Innovation is no longer a job for soloists. Today, no company wishing to surf the waves of innovation, technological or otherwise, however large it may be, is able to do everything alone.
Enel has embraced this guiding principle, transforming it into the Open Innovation approach: good ideas are always welcome, wherever they may come from. The most important thing is that innovation is geared towards sustainability – from this comes the term coined by Enel, “innovability.” In the words of Ernesto Ciorra, Chief Innovability Officer for Enel, “to be able to truly innovate, we also have to look at ideas that come from outside.”
An international network, from Tel Aviv to Catania
Startups are the most precious source of innovative ideas. To get to know them, meet them and work with the best, Enel set up a series of Innovation Hubs.
“This is the role we want to play: to be an industrial partner for startups, one which allows them to test their innovation with us, to launch that innovation thanks to us and to sell their innovation to us and our customers”
Ernesto Ciorra, Chief Innovability Officer at Enel
Our international network, which was set up in 2016, consists of 10 Innovation Hubs and is set to grow further. Four of them are located in ecosystems with a strong emphasis on innovation: Silicon Valley and Boston (both in the USA), Tel Aviv (Israel) and the technology park at Skolkovo, the Russian innovation citadel on the outskirts of Moscow.
Others are located in countries where Enel has a strong commercial presence: Madrid (Spain), Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Santiago (Chile). The centre in Catania (Italy) is an Enel Innovation Hub&Lab because it started in the Passo Martino laboratories, a crown jewel in terms of Enel’s technological research in the field of renewable energy; the Innovation Hub&Lab is based in the Italian capital of research, Pisa, and the Hub&Lab in Milan is focussed on infrastructure and network technology.
Each hub acts as a nerve centre and point of reference for the startups in its geographical and economic range, and belonging to the Enel network provides added value: the hubs have the opportunity to connect and work together, thereby gaining in additional experience. In this way, the potential visibility of the innovative ideas coming out of the areas is multiplied as it moves from a single, local hub to an international network.
Startups ready for take off
An Innovation Hub is a physical space where startups can meet and present their ideas to Enel: to date, out of the 7,000 candidates that have been evaluated, over 260 are now active projects, while more than 50 have reached the commercial phase.
Enel offers the selected startups all the necessary tools for take off: technology consultancy from experts (both internal and external to the Group, in true Open Power spirit), access to our network of partners (including investors) and the chance to test innovations in our laboratories or plants. Moreover, Enel opens up the opportunity for moving to the scale up phase, with a potential market that includes the entire Enel Group, plus partners, clients and suppliers.
“We use our Innovation Hubs to bring the best startups to work with us. We tell them what we are looking for and we expect them to come with solutions that we can develop together”
Fabio Tentori, Head of Enel Innovation Hubs
There is also a further option. If there are innovative solutions that are particularly well adapted to the Group’s needs, Enel can suggest buying the startup. This happened with two American companies, for example: eMotorWerks, leader in the supply of services and infrastructures for e-vehicles, and EnerNoc, global leader in the demand response sector. This energy service contributes to the stabilisation of the electricity grid through the active participation of large clients.
We want the impossible
Many highly innovative products that have greatly contributed to Enel’s activities on all levels have come from our collaboration with startups: from the airbag jacket for technicians working in the field, to the audio/video conversion system in call centres assisting our hard of hearing customers, the security drones that monitor the plant of Torrevaldaliga and the hydrogen electricity storage system established in Cerro Pabellón (Chile). The V2G (Vehicle-to-Grid) system that allows e-vehicles to transfer their excess electricity to the grid, transforming them into mobile batteries, was created through a collaboration like this and has since been exported throughout the world.
Some of our projects are so futuristic that they prompt reactions of wonder or confusion. This is precisely what happened, for example, with the hybrid power plant at Stillwater (Nevada, USA) which provides a mixture of geothermal, photovoltaic and thermodynamic solar energy. Even MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) deemed the project impossible, but it was completed and now wins awards. As Ciorra explains, “when they tell us that something is impossible, we try to do it.”