ENGIE takes the start-up approach

People tend to associate coaching and support programmes for innovative ideas – ‘accelerator programmes’ and ‘pressure cookers’, for example – with start-ups. But this is only part of the story, because targeted support and coaching can also prove very useful for established firms. A case in point? ENGIE, where a team was able to further elaborate their ‘Coolcast’ concept, thanks to the Port Innovation Lab.

A team of colleagues at ENGIE Services had been walking around with an interesting idea: why not use big data to predict disruptions in process manufacturing? Let’s put it this way: factories are full of equipment. And all these machines and devices are made up of parts, which each contribute in their own small way to a larger, automated process. And you can measure certain parameters for each of these parts – pressure, temperature, velocity, you name it. Imagine if you were to store all these readings in a collective data pool, and use it as a base for predictions. When is a specific part in need of maintenance? And when does it need to be replaced?

Coaches, a large network and testing facilities

ENGIE gave the CoolCast team free rein to work out their concept. But the project never really gained momentum. Why, Wilmar Antonissen, business developer at ENGIE Services, wonders out loud. “Time constraints; other priorities; urgent matters – stuff like that. Innovation is important, but when your existing business is healthy, good ideas may occasionally get left on the shelf.” Fortunately, this was also recognised by ENGIE. Antonissen: “We went out and set up collaborations with organisations that specialise in innovation. Their approach and enthusiasm served as a ‘shot of adrenalin’ – one that we could use both for CoolCast and other proposals.”
In addition to being a YES!Delft partner, ENGIE Services also sponsors the Port Innovation Lab, and the company decided to apply for its LaunchLab programme. Port Innovation Lab, a collaborative programme set up by the Port of Rotterdam Authority and YES!Delft, (usually) helps start-ups to flesh out their business concepts. Participants can take advantage of the programme’s coaches, as well as an extensive network and testing facilities. Applications can be immediately field-tested in the market, allowing promising start-ups in the Rotterdam port area to get off to a flying start.

Focus, speed and client research

A good decision, Antonissen can say looking back. For ten weeks, he and his team were able to work in seclusion on their idea. “I confess to answering an email every now and then, but for the most part, we remained focused on our concept. We hardly visited the office anymore – we worked a lot on location at our clients.” This was an important step. “That’s how we found out that different clients in process manufacturing face very different problems. This makes it difficult to develop a scalable product. LaunchLab teaches you to pick up momentum, to accelerate. This improved focus meant that we started concentrating on similar systems, so that we could generate comparable data. That’s how we arrived at cooling and refrigeration systems. Initially, we wanted to develop a system that prevents disruptions; but ultimately, we adopted a broader scope. CoolCast focuses on all optimisations and smarter maintenance and servicing in cooling and refrigeration. And we also benefit from this new approach within ENGIE, since we have our own department that works on the development of cooling and refrigeration systems – tunnel freezers for vegetables, fish and meat, for example, and large cold stores. These are also extensively used in the port of Rotterdam.”

Intensive programme

Daan Domhof agrees that the key words to describe LaunchLab are focus, speed and client research. Domhof works as Incubation & Growth Manager at YES!Delft, in which capacity he is also involved in the programmes. But don’t imagine it will be an easy ride, he warns. “Participants should expect a very intensive programme. Occasionally, you will feel completely lost. But ultimately, you will be able to make a well-considered ‘go or no go’ decision. Many participants want to first clear away all the technological risks. Here, we say: try minimising the market risks first. This is done by talking as much as possible with potential clients, for example.”

First ‘koelkast’ prototype

The team have already produced the first Coolcast prototype, which is being tested on location at a client in IJmuiden. “Incidentally, we pronounce ‘Coolcast’ the way you would in Dutch (koelkast),” says Antonissen. But it’s more than just a play on the Dutch word for refrigerator: “The system is connected to a cooling system and forwards data to a server. This process is called ‘casting’, which is how we came up with the name ‘CoolCast’.”

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