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A chat with Thomas Birr, innogy SE

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A chat with Thomas Birr, Senior Vice President Innovation & Business Transformation, innogy SE

Thomas, where do you see the biggest obstacles in the transition towards a carbon-free power sector?

Currently all signs, all economic trends, are pointing towards a carbon-free economy. Renewable energy has reached the economic viability threshold and offers significant commercial opportunities. Synergy effects due to an integrated energy setup are increasing, especially notable in the e-mobility and smart-building sector. Actually, there are not too many obstacles on a simply rational basis. However, globally we are confronted by political discussions and regulation that may turn out detrimental to renewable energy growth, like in the US at the moment. Although the political agenda will also affect how we proceed towards a carbon-free future. I pretty much think that the train has left the station and won`t stop anymore!

In 2015 the innogy Innovation Hub was launched, designed to specifically support innovators in the energy area. Why do we need yet another hub/accelerator?

There is undeniably competition out there already. Therefore, it is vital to establish ourselves as the preferred partner in the ecosystem. What makes the innogy Innovation Hub unique is that we combine two common approaches: company building on the one hand and venturing (early stage investments) on the other hand. This allows us to support the brilliant ideas that are already out there and co-create solutions in areas where market opportunities remain unexplored.

In your job you come across the most exciting ideas in the energy sector. In which areas did you see innovations with the largest potential to be disruptive?

Next to the technical advances in the machine economy, digitalization has allowed small start-ups to enter the game of the big corporates. Digital business models are game changers. Big incumbents are the ones that are being threatened in their market position. There are numerous examples to showcase this trend: Fresh, a virtual energy provider using smart meters to optimize energy consumption in the B2C market; Shine, energy management system for CHP plants and solar parks; and Conjoule, a platform that enables p2p trading between local energy suppliers and local energy consumers based on blockchain technology.

With power generation becoming ever more decentralized, will the business model of traditional utilities change in the future? Where are the opportunities?

At the innogy Innovation Hub we are discovering new digital and platform-based business models, taking into consideration that the way we do business will be disrupted by rapid technological developments. We are doing everything from testing the next generation of the internet and blockchain to enable secure peer-to-peer transactions to combining IoT machines with decentralized platforms across industries – ranging from energy and mobility to manufacturing and supply chains.

The Innovation Hub’s most recent initiative, the IPRIZE calls for early stage start-ups and individuals to create a “new ethical machine economy”. Suddenly we are talking about human co-existence with AI and even the meaning of life. That’s quite unusual for a power company.

It might be unusual for a utility company to talk about the impact of human machine co-existence but at the innogy Innovation Hub we believe that it is necessary. Already today, technology and machines are an integral part of our everyday lives – with a rising trend: by 2020 there are expected to be up to 1000  billion connected devices on the planet. Advancements in AI, IoT and blockchain will bring incredible opportunities and at the same time bear significant challenges. Machines are becoming intelligent, contextual and independent. Ultimately, it’s all about building the right ecosystem to outweigh the challenges and leverage the good, because it is not only about technology: How will a society look like where human workforce is needed to a much lesser extend? It is our responsibility as innovators to not only think about new business models but also about how the transition into the machine economy can work under social and ethical aspects.

To foster the community, we are currently hosting the IPRIZE, the ‘Machine Economy Innovators Challenge’. It is a unique opportunity to co-create real solutions that can seize the opportunities of tomorrow.

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More information on the IPRIZE: https://innovationhub.innogy.com/iprize

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