- National Grid's investment arm, National Grid Partners (NGP), announced on Thursday a new batch of investments in startups, including two specializing in artificial intelligence (AI) solutions to automate utility customer processes.
- The venture capital group has invested $102 million in emerging technology companies so far and plans to invest a total of $250 million in new technologies over a three-year period. NGP's portfolio is intended to help its utility businesses solve problems in areas like customer engagement, product and process safety and implementing grid-edge technologies.
- As National Grid's own innovation incubator, the investment group adds to utility research and development by tapping companies in their early stages of development that are aligned with the utility's business, NGP President Lisa Lambert told Utility Dive. NGP helps the startups scale across several areas, such as AI, for "businesses that we want to be in down the road."
NGP doesn't view itself as a typical "venture capital group," because it insists on making more than a financial return on investment — it wants to modernize and increase the efficiency of National Grid's utilities.
"We also care about making a strategic return on [our] investment, so that we're getting better at doing what we do," Lambert, who is also the chief of technology and innovation officer at National Grid, told Utility Dive.
To do this, NGP has a "culture acceleration mandate," or a series of programs from apprenticeships to product commercialization that involve bringing in outside perspectives to help "change the culture, so you can fit all these new capabilities" that the startups would bring.
"I think a lot of utilities and companies in general miss that point," Lambert said. "They develop all the incubation... and innovation capabilities, but the problem is that unless you have a change in your culture, it's really hard to benefit from those things."
NGP focuses on a number of "pathways" in the energy industry, from transportation electrification, to the future of heating and gas, to operating model blockchain technology, and it seeks additional tech partners.
"We're looking to gain insights and learning from them and to collaborate in other ways, which may not necessarily mean a deployment within our states," Lambert said.
"Many utilities aren't all that digitized, aren't all that cloud-centered," Lambert said. NGP focuses on ways to help improve utilities by turning to their council made up of 14 utilities, to learn from other's investments and identify future sector needs.
"I think that's the beauty of the utility sector in general... that we don't compete in-market," she said. "And two: the fundamental needs and service value proposition that utilities provide is pretty much the same in every market."
A lot of NGP investments also focus on internal improvements: operational performance and asset management; safety and leak detection technologies; predictive maintenance, to anticipate "the maintenance of your assets rather than, you know, waiting for things to break;" and better workflow management.
The three investments of undisclosed size announced by NGP on Thursday focus on AI and Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities, including:
- CNIGuard, which uses ruggedized IoT cloud sensors to prevent explosions due to methane gas leaks or other issues, in utility-critical infrastructure, such as manholes.
- SparkCognition, a platform of AI systems, which unlocks AI capabilities for customers, specifically in the commercial and industrial sector.
- Uniphore, which offers AI-enabled conversational service automation, to enhance the customer experience.
NGP has now made 18 deals. A previous batch of investments announced this summer did not include AI-focused startups. That is a matter of how quickly business deals move, Lambert said.
"AI is an important priority for us, but it's not the only one," she said.