Alan Gooding of Smarter Grid Solutions chats with Anne McIvor, Cleantech Investor - November 2012 on the occasion of the GP Bullhound Cleantech Connect Awards: Celebrating the Entrepreneur
Alan Gooding, an electrical engineer by education, began his career at PwC. Back then he knew he wanted to run his own company, but hadn’t figured out how. So he set out to equip himself with the experience and the very broad skill set he would need to become an entrepreneur. He positioned himself – from a career perspective – wherever there were opportunities to be around people with whom he could exchange ideas.
Alan’s advice to young people with entrepreneurial aspirations is to follow his example: find an environment where ideas are being talked about and get to know different people or you’ll never generate any sparks. “You won’t come up with the next Facebook by sitting at home and watching TV,” he says.
Alan began in financial management at PwC, but hankered after a corporate finance role. He engineered a transfer to QinetiQ (the non defence part) to assess the strategic benefits of that company’s intellectual property (IP) – immersing himself in “development agendas around IP for economic benefit”. A conversation around this theme led to Alan’s move to the University of Strathclyde as Business Development Director in Residence. That conversation, which took place during a game of golf at Haggs Castle Golf Course with Jim (now Sir Jim) McDonald, Principal of Strathclyde University, led to Alan joining the university to work with technologies within the Electrical Engineering Department.
Whilst there, Alan delivered four spin-outs from the department as well as numerous licensing deals and research and development contracts. Alan had always thought that he would move on to join one of those companies, and it slowly became clear which one that would be. Smarter Grid Solutions was created to commercialise technology developed at Strathclyde to meet the challenge of extracting additional capacity from the grid as more wind power generation capacity becomes connected. SSE wanted to deploy the technology and when Smarter Grid Solutions started talking to Dave Gardner, head of the SSE Ventures arm, about seed funding, it became obvious that Alan Gooding would play a key role in building the company.
Naming a company is a “hard thing to do”, according to Alan, explaining that the company, which is involved in what it describes as “active network management”, was almost named ‘ActivGrid’. The name was rejected, he says, for sounding too much like a treatment for athlete’s foot. Although ’smart grid’ was coming into use in the US at the time, in Europe ’intelligent grid’ was still the more widely used term. Eventually the team settled on the name Smarter Grid Solutions – which was a smart move according to Alan. A name incorporating the words ’smart’ and ‘grid’ (back in the summer of 2008) gave the company’s website high rankings in Google searches on the term ’smart grid’. A claim to fame, he remembers, was that the first Wikipedia entry on the smart grid was a description of the Smarter Grid Solutions technology.
So Alan had achieved his ambition of becoming an entrepreneur – and that was when the hard work really started! But he says his “broad and diverse role at Smarter Grid Solutions helps him get out of bed in the morning”. That role involves “lots of customer interaction – the vast majority of all business development”. His job has been to go out and create a market, working with companies like Scottish Power, SSE and Western Power Distribution to help them understand what the smart grid means.
As Alan observes, the term ‘smart grid’ is still widely misused – so it has been important for Smarter Grid Solutions to educate and work with customers, and to help utilities to overcome the challenges in scaling up. He says you need to become immersed in the industry to understand “the complexity of the smart grid jigsaw”.
The market is still very young and Alan claims that Smarter Grid Solutions has no direct competitors. Although others offer bits of what it does, none has stitched the solution together in the way his company has, he says. Obvious competition comes from large multinationals such as ABB or Schneider – but Alan believes they are constrained in getting innovations to market by their incumbent products.
Today, according to Alan, virtually all network management is based around someone sitting in a control room. For applications that involve releasing capacity on the grid and managing grid congestion, bigger volumes are needed. Smarter Grid Solutions, he says, is a “fairly disruptive solution – it offers potential for the development of a whole new layer of management systems that are autonomous”. The solution sits “much more on the grid side” in Alan’s words: it provides a “new layer” and it involves different ways of building the architecture that “fill the void for control” (of the grid). Smarter Grid Solutions works with companies providing the “core” of the smart grid such as Silver Springs (they are collaborating on a project in Peterborough). Alan says it’s easier to work with younger companies like Silver Springs than with the large multinationals such as ABB or Siemens.
The core team within Smarter Grid Solutions is a group of very experienced PhDs who are “steeped in the domain”. A balance between academic, intellectual and systems side people, it’s a multi-skilled melting pot of 30 individuals with a wide breadth of skills. Alan’s preference is “to grow our own people” rather than recruit externally.
Alan heads up the commercial side of the company and says he defers to Bob Curry (co-founder) on technical issues. Smarter Grid Solution’s other co-founder, Professor Graham Ault, is still closely involved at a non-executive level but has remained full time at the University of Strathclyde. While the links with the university remain, Alan wryly observes that there has never been a risk of Smarter Grid Solutions becoming involved with “ivory tower research”. The company was not funded to incorporate a product development function, he explains. As a result he has had to operate a business which brings in a small profit or at the very least is close to the break-even point – so it has been a “juggling act for four years”. Alan hopes the financial constraints will ease in the future as additional funds are raised: but working on a tight budget, he says, did have the benefit of “knocking out any academic navel gazing that sort of company might be inclined to indulge in”.
According to Alan, the company’s location in Scotland has been an advantage because the problems involved in connecting remote (onshore) wind power emerged there first. The combination of the research at Strathclyde and the trials funded by Ofgen have made it “the perfect environment to exist,” he says. The focus to date has been on the UK market, and the next challenge for Alan is North America, where he is actively seeking partners. The planned product development will permit Smarter Grid Solutions to deploy at a bigger scale and to leverage its market-leading position in the UK into North America and Europe. The key challenge, according to Alan, is the sector in which the company operates: the “safe and conservative utility business”.
Alan loves his job, the diversity of the role and the challenge – it’s all “pretty cool”. He says that after Smarter Grid Solutions there’s not much space in his life, but he believes in the right balance between work and play and claims he’s not a workaholic. He still tries to get in a game of golf at the weekend.
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