The energy system of the future will look different to that of today. Dr Inken Braunschmidt, Head of RWE Group Innovation, is as sure of this as she is sure that an important way to maintain RWE’s leading position in this energy system is through collaboration.
As one of Europe’s five leading gas and electricity companies, RWE is fully aware of the current challenges in the energy market. These include emergent players from telecoms, electronics and other industries entering the market, and the broader economic trends we see disrupting other industries, such as intelligent devices and the internet of things, Big Data, the shift to people producing as well as consuming, and the intensifying drive for sustainability. “Parts of the energy value chain have already changed,” Dr Braunschmidt explains when I speak to her on the phone. “It is no longer generate, trade, distribute and sell, but something more complex with horizontal options, vertical options, new markets, new customers.”
“We don’t want to stand on the sidelines watching other players developing the key ideas to realise these new business models and then run behind. If not doing it on our own, then we want to be developing these ideas with them.” Her voice is bright and determined. “But RWE can only do this if we start being more outward-looking to startups, large corporations in other industries facing similar challenges, and academia.” It’s by uniting these diverse ideas, drives, and resources, she believes, that RWE can maintain its lead.
Engendering this unprecedented level of collaboration is why RWE became a GTEC founding partner, along with Henkel, Noerr, Sigmund Kiener Stiftung, Globumbus, and ESMT. It’s why RWE didn’t just start another incubator, along the model of Axel Springer or Deutsche Telekom, because, as Dr Braunschmidt says, “we didn’t feel that this would deliver the same level of cross-pollination and exchange.”
Her passion and her expertise are tangible. Before joining RWE Consulting ten years ago, she wrote her PhD on how big corporations innovate, compared to smaller companies or startups. Collaboration between big and small companies was one of the success factors. The market changes of the past decade have made the case for collaboration even stronger.
RWE has always innovated. It has strong R&D and owns many patents. But the innovation Dr Braunschmidt is driving is less about technology and more about markets and business models. It’s the type of innovation which puts customers in the middle and asks what they need and want, the type that might create a need previously unimagined.
For startups this presents a great opportunity. The advantages of collaborating with a corporate the size of RWE (which has 23 million customers, 60,000 employees, and operations across Europe) are immense: resources for scaling and rapid growth, access to real customers to trial an idea or product, the chance to develop an idea together – drawing on RWE’s expertise and infrastructure. Good examples of where this is already happening are Berlin startup Yetu, with a pilot in the UK market, and Bidgely, a Silicon Valley startup wanting to launch in Europe.
“The next big idea might come from a startup which doesn’t obviously have anything to do with energy.” Dr Braunschmidt enthuses. “They could come in and present to us about something entirely different. But once we understand what they do and can offer, it may turn out to be highly relevant for RWE, especially when moving into new markets. The startup might not even know that they have the very thing that we need. It’s only in initiating many conversations that we’ll get to this point.”
The hour has rushed past. I’d wanted to talk to this former semi-professional yachtswoman about sailing around the world. The case for collaborative innovation and forging how we produce and consume energy in the future with this almighty ship she is now sailing has been too compelling. Another time.