How to turn research theories into commercial enterprises

When Gorkem Soyumer, an EPFL Middle East student, finished his master’s thesis, he was able to do what many young graduates only dream of – help turn his research into a business.

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When Gorkem Soyumer, an EPFL Middle East student, finished his master’s thesis, he was able to do what many young graduates only dream of – help turn his research into a business.

Now he works at Enerwhere, a Dubai-based energy startup company that has commercialised the technology he worked on as a student less than a year ago – a new generation of hybrid powergrids, driven by a combination of solar panels and diesel generators.

Today, these grids can be set up in remote locations in record time and produce 15-20 per cent cheaper power than conventional technologies.

Matching power supply and demand is always challenging. But when weather-dependent energy sources are involved, it becomes a conundrum that requires smart, adaptive control systems capable of adapting to wind speed or cloud cover in real time.

The challenge is the same even for small power grids, which are used to provide electricity to remote locations, construction sites, refugee camps, or other off-grid settings. That is why there is more to setting up hybrid electricity networks than merely connecting solar panels and diesel generators into a network.

There are a number of obstacles to overcome, most prominently financial cost and technical knowhow. During his master’s in energy management and sustainability at EPFL, Soyumer took an internship at Ambata Capital, where he conducted a business feasibility study that demonstrated the financial potential of the hybrid power-grid approach.

Later, for his master’s thesis, he addressed the technical obstacles. Working in Ras Al Khaimah, he developed and implemented the Middle East’s first smart solar- and diesel-powered minigrid capable of connecting with the main electricity network.

Its goal was to provide remote locations with cheaper, cleaner, and more reliable electricity by replacing some of the diesel used today with sunlight. The project was set up between EPFL Middle East and Centre Suisse d’Electronique et Microtechnique-UAE as academic partners, and Ambata as an investment partner.

Today, both Soyumer and his former EPFL classmate Emeline Platel, also a former intern at Ambata Capital, are pursuing their research at Enerwhere.

From its founding, the company has continued to improve its solar-based microgrids for commercial or industrial power needs.

Today it is adopting what some might refer to as an IKEA approach: a fully modular solar minigrid that can be set up in record time. You can’t quite put it together with an Allen key and an illustrated leaflet, but a minimally trained team can quickly deploy it anywhere.

Recently, Enerwhere installed its first modular micro-grid on The World islands in Dubai, less than six weeks from the first order. Today, the plant provides electricity for a construction site, a site office and a small villa.

As the construction site expands, additional modular solar units can be easily installed without additional engineering efforts, and therefore at a very attractive cost.

The rapid-deployment model has proven so successful that Enerwhere has started to offer these off-grid power plants on a rental basis. Clients with off-grid power needs can choose whether to rent the equipment or simply buy energy by the kilowatt hour (kWh), as you would from traditional utilities companies.

Power from conventional diesel generators is very expensive (about 120 to 200 fils per kWh, compared to the maximum Dewa rate of 44 fils and 15 fils per kWh that ADDC charges in Abu Dhabi), so such a power rental contract can offer savings of 15-20 per cent from day one.

This innovation illustrates the power of a full-time research-based master’s course that, through internships and projects, forges strong ties to the local industry and research partners.

To be successful, such collaborations have to offer benefits to the student, in terms of experience and professional advancement, and to the partners, in the form of strategic developments.

Franco Vigliotti is dean of EPFL Middle East, and Daniel Zywietz is the chief executive of Enerwhere.