Claire McGinn meets Vincent Lecrubier from Sterblue, one of the start-ups chosen in 2018 to participate in Free Electrons, an accelerator programme for start-ups working in the energy sector. He explains how his drone software company has taken flight with the world’s top utilities at his back.
“The most sustainable way is to not make things. The second most sustainable way is to make something very useful, to solve a problem that hasn’t been solved.” – Thomas Sigsgaard
It’s day two of the ESB-hosted Free Electrons bootcamp, which ran from April 2-4, and a fleet of start-ups is bringing next-generation solutions to the energy table. It’s high drama in Dublin's Smock Alley Theatre as each – with an eye on the 15 much-coveted spots on the accelerator programme – takes to the stage to wow the 10 global energy giants that are here to meet them. It’s energy’s equivalent of Dragons’ Den.
Free Electrons, now in its third year, was founded by a group of global utilities including ESB to help entrepreneurs and start-ups to accelerate innovations that can benefit the energy sector and address the challenges that utilities face in a rapidly changing energy market.
Opportunity to enter new markets
The programme can have a special turbo-charging impact on start-ups. Access to the utilities helps them fast-track the global adoption of their new-tech solutions. And for the utilities, the programme gives them access to cutting edge innovation from around the world that has the potential to deliver for the bottom line while also accelerating the pace that they can decarbonise their activities.
Free Electrons clearly helps the fledgling companies expand into new markets around the world.
Vincent Lecrubier has just arrived in Dublin. His company, Sterblue, was one of the 15 accepted on to the programme last year. He has been enlisted to talk to this year’s gathering about Sterblue’s experiences of the programme.
The French company, which Vincent co-founded in 2016, builds software for drones to automatically inspect power lines and wind turbines.
“This time last year, we were so happy to have been accepted on to the programme,” he says, “but we were even happier as the benefits of the Free Electrons programme began to unfold.”
Sterblue customers are large utilities with sizeable amounts of assets – such as thousands of kilometres of power lines or hundreds of wind turbines.
Vincent says: “These assets need to be inspected on a regular basis. The inspections can be costly, dangerous and time consuming. Often, you would have to fly helicopters really close to the power lines or have technicians climb turbines to inspect the machines.”
“Drones have been seen as a solution to this problem. However, in the past they didn’t reach their full potential because they had to be flown manually. It is very difficult to fly a drone manually in the wind, close to a 100m-high turbine and take good images at the same time.
“You also end up with thousands of images which you have to analyse in order to find small defects. It’s a painful process.”
The Sterblue solution is to fly a drone automatically around a wind turbine, for example, and analyse the images – also automatically – by artificial intelligence.
“We find all the defects and send a report to the utility. This saves the utility a lot of money on the inspection process and gives better results – and ultimately ensures a price reduction to the end user,” he says.
“By detecting small defects early and prompting repairs, it also helps with the efficiency of the turbines. So, overall, we enhance efficiency.”
Greater efficiency means a lower carbon output, and achieving this is no easy task.
Vincent Lecrubier, however, is no stranger to challenge and achievement. The sprint canoer finished seventh in the K2 500m event at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and won silver in the K4 1,000m event at the 2009 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships in Dartmouth.
“I see two similarities between my sporting career and running a company, he says.
“The first is about team play. I was running in K2 and K4 – where crews of two or four athletes are literally in the same boat. Everyone must be in sync, and in the same mindset, to deliver maximum performance.
“When running a young start-up, the team spirit is strong, and you get the best results when everyone is on the same wavelength. And everyone, with complementary skills, is willing to give everything they have.”
The second similarity, he says, is about dealing with pressure in a competitive landscape.
“Running a start-up is a relatively risky business, and a lot of companies fail. The same thing happens in sports – there is usually one winner and a lot of losers.
“I found that the best way for me to deal with this is to enjoy the whole experience, rather than just to focus on the potential success.
“I loved training every day when I was kayaking, even in winter. And now I love my job and working on these stimulating challenges. So even if my start-up fails, I would have no regrets because I am having such a great time.”
ESB pilot project
Vincent is full of praise for the Free Electrons Accelerator programme. “Free Electrons allowed us to find large utility companies that were willing to try our solution on a larger scale, so we gained a ton of experience. Before Free Electrons, we worked with three utilities; with Free Electrons, we work with six utilities and we did pilot projects with four of them on all our technologies.
“Last year we did a pilot project with ESB. We inspected some 15 wind turbines at one of their projects in Wales, over two days. It would have taken much longer just with technicians. We delivered a report and ESB was able to improve its wind turbine efficiency.
“With our technology, inspection time can be reduced by 30 per cent and we have a 98 per cent accuracy rate in defect detection.”
He adds that the Nantes-based company is now working with ESB to inspect 150 turbines in Ireland and the UK.
So, have there been any setbacks in growing the company, which is now live in three continents – Europe, Africa and the US?
“Well, sometimes drones crash,” Vincent laughs, “but because we use off-the-shelf drones, it is a relatively inexpensive problem.”
Just as he is given his cue to enter the Smock Alley stage, he adds: “Also, artificial intelligence can sometimes be unpredictable. But we are working on that.”
Free Electrons: Benefits to Sterblue
- We get a lot of feedback about our technology from the utilities.
- We have had to work on the product itself to make it more user friendly.
- We’ve been given lots of advice regarding contracts.
- Our journey would have been much more difficult and would have taken longer without Free Electrons.
- We were just a small French start-up of about six or seven people. Free Electrons has given us the confidence to go into production.
- The programme has given us credibility.
At a Glance
Headquarters: Nantes, France
Number of employees: 15
Speciality: Software for drones to inspect power lines, wind turbines and other industrial infrastructure
Number of investors: 7
Latest deal amount: $2m
Learn more about Free Electrons programme participant here.