Dynamic Demand Challenge
Solving the energy crisis
Guest post by Fiona MacRae, Tech, Science and Health Writer
Graham Oakes freely admits that he “threw together” the idea for Upside Energy in his spare time.
Just five years later, Upside had gone from being a “wild and speculative” idea to attracting almost £10 million of investment, employing 35 staff and catching the eye of some of the biggest players in energy market.
“It surprised me as much as anyone,” said Graham, a geophysicist who had never worked in the energy sector before.
Graham was one of 75 entrants to Nesta Challenges’ Dynamic Demand Challenge, which was launched in 2013 amid warnings from Ofgem, the gas and electricity market regulator, about Britain’s ability to keep the lights on as demand for electricity grew ever greater.
Created in partnership with the National Physical Laboratory’s Centre for Carbon Measurement, it challenged teams from across Europe to find ways take pressure off the National Grid.
This could be by shifting electricity consumption away from peak hours when there is little spare capacity in the system. Or by making better use of the surplus energy generated by renewables and so cutting carbon dioxide emissions.
Graham’s idea, to harness the energy in back-up power supplies, such as batteries in data centres, traffic lights and electric car charging points, to create a virtual energy store which could be drawn on when needed, earned him a place in the final.
He received £10,000 to develop a business plan and prototype and Upside Energy started trading 18 months later, in April 2015.
Three years after the challenge ended, the finalists including Upside and Powervault, which makes a device that stores solar energy for use at night, had secured over £10 million in grants, crowdfunding and other investment.
By the end of 2018, five years after Graham had jotted down his idea on a quiet day, Upside had raised more than £3 million in grant funding and £6.7 million in equity finance.
This included investments from Legal & General and grants from Department of Energy & Climate Change, the EU’s Climate-KIC accelerator programme for start-ups and Innovate UK.
It had also signed a deal with EDF Energy, one of the largest energy suppliers in the UK.
Graham, who has stepped down from Upside to return to consultancy, said:
“The challenge prize did exactly what a challenge prize was supposed to do: It brought someone from outside with some different thinking into the sector.
“It gave a little bit of seed funding that we were able to use to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and we turned that into some incubation money, some grant money, eventually some angel equity and then some venture equity.
“It’s a classic model of how innovation is meant to work. Lots of tech innovators have nice ideas but they don’t really connect to a problem people have actually got.
“The challenge prize pointed us at a real problem and I feel very lucky to have been presented with that problem.”