How cleantech startups are solving business and environmental problems simultaneously: Q&A with James Tilbury from EnergyLab

We spoke to James Tilbury, CEO of EnergyLab about cleantech startup entrepreneurs leading successful businesses dedicated to the clean energy transition.

Q&A with James Tilbury

Hi James, can you introduce yourself and explain a bit about EnergyLab’s programs in Australia.

I’m James Tilbury, Co-Founder & CEO EnergyLab. EnergyLab is a clean energy startup accelerator, although we do a lot more than just run acceleration programs. We have a range of different programs and offerings to help people set up and grow businesses in the emerging clean energy sector.

Right now we are excited to be launching our Scaleup Program, and we have some great corporate utility partners on board such as APA, Powerlink, AusNet Services and Counties Power. The focus of the Scaleup Program is to work with late-stage startups to help them form partnerships with those utilities, raise capital in the two to twenty million-dollar range and receive very tailored mentoring to help unlock their next wave of growth.

EnergyLab has supported over 80 startups so far, what are some live examples that may be relevant for the current health and economic crisis? 

Amber Electric is a 100% renewable electricity retailer that is doing some really interesting things around demand response in order to better match energy consumption to renewable energy production. I encourage folks to check them out considering many people may be using more power during the pandemic. Amber Electric can help people reduce their home energy bill. 

PowerPal is another startup that may be relevant for anyone working from home at the moment. PowerPal produces cheap to install smart meters that stream real-time information on your phone from your meter. The PowerPal app can help you understand your energy consumption and how you might reduce it. There are also options to run campaigns where you could reduce your energy consumption at peak periods on the grid and get rewarded with free movie tickets or other perks.

What makes a great cleantech entrepreneur? And what’s your advice for people considering a career in cleantech?

Firstly, successful founders have a certain level of risk appetite. They have a willingness to quit their day job and are comfortable with the day to day risks of running a business. Secondly, they have an ability to push through and do the hard things. An entrepreneur must be great at everything the business requires. If they lack one core element like sales, that can be tough, especially in the early stages before they can hire people. The third key attribute of successful founders is the ability to find a balance between prioritising the startup and getting the resources and support they need while maintaining good relationships with stakeholders to build up that community of support.  

We focus on cleantech startups but there are other great opportunities for people looking to transition into a career in cleantech.

For example, there may be jobs advertised in the innovation departments of large energy utilities working to progress clean energy solutions. Government departments or businesses implementing impact programs are possible career pathways too. I encourage people to be creative, look broadly and consider personal preferences. 

The representation of women in the startup ecosystem continues to increase. Can you tell us about EnergyLab’s Women in Clean Energy Fellowship?

Milly Young, one of our program managers ran the first intake of our hugely successful Women in Clean Energy Fellowship in Melbourne last year. A dozen very talented women participated in the program, and out of those, at least half are actively pursuing setting up a business in the clean energy sector.

We continue to expand the program and currently have thirty incredibly talented women participating and we’re hoping to support many of these founders through our pre-acceleration program later this year. 

All sectors of our economy are finding new and innovative ways to decarbonise but why does EnergyLab focus on the energy sector?

We focus on energy because cleantech is advantageous for setting up profitable businesses that also contribute to solving environmental challenges like climate change. We have also set up Boomerang Labs, which focuses on helping people start new businesses to promote the circular economy and reduce waste. This is a promising area where large numbers of people want to find solutions. There are also growing industry needs to solve business and environmental problems simultaneously. That creates a really good opportunity for cleantech startups to thrive.

Australia’s economic recovery plan from the Covid-19 pandemic must significantly boost unemployment. Do you think investment in clean industries should be part of both the government and corporate decision-makers employment strategies?

I’m obviously very biased, but I absolutely think the clean energy industry should be a major component of an economic recovery package to increase jobs. Government incentives have successfully boosted job numbers in the rooftop solar industry and there’s no reason why more initiatives like this couldn’t be used to aid in income recovery or create jobs while at the same time progressing our shared goal towards decarbonising the energy sector.

Can Australia get to 100% renewable energy by 2050? What do we need to be doing as a nation to get there?

Organisations like Beyond Zero Emissions have repeatedly shown that this is all technically possible and economically feasible. It’s just a matter of political will.

We work with a huge number of businesses that are providing the solutions to decarbonisation and all of those are doing great despite a lack of government incentives like a carbon price.

There’s a huge number of government policies that could help decarbonise our economy, but none, in my opinion, would be as comprehensively effective as a strong carbon price.

Lastly, what’s next for you and the EnergyLab team and where can folks find out more?

Search @EnergyLabAU on social media and interested clean energy entrepreneurs can check out our website for program information. We also offer ways for people to support startups, as a mentor, investor or member of the community. As far as what’s next for us, we’ve recently launched a couple of new programs and the scaleup program is currently open for applicants. We encourage any established clean energy startup founders looking for a bit of extra support during these tough times to apply.

James Tilbury is the CEO of EnergyLab, an organisation dedicated to helping people set up and grow clean energy companies. Prior to EnergyLab James worked for the Boston Consulting Group, specialising in energy and strategy. He has also worked as a researcher at the University of Oxford and an energy auditor at Ernst & Young. James has a Bachelor of Engineering from the Queensland University of Technology and a Masters in Environmental Management from Oxford, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar


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