Utopus Insights develops and deploys analytical
tools for energy grid transformation.
First, they had to go small.
Now, they are poised to go big.
Their market is the changing electric grid that increasingly embraces distributed generation, cleaner wind and solar power.
A pool of 16 researchers at IBM’s Smarter Energy Research Institute decided they had to get out from under Big Blue’s mega-corporate biz mindset to nurture a small business around technologies for our fast-changing electric infrastructure.
In the spring of 2017 they launched Utopus Insights to develop and speed to market an array of analytical tools that would hasten grid transformation. It has offices in India and a small team in Hungary.
A Danish giant was watching.
Earlier this year, Vestas, which has wind turbines spinning in 79 countries, snapped up Utopus and its 30 patents for $100 million.
Watch for many more of these kinds of deals as the grid is reborn.
Upwards of $20 billion will be invested by U.S. electric utilities in building and automating an unprecedently diverse, distributed network of small, distributed generation, Accenture has forecasted.
An electric system that has been built around large base-load generation – mega-nuclear and coal-burning facilities now out of favor – is pivoting.
Renewable energy continues to expand at a fast clip.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasted that small-scale solar deployments will surge to 21.9 gigawatts this year, the triple the amount of just four years ago.
“It’s incredibly powerful to know what the future holds.”
Solar and wind are intermittent sources of energy – and new way to more precisely calibrate that fickleness are needed. Fast.
At the same time, cities and companies are looking to microgrids built around new energy storage to protect against mass power outages. As the end points in the grid multiply – they must be integrated into a seamless network.
That spells opportunity for a growing number of entrepreneurial startups eager to invent new tools and capabilities to keep our lights on.
Or, as Anders Runevad, Vestas’ group president and CEO, put it after snapping up Utopus:
“We will now be able to provide our customers improved forecasting, output optimization and coordination between assets, and support the larger energy ecosystem’s increased uptake of renewable energy.”
Vestas is hoping that Utopus products will allow for improved weather forecasting, which in turn will cut costs and boost generation revenues.
But well beyond that, the century-old Vestas intends to be in the vanguard of a new vision for energy infrastructure.
In recent conversations, Utopus’ chief scientist, Ron Ambrosio, a three-decade IBM veteran, said his firm’s sweet spot will be with “planning and prescriptive analytics.”
That includes “hyperlocal weather modeling” that is fine-grained both temporally – with forecasts spanning 15-30 minutes – and spatially – peering at micro-locations of just 1-3 kilometers. It is data will be three-dimensional, reflecting the impact of the topography the wind travels over.
For wind turbine operators living in a world of rapidly fluctuating power markets, such information is gold.
In addition to its weather forecasting work, Utopus will forecast the health of wind turbine assets.
“Our team has experience along the entire energy value chain,” Ambrosio said.
The company website breaks down its ambitions through several product channels:
- “Nostradamus – energy-specialized weather forecasting”
- “Xplore – real-time asset performance”
- “HyperCast – future generation performance”
- “Pulse – critical component reliability”
Utopus offerings are centered on the transformation of electric infrastructure from analog to a digital paradigm.
Ambrosio, who is in his late’50s, welcomes leaving the button-downed world of a large corporation for a smaller, entrepreneurial setting.
“There are no cubicle walls. Everyone sits around 6-foot long work tables, next to each other. I love it,” he said.
Ultimately, the reward is in the work.
On the micro level, it has meant, for instance, working with Vermont utilities so that they can extract the maximum value from their renewable resources to benefit their customers.
That involves looking with utilities to deploy technology that heightens efficient operations – asking, “How does this help your bottom line,” Ambrosio said.
And on the macro-level?
“It is so important to transform this industry because we need to do it for the planet,” Ambrosio said. “We need to enable the continued growth of renewables.”
I asked Ambrosio if he and his team have been able to go further, faster, compared to when they worked at IBM.
“We already have,” he said. “We can be one of the innovative leaders. We have the right team. We have the right partnerships as well.” “We have things that are really relevant now. We are a seasoned startup. Now we can bring our work directly to market.”
That squares with the needs expressed by Cyril Brunner, a young engineering manager at Vermont Electric Co-op.
Commenting on the Utopus website, Brunner said, “It’s incredibly powerful to know what the future holds.”