Interview series with Team of Three (To3) - I’m very proud of having built such a platform with our teams
Thomas Birr is the chief futurist and SVP Innovation & Business Transformation at innogy SE, whose founding mission is to create a future beyond the traditional energy business. In this role, he is focused on how technology and strategy can be leveraged to grow innogy’s future business exponentially. Thomas also leads the innogy Innovation Hub, with a mission to drive game-changing ideas. Thomas shares the view that if we, in the energy business, are not disrupting our own industry, someone else will do it for us.
1. The innogy Innovation Hub has a unique approach, with your claim to be co-creating the so-called ‘future energy system’. Could you make that a bit more tangible?
Thank you for beginning with our inspiring vision. Energy is a good starting point for us – and a world that we know our way around. But the future of energy will look completely different from today, and energy as an industry will be fundamentally redefined. At the innogy Innovation Hub, we describe it as a world of energy, mobility, human-machine interaction and smart buildings. The more decarbonisation, decentralisation, digitalisation and democratisation come into play, the more important new technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Blockchain, the Internet of things or Augmented & Virtual Reality will become relevant to co-create it. We expect that industry boundaries may disappear in a couple of years’ time. All these ideas are shaped through the specific strategies of our four focus areas: ‘Disruptive Digital’, Machine Economy’, ‘Smart & Connected’ and ‘Cyber Ventures’. For four years now, we have been on a journey to identify the next potential game changers that are expected to disrupt the energy industry and their related areas.
2. Today, you’re looking back at four years of the ‘Innovation Hub’. What´s different after four years?
Everything! We developed from being an in-house change management unit to what we are today. We started, as most corporates do, by activating our own people to collect ideas and to make these businesses relevant, building on our long heritage as an innovative company. At the same time, we were facing the disruption of our existing business model. So we started thinking this through to the end. For four years now, we have been looking at the disruptive elements ahead of both us and our industry. But there is another highly relevant factor: we knew from the beginning that we needed to work on the ‘how ‘ as well as the ‘what’. That meant learning what it really takes to become a digital utility – which behaviours and mind-sets are helpful and which ones might hinder you.
Today we are an entity that exerts thought leadership, has built and successfully launched its own start-ups, runs worldwide-recognized accelerator platforms and undertakes substantial strategic investments. I’m very proud of having built such a platform with our teams and could never have predicted the meandering path that we would take to get here.
3. You present a very ambitious goal of building an innovation portfolio with an equity value of € 400 million by the end of 2020. What makes you so confident of reaching that target?
We can’t yet be sure that we’ll make it and there’s still a long way to go. From today’s perspective, I feel that with our investments, we’re close to having the right subject matter topics and that we’ve invested in some promising ventures that the market admires. For a huge number of start-ups, we’re looking at positive developments regarding their continuous product development and increasing both customer growth and profitability. Everything is moving in the right direction.
4. You have been working for the innogy Group for almost 20 years and have been responsible for innogy’s innovation platform for three years. What made you personally step out of your comfort zone during this time?
Actually, I feel more like I’ve stepped into my comfort zone! During my time in the energy business, I went through one ‘boom-and-bust’ cycle and saw mountains of beliefs and convictions collapse by disruption. Energy is the most amazing industry space on earth, where the only reliable factor is change. Being in a place where constant change becomes a paradigm, like the innogy Innovation Hub, is really exciting and definitely the place where the energy world of the future can be made to happen!
5. Final point, Thomas: can you make a short elevator speech to your audience about why anyone should co-create with the innogy Innovation Hub as a partner of choice?
Sure, we have a clear vision of what the world of energy could look like. We pursue a plan of how to help it become reality, not by ‘master-planning’, but by using the ‘swarm-power’ of young, fast-growing businesses. We offer an impressive ecosystem of start-ups, professional energy business, thought leaders and professionals for investment and growth. Being part of the innogy Innovation Hub ecosystems means being part of something that is much more than the sum of the parts!