Five Minutes With EnergyLab CEO James Tilbury

EnergyLab, James Tilbury
EnergyLab CEO James Tilbury

Since 2017, EnergyLab has supported more than 80 Australian clean energy startups through its range of programs to build their businesses, get a foothold in the industry and make a difference. With ARENA just announcing $480,000 to boost the startup helping startups, we speak to co-founder and CEO James Tilbury about what EnergyLab is all about.

How did you come to found EnergyLab and what did you do before this?

I have a rather mixed background including management consulting for Boston Consulting Group, advising clients in the energy industry but also outside the industry working on strategies with startups like the ones I currently help. I worked as a researcher for the University of Oxford on environmental issues and business, and as an energy auditor for Ernst & Young amongst other roles. But the common thread throughout all of this is the energy sector and climate change mitigation.

I was part of EnergyLab’s founding team with Pies Grove, Nick Lake and Danny Kennedy a little over three years ago, and transitioned into the CEO role a little over a year ago.

You have some massive supporters being such a young company then?

Yes we are very fortunate to have some big supporters. UTS was one of the very first big companies to support us as well as Origin Energy and KPMG. We were really lucky in those first six months when we launched the organisation because we had some really strong backers, and a lot of other great organisations have joined us since then.

Explain to us exactly what EnergyLab is and how it works.

What we at EnergyLab aim to do is help people set up hybrid businesses that are going to make a meaningful impact on decarbonising the energy sector and therefore helping to mitigate climate change.

The way we do that is by finding those individuals and helping them start a business in the first place, and then marshalling the resources and the support around them that they need in order to have as big an impact as possible – with as high a chance of success as they can – in a short time frame that they have to set up a business in the sector. That support includes things like connecting them with our mentoring network – we are very fortunate to have over 200 mentors who have volunteered their time with our corporate partners – APA, Powerlink and AusNet Services, and introducing them to the right investors at the right time. We’re fortunate to know the most active energy sector investors in Australia and we know what they’re after so we help prepare pitches to them and they form introductions. So it’s like a connecting role in the energy startup ecosystem.

In the three years since EnergyLab was started, what has been the process of building your own business?

It’s funny because we’re very much a startup ourselves so we’ve been through our own sort of ups and downs over the last three years, looking at how we can continue to pull in the resources we need and how we can support startups … it has been a fun journey.

The industry has also evolved a lot since we started. When we first launched the organisation there were very few others supporting clean energy entrepreneurs in Australia. Since then, we’ve seen other players come into the market, which is fantastic. That has meant we’ve had to specialise in certain areas, and then later the shock of COVID-19 of having to transition everything online has been a change, and I guess we’ll see what happens next year.

Related article: Five Minutes With CEFC CEO Ian Learmonth

So if I was from an energy startup, how would I get involved with EnergyLab and how would I expect the process to go?

You’d head to our website and hit the ‘apply’ button and the easiest thing to do is fill out the general expression of interest form and we’ll let you know what the best program is to support you through.

We run a number of different programs with a number of different ways to get involved. We have programs for each stage in our entrepreneurial journey, if you’re in the fairly early stages or you haven’t launched your product, then maybe the acceleration program is right for you. If you’re in the later stage and you generate revenue and have a number of staff, then our scale-up program might be best.

So as far as numbers go, for the scale-up program, we’re looking to help companies raise between say $2 million and $20 million, that’s the ballpark figure that we’re trying to help them raise. For the acceleration program, typically startups are raising in the hundreds of thousands or low millions at the end of that program.

Or, if you don’t feel like you need a huge amount of support or just want to hang out with other likeminded people, we have just launched a new virtual membership. Any energy entrepreneur in Australia can join our online community and connect with likeminded people and receive business support from us, but more importantly, get that sense of community they may have lost from not working in the office anymore.

Can you tell us about some of the really standout startups that you’re working with right now?

I’ll talk about two because they’re probably particularly relevant for people at this point in time, given everyone is working from home. One is Amber Electric, a 100 per cent renewable electricity retailer doing some really interesting things around demand response. Your readers will know what that means but to any non-energy nerds reading it’s a way to engage with your household energy use in order to reduce your energy consumption, and also if you’re interested in doing so, improve the sustainability of your energy consumption. With everyone working from home, and I’m sure the next electricity bill is going to shock a lot of people, Amber Electric will be able to help a lot of people reduce their energy bills.

On a similar vein, we have Powerpal who have these affordable, self-installable smart meters where you can live-stream your energy consumption data to your mobile device and likewise can help you figure out where you’re using your energy, how you can reduce your energy bill. During peak load events they can also send you an alert and incentivise you or give you say a free movie ticket, or presumably a virtual movie ticket these days, to reduce your load to help the grid out.

Related article: Five Minutes With Dr John Hewson, Bioenergy Australia Chair