Face-to-face with our Portfolio: Sterblue
At the end of 2018, innogy New Ventures LLC participated in a $2 million funding round in Sterblue. They build AI-supported analytics software for drones to automate the wind turbine and power grid inspection process. We caught up with Sterblue CEO Geoffrey Vancassel and innogy New Ventures MD Stefan Padberg, who led the investment, one year on to talk about their progress.
Can you tell us a bit about what your company does and what you are focusing on at the moment
Geoffrey: At Sterblue we build software for the inspection of infrastructure like wind turbines or power lines. Our technology uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to guide drones along structures, finding anomalies and lapses in the integrity of the assets. The drones produce reports on the condition of the asset and identify where any problems may be. Our technology uses off the shelf drones and is activated at the click of a button. With this self-checking technology, we want to take away some of today’s inefficiencies and contribute to a digitised and decentralised energy world.
Since we started in 2016, we’ve grown to 25 people across three offices – in Nantes (France), Lisbon (Portugal) and Los Angeles (US).
What key challenges do you foresee for utilities going into a digitised and decentralised energy system and what role do you see AI playing in the future of the grid?
Stefan: Maintenance and operation of the grid in a decentralised and digitised energy system is one of the key challenges and a hurdle that needs to be overcome. The energy grid of the future is going to consist of billions of decentralised resources, producing and consuming energy independently. No single operator will be able to control this grid without the help of AI and the capabilities that this technology brings. I would go so far as to say that Artificial Intelligence will be the key technology that will keep the future energy grid stable. Visual recognition as employed by Sterblue is one component that we have great interest in.
Why did the Innovation Hub invest in Sterblue? What opportunity did you see in the company and how does investing in it fit with your strategy?
Stefan: The future of the grid and its maintenance is digital. Sterblue has the means to transform management of grid assets and infrastructure, providing a one-stop solution to creating self-maintaining infrastructure. Manual checking of these structures isn’t time or cost efficient and it also carries an element of physical risk to the person carrying out the checks. In the future these assets will be self-monitoring – only “calling” us if there is a problem. We won’t need to send out scouts to conduct manual routine inspections, making grid management much safer and more efficient. With automated surveillance and visual recognition technology that can be deployed on any off the shelf drone, grid surveillance is going to be crowd sourced going forward. Sterblue´s technology has the potential to make this future a reality and it has a clear market appeal, attracting the interest of grid operators all over the world.
Why did you choose Innovation Hub as an investor?
Geoffrey: One of the key things was their focus on collaboration. The Hub’s goal is to build an ecosystem where innovators with the most cutting-edge technologies and ideas can seamlessly collaborate with other innovators, industry experts, successful business leaders and investors to exchange business knowledge, experiences and ideas.
innogy Innovation Hub has the fundamental understanding that the energy system needs to evolve in line with the 4D’s (Decarbonisation, Decentralisation, Digitalisation and Democratisation) – and that to achieve this evolution, collaboration is key.
The opportunity to network and build relationships with likeminded innovators is key when you are still a small company and the Innovation Hub has presented numerous opportunities for us to collaborate and build our business. Their highly committed relationship with the Free Electrons programme, for instance, is one concrete example of the way we have benefitted from our partnership. Many investors claim to offer more than just money, but with the Innovation Hub, it’s baked into their DNA.
What has been your approach to giving growth support to Sterblue?
Stefan: We act as both a capital investor and an accelerator for our portfolio companies, and it’s no different for Geoffrey and his team. This means connecting them with relevant partners, collaborators and even customers within our network – from Free Electrons (the first global energy accelerator that we co-founded in 2016) to our Portfolio Days. All these events and programmes provide a highly targeted matching service to introduce start-ups with relevant industry contacts.
Furthermore, we supported Sterblue prior to the product development phase, helping to collect reams of existing data, uploading thousands of pictures of infrastructure to train the visual recognition patterns and manually training the algorithm. One thing is certain, after this project we now all know what woodpecker holes look like and all the shapes and forms they can come in on power line poles. On a more serious note, we also connected them with the core innogy business, which is currently testing their technology.
How is Sterblue revolutionising grid infrastructure maintenance and when can we expect to see exponential growth for the business?
Geoffrey: Our vision at Sterblue is to build a better Google Earth – one that’s almost indistinguishable from the real world. The combination of Sterblue’s automatic navigation and analysis software with an upcoming improvement in the drone system will enable fully autonomous drone-based inspections in remote areas. When this is a reality, we will be able to collect data at a fraction of the current cost – and on a weekly or monthly, rather than annual, basis – to provide actionable information to predict any change in the status of the grid infrastructure.
Can you provide some concrete examples of how the Innovation Hub has provided growth support/ cooperation?
Geoffrey: innogy Innovation Hub has been a financial supporter of Sterblue since our seed funding round in 2018, however the support has gone well beyond just the financials. I’ve already talked about the collaboration opportunities but there have also been very direct instances where they’ve helped develop our business.
For example, we have performed a pilot project with innogy subsidiary Westnetz* on automatic distribution grid defect detection, and we are now looking at the next stage in our partnership and in the development of our product.
innogy’s wind energy capability gave us the opportunity to test our product and perform automatic blade inspections, and we are now in advanced discussions to continue to support their team in managing their huge volume of data.
* Westnetz is a 100 % innogy subsidiary and is the largest distribution system operator in Germany and supplies approximately 7.5 million people with electricity and gas.
Where do you both want to be in two years from now on this joint journey?
Geoffrey: Our goal is to continuously grow our business and make asset management easier. We want to pioneer technology that predicts the future status and maintenance requirements of all sorts of energy assets – electrical grids, onshore and offshore wind turbines, cooling towers, dams, and more. We are excited to continue to collaborate closely with the innogy Innovation Hub team to achieve these targets.
Stefan: In two years from now, we want to see Sterblue’s technology as an integral part of innogy’s asset maintenance strategy – as well as the strategy of other grid operators throughout the world. We’re certain that, in helping to reduce the cost, effort and time to repair these assets, manual checking of the energy grid will quickly become a thing of the past.