Steinbeis experts help redesign the world of energy
Even during a pandemic, climate change remains one of the great challenges of our time. One more reason for Dr. Christian Schweizer, entrepreneur at the Academy of the Energy Sector, a Steinbeis Consulting Center, and Clemens Pompeÿ, director at startup development specialist The Impact Farm, to organize a digital innovation competition revolving around the world of energy. The name they coined for the event: Enerthon 2020. Both the patrons of the new event, the German Energy Agency and the French environment and agency management ADEME, and the event’s sponsors were delighted by the success of the project. TRANSFER Magazine spoke to the two organizers about the aims of the competition, the level of interest, and whether there will be an Enerthon 2021.
Hello Mr. Pompeÿ. Enlighten us: What’s the name – Enerthon – all about?
Clemens Pompeÿ: Enerthon is an amalgamation of two words: energy and hackathon. Hacking is a creative approach to problem-solving based on a quick, usually highly individual idea. So a hackathon is typically a programming competition under a limited time frame in which participants, presenting alone or in teams, showcase solutions and products revolving around a predefined problem to a public audience or selected group. We’ve recoined the idea for the first time to focus on the energy sector.
What exactly is the difference between the Enerthon and a classic hackathon?
Christian Schweizer: The hackathon trend originally came from the HR departments of American tech companies. The firms wanted to find the best talent for a specific challenge faced at the company, but on a restricted budget, and it didn’t matter if people had university qualifications or could write a good cover letter. With a hackathon, the participants work out a solution to a problem under time pressure. The idea is to not fritter away money or resources for an entire development project but to quickly evolve digital concepts and assumptions in a very short time. Hackathons offer clear advantages over traditional innovation management processes. They’re inclusive and agile, they foster multidisciplinary collaboration, and they enable shorter innovation cycles that are better suited to quick changes in consumer requirements. Our aim with Enerthon 2020 was to transfer these advantages to the world of energy. But unlike conventional hackathons, we offered more time to work on ideas: one month. So the result is a range of real working prototypes, not just nice presentations. Another thing that’s special about the project is that it’s a joint German-French initiative.
So could you give us one or two insights into how Enerthon 2020 went? And how was it affected by the current pandemic?
Pompeÿ: We put aside nine months for industry and companies to identify tasks for the brief, or the actual problem to be solved, which we called “challenges.” Then, on October 19, 2020, the official launch of Enerthon 2020 took place with the publication of the challenges we’d pulled together. This was followed by four weeks of grueling sprints for the teams of experts and intensive work on each individual problem. Finally, on November 16 and 17, the program culminated with a series of presentations to share the results at the DENA energy transition congress.
Schweizer: The organizers were The Impact Farm, which had had previous experience with hackathons, and the Academy of the Energy Sector, a Steinbeis Consulting Center, which provided scientific input and specialist know-how from the perspective of the energy industry. The patrons were the German and French energy agencies, and the competition also formed part of the Future Energy Lab organized by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. Sponsors are especially important for such projects, since they input with the issues that are relevant to the topic. In our case, they were GRTgaz, a German-French natural gas transmission system operator, appygas, a data platform for pan-European data on gas networks, and the distribution network company VSE, which supplied us with a challenge for the competition on the German-French border region of Saarland-Grand Est.
Pompeÿ: Last but not least, of course the participants who work on the tasks are important. They’re professionals working in important areas like consulting, energy startups, and science and academia. They were the ones who provided input based on their expertise. In total, we had 61,000 users visit our website and 2,730 users who showed an interest in social media. Out of 370 applicants, 42 were then chosen from 17 companies and split into seven teams. We would have taken on considerably more if we hadn’t set a strict limit for the number of participants from our partners, which was because we had to arrange the finals virtually.
Schweizer: We feel quite proud that we still managed to organize the Enerthon, despite the situation changing several times and having to adjust at short notice. We made good use of digital tools and online meetings, right from the very beginning. So although there was no longer a way to stage physical events, with people actually present, we managed to compensate for this by connecting up with people from several continents. But of course we’re also looking forward to some kind of return to normality, although we’ll continue to take advantage of the benefits of the crisis-proof working methods.
Finally, would you look to the future for us, as well as back again? What did you learn from Enerthon 2020? Will there be a sequel?
Pompeÿ: There’s strong interest from industry, and virtual networks of experts will play an extremely exciting role in the future. We want to pull networks together across all sectors of industry and join them up on the www.loomr.io  website run by The Impact Farm. This will allow us to keep driving innovation, even with the pandemic going on; it’s a genuine alternative to management consulting and the tendering process. The partnership between The Impact Farm and the Steinbeis Consulting Center, the Academy of the Energy Industry, has been extremely successful and it’s paved the way forward. Our professional experience means that we’re in a position to organize all kinds of innovation contests in the future. But having the Steinbeis Consulting Center working alongside us as an accomplished partner when it comes to scientific aspects means it will also be possible to offer courses, studies, and lots of other training options.
Schweizer: Our plan in the coming year is to organize an Enerthon 2021 with more companies and more challenges – and probably also involving more countries. This time we’ll plan everything virtually from the beginning, but of course we’d be happy if we can also stage a physical event. The feedback we got from the previous participants and our sponsors was that the format – as a hybrid between marketing and quickly working up results – is in tune with current times. The aim is to market the event by focusing on output. But virtual networks of experts along the lines of the Enerthon are extremely exciting. We’ve seen that it’s still possible to drive innovation during a pandemic. People at companies and stakeholders from the state and municipal areas have seen for themselves that projects need to keep moving forward – if necessary, working from home. They’ve seen that there are alternatives to classic management consulting and lengthy – and thus expensive – tendering processes. The challenge now will be to ensure that companies believe in and ascribe to this new approach after the pandemic. That’s precisely why we’re setting up the loomr website the way we are.
Pompeÿ: Because we were approached by other energy agencies during the Enerthon, European ones, we’d like to keep making the Enerthon more international. But we’ll do it a sensible pace, so our aim is to add further countries bit by bit. We believe it will only be possible to achieve the energy transition and ensure it remains alive by working on a European level, on a cross-border basis. That’s exactly what this is all about, and that’s also the feedback we received from others. As a first step, we’re now looking forward to seeing who joins us from industry, politics, and science for the Enerthon 2021 challenges!
Further reading: LESS TALK, MORE ACTION! RETHINKING THE ENERGY INDUSTRY 
Steinbeis experts join forces with The Impact Farm and organize a sprint competition on behalf of two energy agencies aimed at identifying new ways to digitalize the energy industry
For more information on the Enerthon, go to www.enerthon.com .