England. In addition to an MSc at LBS, I also completed the specialist Electricity Markets Programme.
After business school, I joined BP mid-career as a strategic technology venture manager. Later I was at the Carbon Trust as Offshore Wind Programme Manager. Prior to business school, I gained a lot of practical experience successfully building and selling two information-based companies back in the United States where I’m from.
I have had a passionate interest in solar energy, technology, and business endeavours since I was a teenager. My mother had a small business back home in Virginia for nearly 30 years and I learned at her knee. I had formative scientific research internships at three US government laboratories. One of which resulted in my patent in laser physics at the age of 18.
What made you confident that the idea could be translated into a successful business?
If you’re going to have more renewables on the grid, if you’re going to have a decentralised grid, if you’re going to have energy storage, you simply need better coordinating information. This ties into Ofgem’s new mandate that UK electrical utilities move to a “system operator” model.
Our technology improves operating asset performance and financial returns. So, we saw technical, market and regulatory drivers pointing at an unmet need we could satisfy. Developing our business plan, market sensing, and early customers all gave us confidence.
What are the biggest challenges when setting up a business in the energy sector?
It is a very slow-moving, mature, conservative industry. Which makes it quite difficult to get started, particularly with a new technology. Very large, long-established businesses have shared that they face the same sort of technology acceptance hurdles as SMEs. It requires a tremendous amount of persistence to struggle through the multiple entry barriers.
But once a technology has overcome entry hurdles and been adopted as ‘business as usual’, it enjoys a life-cycle measured in decades with very attractive commercial results.
What was the drive to take part in the Innovator Support Platform?
Years ago, when I started my first business back in Virginia, we took part in an incubation programme. So, I recognised all the good things the ESC programme offers. It provides sound advice, structured support, industry connections, and market insights. All very valuable to a start-up like ours.
It has opened doors for us. We have been able to rub shoulders with useful contacts. It has provided us with sounding boards, constructive criticism, and connections into the market and supply chain. They have patiently guided our testing and demonstration work.
The fact that we have been competitively selected for the Innovator Support Platform by the Catapult tends to help others feel comfortable with working with us, particularly given how risk-adverse the electric utilities can be. It says: “Well, someone else has looked at these guys and found them to have some good ideas.” Which is really helpful for opening doors and building new relationships.
What has the Catapult delivered for you that has been particularly helpful?
The feedback on our business plan and making sure it’s ready for investors has been quite helpful. ESC’s help with our relationships with utilities has been particularly welcome.
Has the Catapult put you in a position to grow and develop?
Yes, it’s been very helpful. At times it’s provided us with an emotional port in the storm. There are times where you’re having difficulties or you’re not quite sure how to react or deal with a situation. At those moments it’s helpful to just speak to someone and say: “this is our situation, what would you advise? Can you help us?”
There’s a lot of psyche value to the entrepreneur in having that available in addition to all of the purposeful business, incubation, and technical development support ESC provides us.
What are your hopes for the future?
We naturally hope to become a large and prosperous UK-based business that widely exports our products and services abroad.
Asked if we want to be a corporate unicorn, the answer is no. Unicorns are delicate ephemeral creatures. Much better to be a sturdy milk-goat or better yet to possess a profitable herd of milk-goats. I guess I just want to be a goat-herd – an innovative one of course.
Obviously, we want to deliver good returns to our investors, have happy employees, delighted customers, and all that good stuff. But we also want to have a positive effect on climate change by making the power system more efficient. Making the grid more receptive to EVs, renewable power generation, energy storage, and other low carbon solutions. Neuville is actually doing something constructive and potentially quite useful about climate change.
Out of all this, I hope my children will have a better life and escape the menace of climate change.
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