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Aligning Energy Innovation With Energy Market Trends

Max Gray wants energy entrepreneurs to think globally and innovate pragmatically. “It's going to take a multitude of solutions for us to solve the energy crisis,” Max told us. “But it's critical that we're solving problems that actually have demand.”

At Onward, Max works with startups to support ideas aimed at solving the climate crisis. He’s on the lookout for new ways of producing renewable energy. But he also knows the world needs solutions that make existing energy sources cleaner and greener.

We sat down with Max to talk about how a clear view of the global energy landscape is necessary for developing viable innovations. His goal is for the Onward Accelerator program to ultimately become financially self-sustaining, generating funds that can be reinvested into the climate tech solution space. Current statistics tell us that two out of every three startups fail. Sometimes that failure is because an idea wasn’t aligned with a customer need. But funding is often a major reason, and Onward is working to connect entrepreneurs with the funding, data, and support that will provide traction to advance their ideas.

“Our support goes beyond financial,” explains Max. “We’re working to plug innovators into a climate tech ecosystem of like-minded founders who are sharing their knowledge, skills, and connections. Beyond that we provide access to expertise in technical and business strategy as well as a network of venture capitalists.”

A two-pronged challenge

The climate crisis is a global problem that requires a global solution. The way Max sees it, it’s actually a two-pronged challenge: How do we meet the world’s growing energy demand at the same time we’re solving the climate crisis? That means creating practical innovation that will find a market with investors and ultimately with consumers at all levels of the economy. It starts with understanding the global energy landscape — and staying tapped into its ongoing dynamics.

Max illustrated this with a story of basic human survival: “In the last few years, around half a billion people in developing countries got access to affordable, reliable electricity. Then comes the Russia- Ukraine conflict and inflation. The cost of energy skyrockets. With geopolitical turmoil, economic downturns, and disruptions in supply, these people are now struggling to or can’t afford that electricity. What that means is, they're going to go back to burning wood and coal and crop waste in order to cook and heat. They may even know that burning that material inside the home can cause health problems, but they have no choice. They must eat. We can’t just say, ‘electrify everything’ without understanding the complexity of the entire energy ecosystem.”

Developing countries have huge populations clamoring for access to reliable energy. They see it as a key to economic growth as well as personal health and prosperity. “The International Energy Agency predicts that we’re on track to add as much renewable energy in the next five years as we did in the past 20,” says Max. “But that's not going to be enough to meet the energy demand. Even if we quadruple what we're doing now with renewables, it's still not going to be enough.”

A multitude of solutions

A clear picture of the global energy landscape reveals that a multitude of solutions are necessary to meet growing energy needs while we work to transition as quickly as possible to cleaner sources. “Increasingly, people in this sector are talking about a just transition — one that serves people at all levels of the economy,” says Max. “People are willing to embrace clean energy, but it’s got to be accessible and affordable to all.”

Supply and demand need to be viewed on a macro scale, but also at the level of human needs and barriers to adoption. Electric vehicles provide a tangible example. “So we think everyone should be driving electric cars,” says Max. “How do we make sure people can afford to buy them? Where will they charge them?” A lot of energy-transition problems are intertwined with government decision-making and policies on both a national and local scale. Many viable initiatives depend on infrastructure development, grid capacity, incentives, and funding priorities.

Max advises startups coming into the energy space to follow global trends so they can clearly define where there are areas of need and problems seeking solutions. “That's where a lot of the innovation comes from,” he says. “People are seeing a real need and saying, ‘I have an idea that might be able to solve part of that.’ I think that allows them to be more thoughtful in their decision-making.”

Lines in the sand

Max wants to make one thing clear. He believes that it's going to take all available sources to meet global energy demand and make the green transition. “We need to pursue every viable option to solve this crisis, and I get concerned when people draw hard lines in the sand,” says Max. “Those who are saying no more fossil fuels and no nuclear — those are hard stances. I challenge them to come up with solutions that will help the world make a just transition.”

For Max, solving the climate crisis is a balance of making existing sources greener and cleaner while continuing to develop and deploy new and renewable sources like solar, wind, and hydrogen power. Along with the clean energy work coming out of Onward, Max is looking at innovations that aim to reduce the carbon footprint of existing energy sources. Nothing can be sidelined, including nuclear energy. “The reality is that there's been almost no investment in nuclear for the last 30 or 40 years, but it’s actually a very clean source of energy,” he says. “Now we’re seeing a signal that there's going to be an increase in investment on the nuclear power side. This provides opportunities for innovations in that area, and it’s what I mean by looking at all available energy sources.”

Max would love to see nations coming together with a unified goal of developing well-balanced energy production that includes sharing technology to make it as green and clean as possible for the entire globe. “Okay, so it may be a little bit pie in the sky, but I think global collaboration and transparency are critically important goals to strive for. And we need to include developing countries. We can't leave anyone out. Ultimately, we all need to come together and say, ‘Here are all the sources we have. Let's make them better, and let's make them all available.’”

Max Gray  |  Program Director, Onward

Max Gray is the director of the Onward Accelerator program. He has two decades of experience in the energy industry with the mission of helping entrepreneurs bring their climate tech energy solutions to life. His expertise and passion are lent to startups as they look for new innovations to accelerate our path to a new, sustainable, energy future. Max has helped lead transformation projects across the globe with five years living and working in Norway and Malaysia.  

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